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Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone, by George Black, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2012, $35

Yes, in some 500 pages the epic tale of one of America’s most majestic national treasures bubbles over and erupts like…well, like one of the 300-odd geysers in Yellowstone National Park. The white man’s discovery and exploration of Yellowstone, beginning with Corps of Discovery (Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s expedition) veteran John Colter, is in part a glorious event. But like most everything, from the settling of the West to the flip side of the moon, Yellowstone has its dark side. “The epic of Yellowstone,” New York author Black writes, “is a quintessentially American story, of terrible things done in the name of high ideals, and of high ideals realized by dubious means.”

Even after Colter saw at least part of Yellowstone’s fantastic landscape (“Colter’s Hell,” author Washington Irving dubbed it) and mountain man Jim Bridger told stories about it, Yellowstone remained little more than rumor to almost everyone. Government explorers didn’t get out that way until 1869, with an expedition led by Charles W. Cook and David Folsom. In 1870 Brevet Maj. Gen. Henry Dana Washburn, former Montana Territory vigilante leader Nathaniel Langford and 2nd Lt. Gustavus Cheyney Doane mounted a more detailed exploration. “Yet for all the excitement,” Black writes, “most of the descriptions they left, with the exception of Doane’s, were strangely perfunctory.” Doane became known as “the man who invented Wonderland.” In 1871 came the Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden geological survey, most significant for bringing along pioneer photographer William Henry Jackson and artist Thomas Moran—both of whom provided visual proof of Yellowstone’s glory.

On March 1, 1872, Congress established Yellowstone National Park, the first of the national parks and still the largest in the Lower 48. “Given the avarice, corruption and cronyism of the time,” Black writes, “the speed of its passage and the idealism that drove it (at least in part) were nothing short of astonishing.”

Langford served for five years as the park’s first superintendent, without salary, staff or funding. The Army chased the Nez Perce through the park (where the fleeing Indians had surreal encounters with tourists) in the summer of 1877. Slaughter of game and destruction of geyser deposits was the order of the day until General of the Army Phil Sheridan hatched the idea for the military to protect the park, which it did for 32 years (1886–1916). That’s when the National Park Service took over—a story for another epic. Empire of Shadows includes a few good black-and-white photos but no color. It’s the history that dazzles.