I Went to Hell and So Can You

Bumpass Hell, that is, in Lassen National Volcanic Park. With grandchildren visiting from Wisconsin, and temperatures over 100 degrees in the valley, a trip to Hell turned out to be cooler than staying at home. The trail to Bumpass Hell is a 3-mile round trip, most of it pretty level, until the descent into the infernal regions.

Jeff in Hell

The story of how Bumpass Hell got its name is pretty well known. Kendall V. Bumpass, local cowboy, hunter, and guide, discovered the geothermal basin near Lassen Peak and scalded his leg when he broke through the crust over a hot pool. I wondered: What more could I find out about the unfortunate Mr. Bumpass?

I figured the incident would have been reported in the papers so I turned to the California Digital Newspaper Collection. Searching on the name Bumpass in the Red Bluff newspapers, I found a few references, but nothing about his famous accident. It turns out to be there, but the quality of the image is so poor that OCR can’t turn it into readable, searchable text. Searching by date ( Exploring Lassen County’s Past pin-pointed the incident to September 1865) I found the article.

K.V. Bumpass

According to Exploring Lassen County’s Past,

On September 10, 1864, Pierson Reading and Kendall Vanderhook Bumpass filed a claim there for “all the minerals there for mining purposes.”

During that first trip, Bumpass stepped through the crust and burned his foot, but he seems to have recovered sufficiently to continue his activities. He named the place Hell after this experience.

The following year, Watson Chalmers, editor of the Red Bluff Independent, went on an exploration in the mountains, which he reported about over several weekly issues of the Independent. He hired Kendall V. Bumpass to guide him and his companion to Lassen Peak and his namesake Hell.

Returning from the adventures of Feather River, and the natural curiosities of Willow Lake, we prepared for an ascent to the top of Lassen Butte, and the region rejoicing in the name of Bumpass Hell. . . . we took up the line of march with Mr. K. V. Bumpass as guide, an old and experienced mountaineer, whose services we had secured to conduct us to the infernal regions.

Mr. Chalmers couldn’t resist a classical reference, and quotes Virgil’s line facilis descensus averno, “the descent to Hell is easy.”

Passing up a mountain to the left of the lake {Lake Helen} and crossing a ridge, we came upon the evidences of a near approach to the sulphur regions. A small stream of hot sulphur water flowed beneath as we clambered along the precipitous side of the mountain. The sulphur water seemed to be destructive to all vegetation, nothing growing on the sides of the mountain save a few spots of grass. The whole vicinity seems unfit for the habitation of living animals, a few grouse alone disturbed the solitude which were quickly bagged by the hunters for supper. The scene of desolation became more dreary as we went up and clouds of steam met our gaze. At last the trail leads up a very steep point of the mountain, perfectly white, looking like a bed of chalk or plaster Paris. On turning the ridge, all the wonders of Hell were suddenly before us. Were it not for the fearful noise, I should suggest a camp meeting upon that spot.

Geothermal activity at Bumpass Hell today is no longer noisy. Chalmers joked that this vision of Hell would be a fitting backdrop for a religious revival.

Riding round the East end of the basin to the North side we tied our horses and prepared to go down for a close inspection. Casting our eyes to the North end we see a large pool of hot water boiling up in the air in many places; adjacent to this pool are several boiling springs of the blackest, nastiest mud that ever was made into pies by school boy urchins. The mud springs, of which there were a large number, were about three or four feet in diameter perfectly circular, the surface of the mud being about four feet below the surface of the basin. Casting in a large rock the mud flew into the air and the spring resumed its regular boilings. Stepping carefully between the spring to the middle of the basin and we came up in the entrance to the headquarters of hell itself. From a large opening in the side of the basin and the edge of the mountain, there went forth a volume of steam with a roar perfectly terrific. Our curiosity overcame all fear of danger and heedless of the warnings of our guide we crowded along a little ridge about a foot in width crumbled away on either side into a pool of boiling water, and with distended necks we gazed into the roaring cavern. The noise perfectly resembles that made by the steamboat at the levee blowing off steam. Every place we stepped was hot, everything we touched was hot.

Bumpass Hell has calmed down quite a bit since 1865. There is still steam and bubbling mudpots, but no mud boiling up into the air or steamboat-like roars. Just as they were about to leave, K.V. Bumpass had his accident.

As we were about to depart from the place, our guide, after cautioning us to be careful where we stepped, that the surface was treacherous, suddenly concluded with Virgil that the “descent to Hell was easy,” for stepping upon a slight inequality in the ground he broke through the crust and plunged his leg into the boiling mud beneath, which clinging to his limb burned him severely. If our guide had been a profane man I think he would have cursed a little; as it was, I think his silence was owing to his inability to do the subject justice . . . A bank of snow lay conveniently near, and taking a handkerchief and binding up the scalded limb with snow and [?] our guide, after planning out our future route, returned to the lake to his camp.

Red Bluff Independent 18 October 1865

Searching the newspaper didn’t turn up any following report on his condition, although it could well be there. Mr. Bumpass had to have his injured leg amputated, but he remained active until his death in 1885 at the age of 76.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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