Bizarre Phenomenon Stumps Experts and Park Historian
BY PAT HILL
It’s been referred to as music, a hum, or a whisper, but an explanation of a mysterious noise that has been heard by some people over Yellowstone Lake has never been found.
“There are only guesses [as to] its origin,” Yellowstone Park Historian Lee Whittlesey told the Pioneer recently. “I’ve never heard the sounds…and I’ve listened long and hard in the back country.” But Whittlesey, who added that he does not know anyone personally who has heard the strange sounds, said that the noise has been noted by several reliable sources since the early days of the Park’s exploration, including scientists. Whittlesey said that the mysterious noise has also been noticed in the vicinity of Shoshone Lake, to the south of Yellowstone Lake.
The first written account of the surreal sound at Yellowstone Lake was recorded in 1872, the same year Yellowstone was established as the world’s first national park.
“While getting breakfast, we heard every few moments a curious sound, between a whistle and a hoarse whine, whose locality and character we could not at first determine,” wrote F.H. Bradley, a member of the 1872 Hayden Expedition surveying the Park region. It was soon surmised by the survey party that the sound seemed to be emanating from somewhere in the atmosphere over the lake itself, but the noise remained a mystery.
Captain Hiram Martin Chittendon, of the Army Corps of Engineers, wrote the first official account of the Yellowstone Lake hum in his “Historical and Descriptive” journal of the Park that was published in 1895. Chittendon wrote that “A most singular and interesting acoustic phenomenon of this region, although rarely noticed by tourists, is the occurrence of strange and indefinable overhead sounds. They have long been noted by explorers, but only in the vicinity of Shoshone and Yellowstone Lakes. They seem to occur in the morning, and to last only a moment. They have an apparent motion through the air, the general direction noted by writers being from north to south…”
Chittendon also included some “earwitness” reports in his account of the Yellowstone Lake hum, including an 1892 account by a Mr. Edwin Linton comparing the noise to “a medley of wind in the tree tops…the echo of bells after being repeated several times, the humming of a swarm of bees, and two or three other less definite sources of sound, making in all a composite which was not loud, but easily recognized, and not at all likely to be mistaken for any other sound in these mountain solitudes.” Another member of Linton’s group described the noise as “a twisting sort of yow-yow vibration,” and Linton’s guide, Elwood Hofer, said that the hum was “the most mysterious sound heard among the mountains.”
Chittendon also included the memories of S.A. Forbes, a scientist who wrote in 1893 that “It put me in mind of the vibrating clang of a harp lightly and rapidly touched high up above the tree tops, or the sound of many telegraph wires swinging regularly and rapidly in the wind, or, more rarely, of faintly heard voices answering each other overhead. It begins softly in the remote distance, draws rapidly near with louder and louder throbs of sound, and dies away in the opposite direction; or it may seem to wander irregularly about, the whole passage lasting from a few seconds to half a minute or more.”
“No rational explanation has ever been advanced for this remarkable phenomenon,” concluded Chittendon in 1895. “Its weird character is in keeping with its strange surroundings. In other lands and times it would have been an object of superstitious reverence or dread, and would have found a permanent place in the traditions of the people.”
The noise continued to be noted well into the 20th century. Geologist Clyde Max Bauer, who also served as the Park’s chief naturalist, recorded that he heard the noises, and Whittlesey told the Pioneer that Bauer’s friend, Park photographer Jack Haynes, also heard the hum in 1924.
“Haynes wrote that the noise was ‘unlike anything I’ve ever heard before,’” said Whittlesey. “I regard Haynes as a very credible person.” Bauer said that the ethereal noise heard by himself and Haynes was often referred to as “the music of the Lake.”
“The writer has heard this ‘music on the Lake’ on several occasions,” wrote Bauer in his book Yellowstone: The Underworld, “and during the summer of 1933, Ranger Verde Watson, who was then caretaker at the Lake Museum, heard the sound nearly every morning for a month or more.”
Bauer’s description of the mysterious “music” over Yellowstone Lake was similar to earlier accounts of the phenomenon, as noted in a story in the Eugene (Oregon) Register-Guard dated February 24, 1965. Bauer reported that “The sounds resemble the ringing of telegraph wires or the hum of bees, beginning softly in the distance, growing rapidly plainer until directly overhead and then fading rapidly in the opposite direction.”
The noise has been blamed on everything from flocks of birds in flight to erupting volcanic gases, or the grounding of static electricity in the lake. The Register-Guard reported in their 1965 story that some people even “contend the strange sounds don’t come from the lake itself, but from nearby glacier-pocketed peaks whose jagged rock faces deflect the winds.” But John M. Good, the Park’s chief naturalist in 1965, told the Register-Guard that “So far no one has the faintest proof of what causes them.”
Whittlesey told the Pioneer that the mystery endures. When he appeared on a Travel Channel special outlining the mysterious noises at Yellowstone Lake last year, the Yellowstone Park Historian also discounted any ghostly origins for the noise, whether it be from Native American spirits, or the souls of several people who have drowned in the Lake’s cold waters.
“Ghosts or spirits…no…I’m just never going to buy into that,” Whittlesey told the Travel Channel. “But it is spooky…it has a paranormal, preternatural, supernatural element to it. To this day no one has a satisfactory explanation. We just don’t know what causes that ethereal sound.”
Editor’s note: Have you heard the sound? (They say winter is the time it is most likely to be heard.) If you have heard it, please email us at mtpioneer @wispwest.net.