There is considerable controversy over the name of the largest geyser in the Geyser Creek Group. Some have claimed that the proper name for this geyser is "Oblique Geyser". This report will show that the name Oblique was erroneously applied to this geyser, and should instead be reserved for the original Oblique Geyser.

Two recent reports include descriptions and maps of the hot springs and geysers of Geyser Creek, including Oblique/Avalance Geyser: [Wolf & Paperiello 1985] and [Dunn 1993]

Naming by A.C.Peale

The name "Oblique Geyser" was first used by A.C.Peale in his report on the thermal activity observed as a member of the Hayden Survey [Peale 1883]. This was the first visit to the Norris and Gibbon Geyser Basins by a party with the Hayden Survey, and Peale’s visit was little more than a cursory survey of the more accessible areas.

The spring areas on Gibbon River are some six in number. The three most important of these will be described in detail further on. Near the head of the main spring are some sulphur vents and dead springs, much like those at the head of Obsidian Creek, just across the divide from the head of Gibbon River. They are unimportant and will not be further described. West of these fumaroles and north of the main Gibbon [Norris] Basin is a locality that has never been visited. It is indicated on the map at the head of a small stream that joins the river in the broad open valley north of the monument basin. Great volumes of steam were noticed rising from it, and it is probable that it is the site of an important geyser. The two other localities which will not be described in detail are those of Geyser Creek and the one on the west side of the broad open valley. [Peale 1883], p.124.

Map 1

All of these unvisited areas are clearly shown on Map 1 and they are, in order, the area north of Norris Geyser Basin that includes Frying Pan Lake; “Sizzling Creek”, a rarely visited group northwest of Norris that was the site of explosive mud volcanoes in 1987 [Hobart 1989]; the Geyser Creek Group; and the Sylvan Springs Group. Note that Peale specifically states that he is aware of, but not describing, the features of Geyser Creek.

The Gibbon [Norris] Geyser Basin covers an area of about 6 square miles, and is one of the most interesting within the limits of the Park... [Superintendent] Norris built his wagon road through the basin in 1878, and soon after it was finished we passed over it and visited the springs described in this chapter. [Peale 1883], p.124.

Map 1 clearly shows this road. Once outside the Norris Basin proper, it closely follows the current road alignment, which runs through Elk Park south into the Gibbon Canyon.

After enumerating the springs and geysers of the present-day Norris Geyser Basin, Peale then gives a short description of the Monument Geyser Basin:

This collection of geysers ... is on a spur of the plateau on the south side of the open valley above the head of the lower caĖon of Gibbon River. The group is about 1,000 feet above the level of the river, and the columns of steam can be distinctly seen from the open valley. I was unable to visit them from lack of time...

About 2 miles down the cañon is another small group in which there is a geyser which we call "Oblique," that spouts out obliquely over the road [Peale 1883], p.132-133.

That short comment is the first of Peale’s three short references to Oblique Geyser. It is quite obvious that he spent no time investigating any of the small groups of hot springs in the southern end of the Gibbon Basin, including Geyser Creek, but instead proceeded directly south on the road toward the geyser basins of the Firehole River.

A figure of 75 feet as the height of Oblique is given in a table of geysers in the original report [Peale 1883], p.302. This same figure is mentioned a magazine article which summarizes the information on the geysers of world [Peale 1884]. These are the only known published references are known.

Use by Walter Weed

The year after the publication of Peale’s report on the thermal springs, Walter Weed visited the park. He made extensive observations and notes on the geysers and their activity. In the southern end of the Gibbon Basin, Weed knew that there was a large geyser that Peale called "Oblique", but it appears he did not know the exact location. One field notebook contains a sketch map of the Geyser Creek springs [Weed 1884a]. In this map he placed the name on what was probably then, and is now, the largest geyser active in the area. The description he gives of the geyser closely matches that of the present day activity for this geyser. Yet, in that same notebook he expressed doubt as the whether this was really Peale’s "Oblique" [Weed 1884b]. In retrospect, it seems obvious that Weed’s doubts were correct, in that his description and location for Oblique Geyser do not match the description or location of Peale’s Oblique.

In any case, this is the last documentable case of the use of the name "Oblique" in almost a century.

