CHAPTER ONE: Discovery And Exploration Of Crater Lake: 1853-1885 C. FIRST CRATER LAKE PHOTOGRAPHS: 1874

Crater Lake National Park: Administrative History by Harlan D. Unrau and Stephen Mark, 1987

 CHAPTER ONE: Discovery And Exploration Of Crater Lake: 1853-1885



Despite its local popularity Crater Lake remained a largely unknown natural wonder, because it was not visited by the artists and photographers who accompanied the federal surveys of the West. By the late 1860s and 1870s western geological wonders were beginning to attract national attention as a result of illustrated accounts published in The National Intelligencer, Scribner’s Magazine, congressional documents, and popular travelogues. The illustrations of William Henry Jackson, who accompanied the Hayden Survey of 1871 to authenticate the existence of geysers in present Yellowstone National Park, played a prominent role in the argument for preservation of that area. These efforts helped to prod Congress to pass legislation establishing Yellowstone as our first national park, thus setting a precedent for preservation of other natural wonders such as Crater Lake. [13]

That Crater Lake went so long without being visited by official expeditions was due to the ruggedness and remoteness of southwestern Oregon and the fact that it had to compete with such natural wonders as the Grand Canyon of the Colorado and Yellowstone. Thus, it remained primarily as a local attraction despite the fact that by the early 1870s the three aforementioned frontier roads provided comparatively easy access.

While the Sutton party reportedly took a camera on its 1869 visit to the lake and “were the first to secure pictures of the Lake and of the most picturesque pieces of scenery on the way,” no photographs taken by the expedition have ever been found. [14] Hence credit for taking the first photographs of the lake has been accorded to Peter Britt, a Swiss-born emigrant who would become southern Oregon’s most distinguished pioneer artist and photographer. [15]

As a young man in his mid-twenties, Britt emigrated to the United States with his family in 1845, settling at Highland, Illinois. Trained as a portrait painter, he turned to photography and some time after 1847 he went to St. Louis to study with the famed frontier photographer J.H. Fitzgibbon. He purchased his first camera from his mentor, a small wooden daguerreotype box which he transported along with other photographic equipment across the plains to Oregon in 1852. Reaching Jacksonville in November, he tried mining and operating a pack train into northern California for several weeks before opening a photography studio which soon developed into a flourishing business.

In August 1874 Britt joined a small party taking a trek to Rogue River Falls and Crater Lake. Taking a large wet plate camera and a stereoscope camera, Britt took photographs of Crater Lake on August 13-15. While the photographs received little attention at the time, they would eventually be used to convince the public, Congress, scientists, and conservationists that steps should be taken to preserve the lake’s significant features. [16]


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