05 Discovery and Early Exploration

The Geology of Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

With a reconnaissance of the Cascade Range southward to Mount Shasta by Howell Williams

Discovery and Early Exploration

CRATER LAKE was discovered on June 12, 1853, by J. W. Hillman at the head of a party of prospectors from Jacksonville, Oregon. The discovery failed to arouse the attention it deserved, for in those days the interest of the western pioneers was concentrated on the search for gold and on the Indian wars. In 1862, and again in 1865, the lake was “rediscovered” independently by others.1 Yet as late as 1872, when W. G. Steel arrived in Oregon, there were few who had ever heard of the lake, and it took him well-nigh ten years to find a single person who had actually been there. When, in 1885, Steel found an opportunity to visit the lake, he was so profoundly impressed by its beauty that he set himself steadfastly to the task of making it more widely known and having it. established as a national park. In 1886, largely because of his efforts, President Cleveland issued an order withdrawing from settlement and sale ten townships surrounding and including Crater Lake, and in 1893 these were included in the Cascade Range Forest Reserve. Finally, after seventeen years, Steel achieved his object. In 1902, by an act of Congress, the lake and its immediate surroundings, totaling some 250 square miles, were set aside for the public use as a national park.

It was largely because of Steel’s insistence that the first scientific survey was made. In 1885, he accompanied Major C. E. Dutton and Professor Joseph Le Conte to the lake, and in the following year Dutton returned with a party from the United States Geological Survey. A special map of the lake and its environs was made by M. B. Kerr and Eugene Ricksecker, and 168 soundings were made, among them one of almost moo feet. It was an astonishing find, and aroused widespread interest.

Dutton had previously spent much time in the Hawaiian Islands and was familiar with the large calderas of Kilauea and Mauna Loa. His opinion concerning the origin of Crater Lake therefore carried great weight. His was indeed the first scientific attempt to solve the problem. In a letter addressed to Powell, then director of the Geological Survey, he wrote:

As regards the origin of the basin, I now have a decided opinion. It has, I think, been formed in much the same way as the great calderas of the Hawaiian Islands, by the melting of the foundations of the original mountains, the blowing out of the molten material in the form of light pumice and fine tufa. It cannot have been formed by an explosion, like Krakatoa and Tomboro, for there is no trace of the fragments anywhere in the country roundabout. But the pumice and tufa which surely emanated from the crater are seen in vast quantities anywhere within a radius of 20 to 60 miles, and in quantities ample to fill the whole vast crater twice over. The age of the crater is wholly post-glacial. I have found at the extreme crest of the wall on the western side splendid examples of glacial striation while the old moraines are half a mile to a mile below. That the age of the caldera cannot be great is evident from the fact that though the walls are crumbling at a very rapid rate the talus has not only failed to reach the water surface anywhere, but the sounding discloses little of it at the bottom.

More than half a century has passed since Dutton put forward this hypothesis. Since then radically different hypotheses have been suggested. Yet the present survey has shown that Dutton was essentially correct, not only as to the origin, but also as to the age of Crater Lake.