Fallen out of use

Following his description of the usage by Weed, Whittlesey gives two further citations that describe the activity of this geyser in the 1920s and 1930s [Whittlesey 1988]. In both cases, Whittlesey neglects to mention that his sources did not actually use the name "Oblique", even though a careless reader could come to that conclusion.

Phillips described the Geyser Hill geyser [Phillips 1927], p.128, and his description closely fits the present activity of the geyser in the Geyser Creek area.

The 1939 edition of the Haynes Guide describes a geyser in the Geyser Creek area as erupting to 25 feet. [Haynes 1939], p.66. Again, it is not clear from Whittlesey that the original source simply called this one of the two "Unnamed Geyser in Geyser Springs group".

Two books on geysers and their activity published in the 1930s have no mention of Oblique Geyser. While it contains an extensive list of geysers in an appendix, except for Monument and the statement that Geyser Creek contains 5 geysers, The Story of Yellowstone Geysers doesn’t mention any features in the Gibbon Basin or Geyser Creek Groups [bauer 1937], p45. Allen & Day make no mention of a name for the large geyser in the Geyser Hill group, despite describing its behavior and even providing a photograph [Allen & Day 1937], p.451-453.

An attempt at naming this geyser was made in 1961, when the name "Rock Pile Geyser" appeared in a report by Frisbee preparedin response to the Hebgen Lake Earthquake of 1959 [Frisbee 1961]. This seems to be the first use of an actual name for the geyser since Weed’s.

By the mid-1970s the geyser in the Geyser Creek Group had acquired at least six names (Avalanche, Rockpile, Talus, Marvelous, Geyser Creek and Spray) [Bryan 1979] p.159, none of these being "Oblique."

The name "Geyser Creek" was simply formalizing a term commonly used to designate that geyer. "Marvelous" was used by Bryan in the early 1970s before he learned that another name was more commnly used [Bryan 1996]. The sources of the names Talus and Spray are unknown.

The name that Bryan learned about was "Avalanche Geyser". By the mid-1970s it was in common use by Norris Geyser Basin naturalists and volunteers [Vachuda 1996]. Through their use in the Norris Logbooks, in their guided walks to the area, and other usage, by the mid-1970s, this was the name new gazers were told was the name to use. Photographs taken in 1979, for example, were labeled "Avalanche" [Strasser 1995]. A contingent of gazers who lived at Lake and frequented Norris in the late 1970s/early 1980s all called the geyer "Avalanche" [Schrayer 1996].

When I first visited Geyser Creek in 1981, "Avalanche" was the name used by the more experienced members of the group I was with. At the same time, the exact location of Oblique was under some speculation. Part of the corduroy road is still visible on the east bank in a thermal area beside the present bridge across the river north of Beryl. Farther south, and prior to the fires of 1988, there was also a noticeable gap in the trees just the right width for a wagon road. An examination in 1982 of the east bank of the Gibbon River by several gazers (including myself) showed at least one possible site for Oblique existed, a boiling spring in an alcove opposite Beryl Spring.

The only problem with this location is that it is only about one mile from the entrance to the canyon. But this objection depends on how accurate one believes Peale’s use of "about 2 miles" really was. In any case, Map 1 distinctly shows a "small group" at the proper location in the canyon.

Another possiblity is that Oblique Geyser was located near Beryl Spring. It turns out that Weed also sketched a map of that area, on which he placed a geyser about forty to fifty feet northeast from Beryl [Paperiello 1996]. That area is now buried by the road, a not uncommon practice in Yellowstone’s early roadbuilding days. This spring was again encountered in the early 1960s, when it was established that it was connected to Beryl [Fournier 1962].

In any case, there are several candidate locations for "Oblique" in the Gibbon Canyon, and by 1982 the name "Avalanche" for the Geyesr Creek feature had become entrenched, in common usage by those who visited the geyser, used in written records, and used to describe the geyser to newcomers.

Resurrecton of Oblique

During his research into the history of the place-names of Yellowstone, Whittlesey discovered Weed’s field notes in the national archives [Whittlesey 1988]. It was his insistence on the use of this name that led for it to be used on the geyser which by then was being called Avalanche.

Whittlesey’s justification for replacing Avalanche rests on two tests. First, that the name Oblique was properly used by Weed, and that no other name was being used for the feature. As the previous section demonstrates, the latter test fails completely, and the first is suspect.

