CHAPTER TWO: Early Efforts To Establish Crater Lake National Park: 1885-1893

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

 CHAPTER TWO: Early Efforts To Establish Crater Lake National Park: 1885-1893


As a sixteen-year-old farm boy in southeastern Kansas William Gladstone Steel (a biographical sketch of the early career of Steel may be found in Appendix A2), who would later be known as the “Father of Crater Lake National Park,” dreamed of visiting the lake, his curiosity being stimulated in 1870 by having read newspaper accounts of its discovery and scenic grandeur.

In 1872 he moved to Oregon with his family, but it was not until 1885 that he managed to reach the lake. Accompanied by a friend, J.M. Breck, Steel took the Oregon & California Railroad to Medford, where he caught a stagecoach to Fort Klamath. The two travelers met Captain Clarence E. Dutton, then on leave from the U.S. Army for detached duty with the U.S. Geological Survey. Dutton was in charge of a small military party escorting Joseph LeConte, a geologist from the University of California, on a tour of the Pacific Coast mountains to examine volcanic phenomena. Steel would later find both Dutton and LeConte to be sympathetic allies in his campaign to preserve Crater Lake as a national park.

Steel, in company with Breck, Dutton, and LeConte, walked the 20 miles to the lake from Fort Klamath, arriving at the rim on August 15. In an article published in the March 1886 issue of The West Shore, a literary magazine in Portland, Steel described his feelings and reactions as he viewed the lake for the first time:

Not a foot of the land about the lake had been touched or claimed. An overmastering conviction came to me that this wonderful spot must be saved, wild and beautiful, just as it was, for all future generations, and that it was up to me to do something. I then and there had the impression that in some way, I didn’t know how, the lake ought to become a National Park. I was so burdened with the idea that I was distressed. Many hours in Captain Dutton’s tent, we talked of plans to save the lake from private exploitation. We discussed its wonders, mystery and inspiring beauty, its forests and strange lava structure. The captain agreed with the idea that something ought to be done–and done at once if the lake was to be saved, and that it should be made a National Park. [1]

Steel’s party had brought a canvas-bottomed canoe from Portland, in which they paddled over to Wizard Island for a short exploration. After staying in the area for several days they left with a determination to preserve the lake and its environs from private exploitation.

Upon returning home from their visit to Crater Lake, Steel and Breck began a campaign to establish a national park at Crater Lake. Breck wrote a letter describing the lake and its beauty which was reprinted in regional newspapers. During the fall Steel sent some 1,000 circular letters at his own expense to virtually all the large newspapers in the United States, asking the editors to support the idea of a national park encompassing Crater Lake. He also wrote to every newspaper editor and postmaster in Oregon, urging them to circulate petitions addressed to President Grover Cleveland, requesting that such a park be established. [2]