Who remembers Judge Sparrow?
July 1, 1999
By JONEL ALECCIA
Alex Sparrow, superintendent of Crater Lake National
Park in this 1922 photograph, became one of the most popular
figures in Jackson County before he died in 1932. (SOHS No. 15730)
A career Army man who helped shape Jackson County and Crater
Lake National Park died suddenly in 1932
The funeral procession stretched five miles — from Central Point
to Jacksonville — on Jan. 29, 1932, as thousands of stunned
Rogue Valley residents mourned the sudden demise of a popular
Alex Sparrow was dead.
Nearly seven decades later, few residents can recall the
handsome, charismatic engineer and county judge who forged the
rim road around Crater Lake and spearheaded construction of the
Jackson County Courthouse.
But from his 1913 arrival in Jackson County to his untimely
death after tripping backwards into a Klamath Falls coal bin,
Sparrow was a powerful, respected force in area politics.
history over the
past 100 years.
Aug. 4, 1930: Dedication ceremonies are
held for the new Medford Municipal Airport off
Biddle Road. The highlight of the day is the
North-west States Air Tour. A portion of the program
that was produced for the ceremony is shown above. (SOHS No.
Feb. 18, 1931:A contract is awarded for the
construction of Med-ford’s new Washington School.
Only citizens of Medford can register with the
contractor for employment.
Sept. 1, 1932: The new Jackson County
Court-house is dedicated on the block of Oakdale
Avenue between East Main Street and Eighth Street.
April 7, 1933: For the first time since
Prohibi-tion began, beer is available. Medford City
Council has approved 39 licenses to dispense the
March 6, 1934: An advertisement offers
flights from Medford to San Francisco on United
Airlines for $20.58.
Compiled by Bill
Alley, Southern Oregon Historical Society.
more information, or for copies of historic
photographs, call the SOHS at 773-6536.
"Here was a guy who was likable,
but who had a high level of integrity," says Bill Alley,
historian and archivist for the Southern Oregon Historical
Society. "He was at home with the upper crust, but he could
curse with the best of them."
Photos of Sparrow at Crater Lake
reveal a tall, dapper man with handsome features and a
commanding air. Surely some of that confidence was acquired
during his 24-year career in the U.S. Army. Born in Toronto,
Ontario, in 1871, Sparrow lied about his age to enlist and spent
six years in the U.S. Cavalry before joining the Corps of
He fought in the Spanish-American War, and served tours of duty
in the Philippines and Cuba, before retiring in 1912.
Sparrow was 42 when he was tapped by the Department of the
Interior to oversee construction of the Crater Lake road system.
In 1917, Sparrow was named superintendent of the park, which
that year attracted some 12,000 visitors. He made the first trip
around the newly completed rim road in September 1918, hazarding
tight turns and deep ruts in a Park Service truck.
A year later, the visitor count rose by more than 4,000, mostly
on the strength of Sparrow’s roads.
"I congratulate you heartily on the effective work that you have
done since you were placed in charge of the park," acting
director of the National Park Service Horace Albright wrote in
an October 1917 letter.
The superintendent was popular with area business leaders and
residents as well. With winter offices in Medford, he was a
leading member of the Elks Lodge and a frequent guest at area
His stature — and stability — increased in 1921, when Sparrow,
then 50, began squiring Ruth Clemens, a 30-year-old mother of
two. She had come to Crater Lake to recover from what family
members called "an unfortunate previous marriage."
Upon the death of her first husband, the young widow and Sparrow
were married in a quiet church ceremony on May 9, 1922.
Soon after the marriage, Sparrow resigned as park
superintendent, retiring this time to enjoy his new family. They
settled on Kirtland Farm in Central Point.
Five years later, his reverie was interrupted by the death of
County Judge W.J. Hartzell, who held the post analogous to
today’s county commissioners. Local Republicans tapped Sparrow
to serve Hartzell’s remaining term for the post and stand for
reelection in 1928.
He was so popular that no Republicans and, indeed, no Democrats
challenged him. He ran unopposed, winning the 6-year term.
As judge, Sparrow used his engineering training to the county’s
advantage. He was especially involved in construction of the
Jackson County Courthouse at the corner of Main Street and South
Oakdale Avenue, envisioned as "one of the most dignified and
impressive buildings in the state."
But Sparrow never saw his vision completed. On Jan. 20, 1932,
the judge was inspecting a prospective heating unit for the new
courthouse. While someone searched for a light switch in the
basement of the Hirvi Building in Klamath Falls, Sparrow stepped
backward in the dark, plunging into a coal bin and striking his
skull. Four days later, he died of his injuries. He was 61.
Sparrow's road around the rim of Crater Lake opened Oregon's
only national park to automobile tourists.
The mourning county memorialized Sparrow by designating the new
public health wing of the courthouse the Alex Sparrow Memorial
Clinic. It was to be "a definite and lasting monument to his
service." The courthouse was dedicated on Sept. 1, 1932.
Sparrow's road around the rim of Crater Lake opened
Oregon's only national park to automobile tourists.
But the Sparrow wing, along with other monuments, vanished over
the years as new administrations and new needs transformed the
"None of the memorials have lasted," notes Alley. "What do they
say? ‘Gone, but not forgotten?’ Well, that’s not true."
Still, Sparrow’s legacy lingers, residing in the curves of the
Crater Lake rim road, in the marble halls of the courthouse and
in the history of people who lined up for miles on a January day
just to bid him good-bye.