The jewel turns 100: a century after it was dedicated, Crater Lake National Park inspires wonder for millions
May 19, 2002
By PAUL FATTIG
Russ Namitz and Jan Feola take in the awe-inspiring view of Crater Lake while enjoying a tailgate lunch at Discovery Point recently. The establishment of Crater Lake National Park on May 22, 1902, has allowed visitors to enjoy this view for a century.
CRATER LAKE – For a moment, college student Jan Feola couldn’t find the words to describe the view of the deepest lake in the United States.
“It’s just so very calming, so relaxing, so beautiful,” said the graduate student at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif.
Fellow HSU student Russ Namitz was equally impressed with his first visit to the lake as the two science majors shared lunch last week at Discovery Point overlooking the sparkling blue water 1,000 feet below.
“This is something that makes you come to a stop, and just eye the spectacle,” he said, adding, “and you think about the people who came here before …”
The people who came before created Crater Lake National Park a century ago on May 22, 1902, the day President Teddy Roosevelt signed the proclamation creating the nation’s sixth national park. Yellowstone was the first.
A group of Southern Oregon prospectors are credited with “discovering” the lake on June 12, 1853, from the overlook appropriately dubbed Discovery Point.
“I knew when I gazed upon Crater Lake that even though the West was filled with undiscovered wonders, Crater Lake would hold its own,” said John Wesley Hillman, the gold miner who financed the trip when he was 21, in an interview late in his life.
It has held its own. The two college students represent half a million people who now visit the park each year. Most wait until after much of the snow melts from the rim, which rises to some 7,100 feet above sea level.
The first automobile stage service to the lake was created in 1910 when one could ride the “Locomobile” from the Nash Hotel in Medford to the lake for the hefty fee of $25, according to an article in the May issue of Southern Oregon Heritage Today magazine.
The site traditionally has been a sacred one for American Indians whose oral traditions tell of the eruption of Mount Mazama, a mountain that scientists estimate stood 12,000 feet high.
The cataclysm 7,700 years ago was nearly 50 times that of Mount St. Helens when it erupted on May 18, 1980, according to Charlie Bacon, a volcanologist at the U.S. Geological Survey office in Menlo Park, Calif. Ash deposits from the explosion have been found as far away as Greenland, Bacon said.
“The highest initial eruption was on the order of 50 kilometers high,” Bacon said. “It probably made some pretty cool sunsets.”
It also created one of the most spectacular volcanic lakes on the planet, observed Mac Brock, a biologist who serves as the park’s natural resources officer.
“This is truly a special place,” he said. “There is very little organic material in the lake, so the water is very clear. One of the (science) reports we got last year was that the water here is the purest in the world. They are redefining properties of clear water using Crater Lake as the base.”
Five scientists were gathering water quality samples in the lake this past week as part of a long-term program to monitor lake chemistry and nutrient levels. Scientists consider it a closed ecological system since no water runs in or out.
Incidentally, that incredible color of the water comes from the fact that blue is the last color to be absorbed by deep water, scientists explain. The lake is 1,943 feet deep.
It was originally known by several names, including Deep Blue Lake, a reflection of the purity of the water.
The blue water, sheer rock walls of the caldera and majestic views are what prompted early-day Europeans to push for the creation of the park, noted park historian Steve Mark, whose grandfather first visited the park nearly 90 years ago.
“But people were already treating it like a park before one was created,” Mark said.
By 1893, the lake and its environs had received partial protection when it became part of what was called the Cascade Range Forest Reserve created under the watch of President Grover Cleveland.
But that wasn’t enough for William Gladstone Steel. As a youngster in Kansas, he learned of the lake while reading a newspaper used to wrap his school lunch. After moving to Portland as a young man, he joined the Army expedition to the lake in 1885 and became convinced that only national park status would protect it for future generations.
For 17 years he lobbied for the creation of the park, gathering support from powerful individuals like Gifford Pinchot, the “father” of the Forest Service.
Steel constantly had warned that land speculators would move in if the site was not made into a national park, Mark said.
“There was always that threat when you had something like this sitting out here in the public domain,” he acknowledged.
The man who signed the proclamation creating the park probably never visited the site, although an old black-and-white photograph of a fellow looking remarkably like Teddy Roosevelt sitting on the rim of the lake does exist, Mark said.
“There is no evidence that he was ever here,” he said. “But we do know that he was in Ashland on a campaign swing in 1903. He went up to Salem from there.”
But the park has drawn plenty of celebrities, including “Call of the Wild” author Jack London. “Incomparable in beauty” is how he described the lake following his 1911 visit. Pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh flew over the lake in 1927.
Many old photographs taken of the lake by early-day photographer Peter Britt of Jacksonville and others will be on display at the park this summer.
The Sinnott Memorial overlook, built 70 years ago, is reopening this year after $500,000 worth of restoration and new exhibits on geology and history.
One of the historic items to be displayed will be the device used to first measure the depth of the lake in 1886.
It includes a big spool of piano wire, a hand crank and a lead pipe weight.
“It looks like they took pieces from other things to make this,” said park curator Mary Benterou. “You can see this leather strap here. It was obviously made specifically for here.”
Jury-rigged or not, the machine was able to determine it was the deepest lake in the nation at nearly 2,000 feet. It is the seventh deepest lake on the planet.
“There is no question this is one of the more interesting caldera lakes in the world,” Mark said.
The park will celebrate its centennial with a small ceremony Wednesday and a proclamation by Gov. John Kitzhaber. More elaborate events are planned in August, when better weather can be expected.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
On the Web: Crater Lake National Park official site: http://www.nps.gov/crla/