Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

He All but Made the Mountains : William Gladstone Steel, Mountain Climbing, and the Establishment of Crater Lake National Park

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

He All but Made the Mountains : William Gladstone Steel, Mountain Climbing, and the Establishment of Crater Lake National Park

Article excerpt

In 1902, William Gladstone Steel's seventeen-year effort to achieve protective legislation for Crater Lake reached fruition, but the story of his involvement in the creation of Crater Lake National Park began well before his first visit to the lake in 1885. In 1870, as a fifteen-year-old boy in Labette County, Kansas, Steel learned about Crater Lake from the pages of a newspaper in which he carried his lunch. He remembered:

One warm day in May or June, I sat in the schoolroom eating the contents of that paper. When through, I scanned the columns, reading the short articles. Among them was a description of a sunken lake that had been discovered in Oregon....In all my life I never read an article that took the intense hold on me than that one did, and then and there [I] determined to go to Oregon and to visit that lake and to go down to the water.[1]

In 1872, Steel took a step closer to the lake when he moved with his parents to Portland, Oregon, where his two brothers lived. He was disappointed that they had not heard of the lake and discovered that they were not the only ones who were unaware of Crater Lake. "It was seven years before I was able to find anyone who had ever heard of it," he remembered. "Nine years later I found a man who had actually seen it and who gave me a good description of it."[2] Steel finally made his own trip to Crater Lake in the summer of 1885, a visit that would have consequences for both Steel and the state of Oregon. Steel would play a major role in establishing Oregon's only national park, and he would also foster a new approach to mountain climbing and the appreciation of the natural environment -- an approach that would embrace the technology and the opportunities of the modern world and, in turn, influence early park and conservation efforts. Ironically, the student who had achieved mediocre grades in map drawing and geography back in Kansas would contribute significantly to the knowledge, mapping, and promotion of Oregon's physical landscape.[3]

Geographers, ethnographers, scientists, and historians have contributed much to our understanding of Crater Lake, and the administrative and political history of Crater Lake National Park has been well documented.[4] This article takes a thematic approach as it examines Steel's efforts to promote Oregon's mountains. It is a study of the ways that westerners -- and Americans more generally -- understood and cared for the natural world at the end of the nineteenth century. It is also a study of the importance of place in forming local, state, and national identity and the ways in which a sense of place influences perceptions and the use of physical environments. In the late nineteenth century, Oregon's mountains provided fertile ground for Steel and like-minded mountaineers to shape the views of Oregonians and other Americans and, in turn, to shape the mountain environment.

Steel and his mountaineering partners form more than a backdrop to the formation of Crater Lake National Park. Their story -- and their connection to the creation of the park -- helps us better understand Oregon's incorporation into modern America at the turn of the century. As industrialization in Europe and the United States brought changes in technology and more leisure time for those who could afford it, attitudes toward the natural world underwent a shift. One example of that shift was the rise of mountaineering as a sport and the desire of mountaineers to go beyond recreation and help shape the world around them.[5] Steel founded the Oregon Alpine Club and then the Mazamas, mountaineering societies composed of amateur climbers, in order to make a difference in the way people relate to the natural world. Primarily made up of middle-class or nouveau riche professionals based in Portland, these associations appealed to science and government expertise to encourage recreational access to Oregon's natural environment and to establish their authority as experts on regional mountains and mountain climbing. …

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