The Wreck of the E.C. Waters
No Gordon Lightfoot song, only a barebones monument to greed.
E.C. Waters was one of the first entrepreneurs to make a buck off of the natural, and not so natural, resources available in Yellowstone National Park. He created his burgeoning enterprise on Yellowstone Lake with a successful passenger steamship, the Zillah, in 1891 and increased it by creating a wild game show – full of buffalo exported from the mainland – on Dot Island.
By all accounts, Waters wanted to promote Park tourism – purely for his own profit, perhaps – but couldn’t get his nasty temperament in check enough to be entirely successful. Still, there were no alternatives to his business, the Yellowstone Lake Boat Company, so the 125-passenger Zillah transported nearly 4,000 people in 1904.
Waters’ temperament and money-hungry aspirations were too big to be left alone for too long, however. Soon, Waters was dinged for his despicable treatment of his animals and his volatile attitude. The Parks Department was overwhelmed with complaints, and, to Waters’ fury, attempted to break Waters’ monopoly by luring a competing boat company to the lake.
In 1905, Waters bought a second, larger vessel, and modestly named it the E.C. Waters. The steamship was bigger than anybody at Yellowstone had ever seen and cost Waters a heaping $60,000. The 500-passenger ship began touring the lake in 1905.
Still, because of the animosity between Waters and the authorities, the demise of Waters’ growing empire seemed inevitable. To ruin Waters, the authorities refused to license the new ship as a commercial ferry. Waters complained, but had no choice but to hire a man to watch the ship for the 1906 winter. Adding to Waters’ troubles, the man died of a heart attack as he rowed the boat to Stevenson Island. As fate would have it, the E.C. Waters never took another cruise, but was left on the Stevenson Island waterfront to fall further and further into disrepair.
In 1907, Waters’ battle was over. Park Superintendent Samuel Young posted a notice which read, “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.”
Despite his fate, legal battles over the E.C. Waters continued for years, while the craft in contention rotted on Stevenson Island. By 1921, the ship had to be pushed onto shore and by 1926, her steam boiler was drilled out and used as an island hotel heater for the next 40 years. In her second incarnation as a derelict ship, she was used by skiers for warmth, as an overhang for a fish-fry business and as a place to stage full-out bar fights.
Because of the elements and the scavengers, the E.C. Waters wasn’t looking too pretty by 1930. In a misguided attempt to beautify the island, rangers decided to douse the boat in kerosene, a terrible move in hindsight. Rather than looking any better, the hull of the ship sat blackened and sinking further into the sand for the next sixty years.
In 1996, the ill-used boat got some better treatment when researchers documented her remains, which, by that point, were partially submerged into the lake. Since then, the anchor, capstan and porthole have been removed and put on display throughout the park, but the ship’s ribs still wait on the island, hoping for a voyage across the lake that will never come.
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