The fight for Crater Lake/Winning National Park Status Wasn’t Easy
Colorado Spings, Colorado
July 28, 2002
Gary A. Warner
Crater Lake may be one of the oldest national parks, but for its advocates, the wait for official recognition was too long.
The fight to create the park stretched on for 17 years. Plans for a park languished as opponents in Congress said the park would be too expensive and local opponents agitated to use the land for timber, mining and sheep farming.
Tradition has it that the idea for the national park was hatched at what is now Rim Village by William Gladstone Steel and J.M. Beck, a pair of tourists who latched onto a government mapping expedition in 1885.
The lake had been “discovered” by white men in 1853 when three gold prospectors stumbled upon what they dubbed “Deep Blue Lake.” Expeditions to the Oregon backcountry remained infrequent.
The group that included Steel and Beck followed wagon trails until the slopes around the lake grew too steep, then scrambled over rocks and through brush to the edge of the collapsed volcanic caldera.
Steel was enraptured by Crater Lake and launched a campaign to create a national park. By 1886, a petition for the park was before Congress. Boundaries for a possible park had to be drawn around a military reservation and the Klamath Indian Reservation on the east end of what would become the park.
It was Steel, a man who claimed vivid dreams of skies filled with golden arrows, who gave Wizard Island its mythical-sounding name.
Boats built in Portland were shipped by train to Ashland, then loaded on wagons and hauled up the steep slopes to be lowered into the lake. Measurements showed the lake was nearly 2,000 feet deep.
Yet eight bills before Congress that would have helped make Crater Lake a national park died between 1886 and 1899, largely because lawmakers worried that expanding the National Park system would cost too much. Before 1890 there were just two national parks – Yellowstone, established in 1872, and Mackinac Island in Michigan, created in 1875. Congress reversed itself and gave Mackinac Island back to Michigan in 1895.
Advocates for the park faced opposition among local citizens. In August 1896, a deputy U.S. marshal was dispatched to the lake to arrest sheepherders who had brought 2,000 sheep into the area to graze. Charges were dropped in exchange for a promise to keep away from Crater Lake.
The turning point came when President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901 and Theodore Roosevelt replaced him in office. An ardent explorer and naturalist, Roosevelt supported the creation of national parks. Steel presented a petition with 4,000 signatures calling for a park and included testimonials from renowned forester Gifford Pinchot. Roosevelt backed the plan, and Congress finally relented May 22, 1902.
Steel would go on to become the park’s superintendent. He had hoped that two lodges would be built, including one that would be served by rail. Only one lodge was built, in 1915. Rim Drive opened in 1918, ensuring that future visitors would arrive by car rather than rail. Some of Steel’s wilder schemes – like building an elevator from the rim to the lake – were luckily never realized. Steel never thought Crater Lake got the attention it deserved.
“The average tourist is willing to pay for his scenery but is not willing to endure hardship to enjoy it,” he once fumed. When Steel died in 1934, he was buried in his National Park Service uniform.