Yellowstone National Park's Most Famous Shipwreck: The E.C. Waters | Big Horn Basin Media

Yellowstone National Park’s Most Famous Shipwreck: The E.C. Waters

Written by on September 15, 2023

What’s Lurking Beneath Yellowstone Lake?

The millions of people who travel to Yellowstone National Park each year look forward to experiencing the park’s stunning wildlife, scenic views, and unique wildlife for themselves. But very few of them know there’s something hiding about the bottom of Yellowstone Lake.

No, we’re not talking about the caldera.

Visitors might expect to see rustic lodges and classic tour buses, but almost no one entering the world’s first national park would expect to see a shipwreck.

But it’s true: The largest body of water in Yellowstone National Park and North America’s largest freshwater lake above 7,000 feet is home to the remains of a vessel that was lost to the deep more than a century ago.

However, even after all these years, you can still see the wreck of the E.C. Waters when you visit Yellowstone Lake.

So, how did this ship end up sinking? Who brought it into Yellowstone in the first place, and where is it located today?

Here’s the sad story of The Wreck of the E.C. Waters in Yellowstone Lake.

About E.C. Waters: The Man and His Shipwreck

Before naming a steamboat after himself, E.C. Waters was hired in 1887 to run the Yellowstone Park Association — a group formed by investors to increase tourism in the park and manage hotels, according to an account from the Denver Public Library.

Waters was a veteran of the Civil War, active in local politics, and became an entrepreneur. In fact, he’d be the first person to make money from Yellowstone’s natural resources.

But he had a reputation akin to that of a robber baron: He was known as a greedy, rude, disagreeable man. So, it should come as no surprise that he undertook a scheme to fleece park visitors.

The Founding of the Yellowstone Lake Boat Company

Waters sought to provide an alternative means of transport for visitors in an era when most travel between Yellowstone destinations was by arduous stagecoach rides.

Waters had a ship transported to the park. A small steamboat, it arrived in three pieces by rail and wagon before being assembled at West Thumb.

Dubbed “Zillah,” it was anything but a beauty: The vessel listed significantly and was almost comically slow. Still, it was basis enough for Waters to establish the Yellowstone Lake Boat Company in 1889.

For either $2.50 or $3.00, travelers could take the Zillah from West Thumb to the Lake Hotel. Waters was quickly making money hand over fist, but that wasn’t enough.

The Tragedy of E.C. Waters’s ‘Zoo’

Present-day Yellowstone visitors typically don’t think much of Dot Island. It’s tiny and inaccessible to most.

But in the 1890s, E.C. Waters saw the island as the perfect place for a zoo. Back then, the park wasn’t anywhere near as developed as it is today, so it was more difficult for visitors to see wildlife.

Waters figured that he’d capitalize on this by creating his own zoo and using the Zillah to transport tourists — for a hefty fee, of course.

Beginning in 1896, the Zillah, traveling from West Thumb to the Lake Hotel, would make a stop at the Dot Island zoo, where passengers would be invited to disembark and see the animals.

But when it came time to get back on board, the crew would tell them they needed to pay an additional fee to leave the zoo, since their original tickets didn’t cover the stop.

Of course, the tourists weren’t the only ones exploited by E.C. Waters.

Though initially treated well and removed from Dot Island during the winter, the animals were later neglected as the zoo fell into disrepair.

Visitors were appalled, noting that the animals — mostly elk and bison — were severely malnourished.

E.C. Waters Receives His Comeuppance

Complaints about E.C. Waters and his scheme took their toll over the next several years as they made their way through the Park Administration.

Compounding the issue was Waters’s past bad behavior. He’d earlier been banned from the park for throwing soap into a geyser in order to spur eruptions. Since he was friends with the son of a future president, Waters had been able to navigate that episode.

But after less than 10 years running the Yellowstone Lake Boat Company, Waters found himself in dire straits.

Shocking no one, the Zillah wasn’t properly maintained and, by 1905, Waters was missing out on potential passengers who were concerned about whether the vessel was safe.

Instead of repairing and refitting his steamboat, Waters elected to purchase a new one. He gave his own name to this 500-person newcomer, but it didn’t help his case.

Waters’s Park Administration opponents declined to license the E.C. Waters and would limit its capacity to 125 passengers — the same number that could fit on the Zillah. Waters was incensed.

Ultimately, authorities deemed the Zillah unfit in 1907. It’s believed the Zillah was scuttled.

That same year, administrators revoked Waters’s license to operate within the park.

“E.C. Waters, president of the Yellowstone Lake Boat Company, having rendered himself obnoxious during the season of 1907, is,under the provisions of paragraph 11, Rules and Regulations of the Yellowstone National Park,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.”

Samuel Young, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent, 1907

All this time, the vessel E.C. Waters was docked and used only for a few trial voyages. It remained in a cove at Stevenson Island for over a decade.

Then, in 1921, a storm drove the abandoned steamship up onto the shore.

Some enterprising fellows salvaged it for parts. Interestingly, for nearly 50 years, the boiler from the E.C. Waters would be used to heat the Lake Hotel.

Today, the rusted, useless hulk of the E.C. Waters is all that remains. You can still see it there on the shore of Stevenson Island, and some divers have gone beneath the waves to capture images of parts strewn across the bottom of Yellowstone Lake.

The story of this unsightly yet intriguing wreck is all E.C. Waters, the man, managed to contribute to Yellowstone National Park, which remains one of the continent’s crown jewels.

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