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The Misadventures of E.C. Waters -- the man and the boat!

November 12, 2018

"E.C. Waters, president of the Yellowstone Lake Boat Company, having rendered himself obnoxious during the season of 1907, is...debarred from the park and will not be allowed to return without permission in writing from the Secretary of the Interior or the superintendent of the park."

(Posted by Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Samuel Young in 1907)

This is a photo of the Zillah and the E.C. Waters.
Two steamboats on Yellowstone Lake, the Zillah in the foreground and the E.C. Waters. NPS image.

And thus ended the career of E.C. Waters, who was arguably Yellowstone National Park's most nefarious entrepreneur.

In 1876, Ferdinand Hayden, a world-renowned geologist and surveyor whose exploration of the Yellowstone area in 1871 was instrumental in establishing the park, warned the US Congress and President Grant that there are people who will come and "make merchandise of these beautiful specimens". E.C. Waters was the nightmare that Hayden forewarned of.

E.C. Waters arrived on the scene in 1891, when the park was still in its infancy, and he was one of the first entrepreneurs to make money off of the natural resources available in Yellowstone National Park. Waters wanted to promote Park tourism for his own profit and so created a nascent business on Yellowstone Lake with a prosperous passenger steamship, the Zillah, in 1891. But Waters' ambition was unbridled, and so to increase his business, he created a wild game show--a zoo--full of buffalo and other wild animals, exported from the mainland and left to struggle on Dot Island in Yellowstone Lake.

E.C. Waters' Yellowstone Lake Boat Company was so successful that by 1904 the 125-passenger Zillah transported nearly 4,000 people in that one year. But there were also clear signs that foretold of his karmic demise; he was cantankerous and insubordinate with authority, inhumane to the animals in his "zoo," and so unscrupulous that he would often extort unexpected return fares from passengers who visited Dot Island. Park records show numerous complaints against him for not paying employees, cutting lumber without permission, poaching, and deplorable conditions for bison and elk under Waters' care. But that didn't seem to bother Waters – he even requested to build an elevator to the bottom of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone!

Nonetheless, Waters remained ambitious, and in 1905 he bought a second, larger vessel, and modestly named it the E.C. Waters. The 500-passenger steamship was bigger than anybody in Yellowstone had ever seen and cost Waters $60,000 (~$1.8 million in today's value).

This is a photo of E.C. Waters shipwreck on Stevenson Island.
E.C. Waters shipwreck on Stevenson Island in 1994. NPS photo by Jim Peaco.

However, because of the animosity between Waters and the authorities, the Park refused to license the new ship as a commercial ferry. Waters fiercely complained but was left with no choice but to hire someone to watch the ship for the winter of 1906. Compounding Waters' troubles, the man he hired to pilot his boat died of a heart attack as he took the boat to Stevenson Island on Yellowstone Lake. Thus, as fate would have it, the E.C. Waters never took another cruise and was left on the Stevenson Island waterfront, falling further and further into disrepair. By 1907, the man E.C. Waters was finished as an entrepreneur and the ship E.C. Waters was abandoned on Stevenson Island, where it remains to this day, a skeletal memento of Yellowstone's past that one can still see.

It is sadly ironic that Dot Island, so named because of its insignificance to the Hayden Geological Survey, has a legacy in Yellowstone National Park that exemplifies the very warnings of Hayden about greed and malice at the expense of others. In the history of the park, we have seen many improvements based on past missteps in the management of natural resources. The lesson of E. C. Waters is one of the best known examples.

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