Resources 1984 – P. William Steel and the Preservation of Crater Lake

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Illustration 8. Launching Start, Steel excursion of 1903. Courtesy Oregon Historical Society.

In 1915, while serving as superintendent of the park, Steel recommended that a tunnel be constructed through the rim immediately above the level of the lake “in order that visitors to Crater Lake Park may have ready access to the lake itself, and not be compelled to make the hazardous trip down the steep trail that leads from the lodge to the shore below.” [44] His suggestion was supported by ex-Secretary of State William J. Bryan, who visited the lake in July of that year and stated that “Mr. Steel has plans for a tunnel, as the precipitous sides, the heavy snowfall and the character of the rock make an elevator a difficult and unsafe problem [italics added].” [45]

Further details of this plan are even more startling, as unveiled seventeen years later:

Commence construction [of a new road] at the low point immediately west of Garfield Peak, thence inside the rim to the base of Kerr Notch, at the water’s edge, four miles distant, instead of 13 as at present, on a four per cent maximum grade instead of ten. Then bore a tunnel on approximately five per cent grade, to the rim road, about half a mile distant, using all debris to fill in shallow water for turning places, parking and boat houses. With such a road in operation, instead of one, percent of visitors going to the water there will be 100 per cent.

The objection made to this road is that it will mar the landscape. Well, to whom does the landscape belong? [46]

Steel’s philosophy was a curious combination of attitudes. Although he felt the lake should be protected from private greed and exploitation, he felt that it was permissible for it to undergo government development because at least that way all the people could share in the profit and enjoyment. His aim seemed to be less in insuring that the area was impacted as little as possible than in guaranteeing that it would be “improved” along lines he personally approved of for the good of the people and the financial betterment of the state of Oregon. Even his well-publicized venture of introducing rainbow trout into the lake in 1888 was done primarily to enhance the spot’s attraction for fishermen. As a member of the Crater Lake National Park staff once concluded,

Preservation to Steel and his generation meant keeping the land out of the hands of private developers, while at the same time encouraging development of hotels and roads under the direction and financial leadership of the Government. [47]

It is interesting to note in retrospect that so completely did Steel convince people in the 1880s and early 1900s of the inherent dramatic beauty of Crater Lake and the importance of preserving it for future generations that most of them opposed his later more ecologically devastating plans for the lake because of their fear of irreparable damage to the environment.

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Illustration 9. Excursion at Crater Lake, 1905. Courtesy Oregon Historical Society.

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