E.C. Waters left to rot in Yellowstone National Park

2007-07-16T23:00:00Z E.C. Waters left to rot in Yellowstone National Park The Billings Gazette
July 16, 2007 11:00 pm

EDITOR'S NOTE: One hundred years ago, an entrepreneur named E.C. Waters guided his namesake steamship - the largest vessel ever to cruise in Yellowstone Lake - to an island, moored it there and left, never to return. His legacy as one of Yellowstone National Park's most obnoxious businessmen endures, along with the ship's wrecked remains.

By MIKE STARK

Of The Gazette Staff

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK - The steamship E.C. Waters, like the man it was named after, had a whiff of overreaching ambition.

The ship, carrying the hopes of E.C. Waters' much-maligned boating business, stretched 125 feet stem to stern and had room, at least according to the owner, for 500 passengers.

His other steamship, the 81-foot Zillah, capable of carrying 125 passengers, was already a successful venture. More than 3,800 people rode it in 1904.

When the E.C. Waters arrived in the summer of 1905, at a reported cost of $60,000, it was by far the largest ship ever on the lake and seemed to promise financial success.

But by then park officials, as Waters had suspected, were angling to get another company into the passenger business on the lake and drive Waters out of Yellowstone.

"The Department will never be free from complaints and annoyances until it has introduced this competition and rid itself of Mr. Waters," Superintendent John Pitcher wrote in a letter to the Secretary of Interior in 1903.

Waters, struggling financially and offended by the prospects of a takeover, wouldn't leave quietly.

Once the E.C. Waters was built, he asked the park for a permit to carry 500 passengers, according to a 2003 Park Service report. Park officials, who had endured Waters' scandals for years, refused.

The ship and its owner, unwilling to budge on his request, seemed destined for a bad finish.

In November 1906, a man Waters had hired to watch the ship for the winter died of a heart attack as he rowed his boat out to Stevenson Island, where it was moored in an east-facing cove.

The next summer, a soldier apparently hired by Waters to protect the ship was arrested for being drunk and was put in jail for three months.

Finally, in October 1907, a frustrated Superintendent Samuel Young gave Waters the boot.

"Notice! 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."

Waters apparently didn't leave immediately. A written note on the notice said he was removed June 21, 1909, according to Bartlett.

Legal fights over his business dragged on for years, but the ship stayed right where he had left it in Yellowstone Lake.

• • •

At first, the abandoned E.C. Waters withstood the steady battering of Yellowstone Lake's wind, waves, ice and snow.

But when the ice broke up in 1921, the ship was pushed onto the beach. In 1926, the steam boiler that drove the engine was removed through a hole made in the vessel and was used to heat the Lake Hotel for the next 46 years, until it was sold as scrap.

Soon, winter skiers venturing across the frozen lake were using the derelict ship as a warming hut, according to Yellowstone historian Aubrey Haines.

"Beyond the shelter for skiers, the E.C. Waters was useful as a prop for Jack Croney's fish-fry business and as a retreat for brawls fueled with moonshine," Haines wrote in 1996.

Rangers, under pressure to clean up the eyesore, doused the bow in kerosene in the spring of 1930. They apparently fired the wreckage without authorization of their Yellowstone bosses, and one of the rangers was sent to the East Coast to serve out the rest of his career, said Lee Whittlesey, Yellowstone's historian.

Waters' ship, once a vision of stately grandeur, was now a blackened hulk, listing badly and sinking into the Stevenson Island sand.

A group of researchers spent six days in August 1996 combing through the partially submerged remains, painstakingly documenting every damaged beam, plank and scrap of its propulsion system, including the cast-iron propeller.

A few scraps of the ship have been salvaged and removed. Its anchor is on display at the park's Bridge Bay marina. A capstan and porthole are in Yellowstone's storage in Gardiner.

The rest of the ship - ribs protruding awkwardly from the shore - remains at Stevenson Island.

Researchers say it's the largest shipwreck at a high-elevation lake in all the national parks. There are no plans to take it off the island.

Instead, it's a curiosity for today's visitors to Yellowstone Lake, an out-of-place relic of a man whose hopes of becoming one of the park's greatest promoters were eclipsed by his own turbulent character.

Not long after he left Yellowstone, Waters apparently found his way back home to Fond du Lac, Wis., where he died in 1926 at the age of 77.

It is said that, by then, his mind was gone and he had no memories of his time in Yellowstone.

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