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ANNIVERSARY PRESENCE

Yellowstone Lake Hotel in top shape at 125 years, Park Service centennial begins

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LAKE YELLOWSTONE HOTEL — Sarah Bierschwale wished the banners marking the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and the 125th anniversary of Lake Hotel could have been ironed before they were hung from the light poles, but with dignitaries and guests gathering she was just glad they were in place.

Lake Yellowstone Hotel was the site of the kickoff of both celebrations on Friday morning with park Superintendent Dan Wenk noting before a crowd of about 150 people that the park and hotel are "incredibly special" places that people want to visit.

One of those visitors on Friday was Harry Child, the great grandson of the park's original park concessioner, also named Harry Child. It was Child who hired famed Yellowstone architect Robert Reamer. Reamer oversaw the first renovation of the hotel in 1903 and 1904 that created the Colonial Revival style that gives the hotel its character.

"We came up special for this," Child said as he sat in the sun with his wife Sabra.

Child spent his summers as a youngster riding horses and swimming at Mammoth, the park's headquarters.

"It was a tough life," he joked.

Park's architecture

Tom Simmons, the historical architect who nominated Lake Hotel for its placement on the National Register of Historic Landmarks, said Child's great grandfather must have had extraordinary vision to place Reamer in charge since he was only 29 and had little experience. The choice proved provident for Yellowstone, though, as Reamer went on to design Old Faithful Lodge and 25 other structures in the park.

"He was a bit of a chameleon in architectural design," Simmons said. "He could design in any type of architectural style."

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Horse drawn stagecoach

A horse-drawn stagecoach makes its grand entrance Friday during the 125th anniversary celebration of Lake Yellowstone Hotel.

Sadly, the hotel deteriorated to the point that in the 1980s when Jim McCaleb was hotel manager that the heat registers banged all night and the floors and mattresses sagged. He referred to the painted metal furniture as the color "baby upchuck green."

By 1991 after another renovation, Lake Hotel was "all new again," said McCaleb, who is now vice president of Parks North for Xanterra Parks & Resorts. And last year another $28 million renovation was completed.

"Is it in its best shape ever? Absolutely," McCaleb told the crowd.

Lake Hotel and Yellowstone garnered national attention on Friday as a Boise television station fed live interviews with Wenk and McCaleb to 22 stations across the nation — from Las Vegas to New York — starting at 4:30 in the morning.

The dignitaries later arrived for the official ceremony in a horse-drawn yellow stagecoach followed by two vintage "Yellow Buses." The vehicles illustrated the changes in travel into the park. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the first motorized travel into Yellowstone.

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Ric Hoeninghausen

Ric Hoeninghausen, director of marketing and sales for Yellowstone National Park Lodges, opens the ceremony Friday during the 125th anniversary celebration of Lake Yellowstone Hotel.

"So we're full of anniversaries," said Ric Hoeninghausen, director of marketing and sales for Yellowstone National Park Lodges and the chief organizer of the event.

Hoeninghausen read letters from Wyoming's congressional delegation as well as Gov. Matt Mead hailing the historic occasion, the Park Service and hotel's anniversary. Mead's letter noted that Wyoming residents are proud of the fact that tourism is the state's second-largest industry. Yellowstone is at the core of that industry, a 2 million-acre reserve set aside for wildlife, natural features like geysers and mud pots, as well as vast stretches of wilderness.

A survivor

Inside that wild place, buildings like Lake Yellowstone Hotel offer a bit of civilization in the wilderness, Simmons said, few of which are left today because many of the older structures have burned down in fires.

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Ken Sandoval and his daughter Kennedy

Ken Sandoval and his daughter Kennedy, 3, of Boerne, Texas, sit together on a Yellow Bus on Friday during the 125th anniversary celebration of Lake Yellowstone Hotel.

"Lake Hotel is a survivor," Simmons said.

Not all of the proceedings were staged. One of the stagecoach draft horses left its calling card on the pavement in front of the hotel, lending an authentic Victorian-era scent to the gathering.

In addition, about 25 Xanterra employees were wearing clothing from that period, including Jenna Woerner of Bloomington, Ill. She drove snowcoaches this winter, helping to retire the old Bombardiers in another nod to Yellowstone's historic modes of transportation.

"It's great to be part of that history," she said. "I was amazed how profound of a connection you form with a vehicle. I can understand why they're gone but I'm going to miss them."

She was at first a little shy about putting on the heavy dress she wore Friday, but started having fun once visitors took note and asked her and others to pose together near the old vehicles — including a 1917 White touring car — for photos.

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The crowd listens

A crowd of about 150 people gathers to listen to speakers Friday during the 125th anniversary celebration of Lake Yellowstone Hotel.

One of the youngest people to attend, 3-year-old Keegan Moore, was also costumed for the event, wearing a ranger-like hat that matched his father's real-life version.

"He has to have a hat just like daddy," Keegan's mother said.

Old and new

With cellphone ringers going off and digital cameras clicking, the event proved a mix of the new and old with a few Canada geese honks and a flyby to confirm that it was indeed taking place on the shores of a huge mountain lake surrounded by snowy mountains.

Although the public could attend guided historic walks and take a ride in the Yellow Buses on Friday, Friday night's celebration including a six-course dinner at the hotel was invitation only. The hotel opens to the public for the summer season on Saturday.

"We really wanted to make it a special event," Bierschwale said, although she won't be attending the party. Instead she'll be guiding a group of travel writers visiting the park. "It's kind of a big kickoff for the Park Service centennial."

Bierschwale had hoped to send a live feed of the ceremony to online viewers, but she said the hotel's cell service was not strong enough to carry the feed — evidence of the hotel's remote location inside the nation's first national park.

"A lot of people love the hotel and we wanted to share it with people," she said.

Lake Yellowstone Hotel has 153 rooms with another 37 in an annex and 110 cabins. All told in Yellowstone, Xanterra offers 2,200 rooms. Those will be all filled come the height of the summer tourism season, which starts picking up in early June. Reservations for those rooms are already tracking ahead of last year's record-setting tourism season in Yellowstone, Hoeninghausen said, and campground reservations are double digits above last year.

"That's a strong indicator we're in for a good summer," he said.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.