Photography and the Making of Crater Lake National Park
Howe, Sharon M., Oregon Historical Quarterly
The first impression made by the view breaking upon me all at once was that I saw the inverted vault of heaven with a wall of delicately tinted rock...all reflected like a painting in a mirror upon this blue transparency! It is impossible to give any idea of its wonderful beauty.
-- Frances Fuller Victor, "The Gem of the Cascades," West Shore, November 1876
Photographers and their images may not have made Crater Lake a national park, but they attracted people's attention when words failed. William G. "Will" Steel -- who poured out hundreds of superlatives in newspapers, magazines, and a book during the seventeen years he spent promoting the idea of a Crater Lake National Park -- appreciated the value of photography as a vital tool in his sales kit. Through photography, he was able to communicate his wonder at the monumental beauty of Crater Lake and the scientific curiosities of the lake and its formation. Steel, himself a sometime photographer, joined a U.S. Geological Survey expedition to investigate Crater Lake in the summer of 1885. In concert with scientists of the expedition, he hatched a plan to make Crater Lake and its surroundings a national park to preserve it for all time against threats from sheep grazing, logging, and mining.
Photography mirrored this combination of art and science to communicate both the beauty and the physical nature of Crater Lake and its environs. Steel was operating in a tradition already established in Yellowstone National Park, which became the nation's first national park in 1872. Yellowstone also encompassed monumental scenery, and its puzzling geysers and mud pots begged for the scientific study that was becoming an important aspect of American culture.
In 1876, Francis Fuller Victor described Crater Lake as the "contradictory yoking of tourist recreation and nature preservation," a description that characterized the creation of many national parks in America. Will Steel's first objective was to preserve the natural wonders of Crater Lake. Once the park was created, however, he turned his considerable energy to providing access and services for tourists, eager for as many people as possible to see the lake that so inspired him. He commissioned and obtained photos of Crater Lake to promote his vision of a park. Photography proved to be a valuable tool both in the creation of national parks and in subsequent tourism promotion. As early as the 1860s, photographers Carleton Watkins of San Francisco, Martin M. Hazeltine from Baker City, and others helped promote the first protection for Yosemite as California public trust land. In much the same way, other prominent photographers became associated with the creation of national parks, including Yellowstone. The authorization for the U.S. Geological Survey's Yellowstone expedition in 1871 specifically called for collecting photographs; and the expedition's photographer, William Henry Jackson, captured spectacular images of that monumental scenery. Many of Jackson's photographs were included in an exhibit in the Capitol rotunda, which helped inspire Congress to create Yellowstone National Park.
While photographs helped persuade citizens and politicians that the scenic wonders of the American West ought to be preserved as national parks or forest reserves, public fascination with the monumental, beautiful, and exotic landscapes of the West gave photographers an opportunity to make money from their work. The transcontinental railroads played a pivotal role in bringing western landscapes to public attention, while providing the transportation and sometimes the services that encouraged tourists to enjoy them. The railroads contracted with photographers to travel and photograph the parks and other scenic attractions along their routes and published the photographs widely in brochures, calendars, advertisements, and other promotional materials.
Photographers and the Southern Pacific Railroad played similar roles in creating Crater Lake National Park. …