Whittlesey’s interpretation of Weed is based on the assumption that Weed knew what he was doing when placed the name Oblique on the feature in Geyser Creek. But some of Whittlesey’s interpretations of Weed are troubling, in that he completely disregards possible explanations for Weed’s error, while at the same time citing them. About Peale’s original mention of Oblique, he writes in a footnote: "Peale stated that it spouted 75 feet high. Either this was an error, or Oblique changed 1878-83." [Whittlesey 1988], p.1293. In many places Whittlesey uncovers situations where names have drifted from one spring to another, especially in the earliest days of the Park. Yet in this particular case he fails to consider that perhaps Weed was wrong in his location of "Oblique", which would explain the apparent change in activity, instead prefering a major change in the geyser’s activity. This interpretation that Peale was in error is further supported in a second footnote on that page: "In another notebook, Weed stated that this was ‘probably the "oblique geyser"’". [Whittlesey 1988], p.1293. In other words, Weed himself recognized that he wasn’t sure where Oblique was. Yet Whittlesey chooses to ignore this doubt on the part of Weed, because it considerably weakens the case for the location of Oblique in Geyser Creek.

Also troubling is Whittlesey’s third footnote. He documents Phillips' use of the name, then changes subject and notes that "Norris’s map of 1881 clearly shows a trail he opened that year running through the present Geyser Springs area ..., a trail that Peale probably knew about before his 1878 report was published in 1883. [emphasis added].” [Whittlesey 1988], p.1293. This is completely wrong for several reasons. The most obvious is that Peale refers to the road as it existed in 1878, not as it would appear three years in the future. Also, note that the map included in [Hayden 1883] (Map 1, included in this report) clearly shows the road running near its present location, not through Geyser Creek. The only reason Whittlesey could conclude that Peale would be referring to a road he may not have even known about (as Whittlesey points out), is to support his interpretation of the location of Oblique.

Map 2

The route taken by this trail is shown in Map 2. Also, Norris himself wasn’t impressed with his trail: "A bridle-path extends from the end of [the road to Geyser Creek] through the earthquake shakes and fallen timber— 11 miles in all—... but it is unsafe to attempt to follow it without a guide." [Hayden 1883], p.250. It’s also been observed that even this trail ran no closer than 150 from the vent of the geyser [Paperiello 1996].

It is also claimed that as part of the Survey naming features, Weed had the right to move names around or change them as he saw fit. While this might be true, especially in field notes, it is hard to believe that he would do this for a feature whose name had already appeared in print [Peale 1883], for then the question becomes, does a reference to Oblique mean Peale’s "Oblique", or Weed’s "Oblique"?

Despite these problems, this interpretation of Oblique’s location gained immediate currency among geyser observers, defering to the authority of the source, and despite not having been presented with the facts behind these determinations. The fact that this geyser had been called by so many names helped, in that no one had previously made any attempt to determine what were the proper names for the more obscure features. For example, when he revised his book on the geysers, T.S.Bryan changed the name in the text, but didn’t include it in the index [Bryan 1982], p. 159, 223.


The original Oblique Geyser was located in the Gibbon Canyon south of the Monument Geyser Basin, near present day Beryl Spring, probably on the east side of the river. Walter Weed, knowing that a large geyser existed in the area, mistakenly labeled the largest geyser he observed in the Geyser Creek area with the name Oblique. Sometime between 1885 and 1949 the name Oblique fell into disuse. It was probably the earlier date, but in any case, by 1979 the use of the name in the Geyser Creek area was completely forgotten for at least forty years. Also by 1979, this second geyser had as many as six different names, although the name Avalanche Geyser was coming into common usage. Whittlesey, in his research, re-discovered Weed’s use, and proceeded to impose this mistake upon present-day observers.

With the more obscure springs, there has been some effort to restore their original names, especially when their current names are only a few years recent, or haven’t become entrenched. And this is the proper thing to do. Yet in this case, we have seen an attempt to impose the wrong name on the wrong geyser, a case where digging through old records had the effect of making matters worse by causing greater confusion.

It is recommended that the name Oblique Geyser be reserved for the original geyser in the Gibbon Canyon, even though the locations is unknown, since it may reactivate some day, and that the entrenched name Avalanche Geyser be restored to the large geyser in the Geyser Creek group.