06 A. Discovery of Crater Lake by John W. Hillman 1853

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


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


Although claims for the discovery of Crater Lake in the 1840s have been made in the name of John C. Fremont and others, the first authenticated visit by white men was not made until 1853. After peaceful relations had been established temporarily with the Rogue Indians of southwestern Oregon in 1851 prospectors began entering the area looking for gold along the Rogue River and its tributaries. During the winter of 1851-52 four young packers transporting food supplies discovered gold on Rich Gulch in the vicinity of present-day Jacksonville. News of this discovery led to Oregon’s first major gold rush, and soon new discoveries were made along the Applegate, Illinois, and Rogue rivers. A camp named Jacksonville took shape along Rich Gulch as merchants arrived with supplies of foodstuffs, mining tools, and liquor. One of a party of footloose and impoverished gold seekers to arrive at Jacksonville was John W. Hillman, a native of Albany, New York, who had joined the rush to California three years earlier as a youth of seventeen years. While drinking in a saloon he and his friends were told by a party of Californians that they possessed secret information that would lead them to a rich Lost Cabin Mine in the rugged mountains of present-day Josephine County. Hillman formed a party, consisting of Isaac G. Skeeters, Henry Klippel, J.S. Louden, Pat McManus, three others named Dodd, McGarrie, and Little, and possibly two more, to trail the Californians. Thereafter, both parties played a game of hide-and-seek until their rations began to get low. Hunting treasure gave way to hunting wild game, and soon the two parties agreed to work and hunt together. Several more days of floundering drew them further off course and soon they were hopelessly lost.

Hillman offered to lead a small party to the summit of the nearest peak so the party could reestablish its position. When the men reached the peak on June 12, 1853, the party gazed down on what would later become known as Crater Lake. In an article in the Portland Oregonian on June 7, 1903, Hillman described the experiences of the party fifty years before:

On the evening of the first day, while riding up a long, sloping mountain, we suddenly came in sight of water, and were very much surprised, as we did not expect to see any lakes, and did not know but what we had come in sight of and close to Klamath Lake, and not until my mule stopped within a few feet of the rim of Crater Lake did I look down, and if I had been riding a blind mule I firmly believe I would have ridden over the edge to death and destruction. We came to the lake a very little to the right of a small sloping butte or mountain, situated in the lake, with a top somewhat flattened. Every man of the party gazed with wonder at the sight before him, and each in his own peculiar way gave expression to the thoughts within him; but we had no time to lose, and after rolling some boulders down the side of the lake, we rode to the left, as near the rim as possible, past the butte, looking to see an outlet for the lake, but we could find none.

I was very anxious to find a way to the water, which was immediately vetoed by the whole party, and as the leader of the Californians had become discouraged, we decided to return to camp; but not before we discussed what name we should give the lake. There were many names suggested, but Mysterious Lake and Deep Blue Lake were most favorably received, and on a vote, Deep Blue Lake was chosen for a name. [1]

Upon their return to Jacksonville the miners reported their discovery, which was largely ignored for several reasons. News of the discovery could be spread only by word of mouth as no newspaper was published in southern Oregon at the time. Furthermore, the members of the party had been so disoriented and exhausted when they found the lake that they were unable afterwards to describe its location accurately. General Indian unrest in the area, coupled with the continuing search for gold, also diverted attention away from news of the discovery. Nevertheless, Hillman is credited as being the first white man to gaze upon Crater Lake. [2]