Campaign – 02

Crater Lake: The Campaign to Establish a National Park in Oregon by Steve Mark, Crater Lake National Park Historian

Ten Townships and the Golden Arrow

William Gladstone Steel: Crater Lake’s foremost advocate. Courtesy Oregon Historical Society #23267.

The long campaign to establish Crater Lake National Park began at Fort Klamath in 1885. There two vacationers from Portland, William Gladstone Steel and J.M. Breck, met an army captain named Clarence E. Dutton who had been detailed to accompany University of California geologist Joseph LeConte on a summer trek to examine the volcanic phenomena in the region. The four men followed a wagon road leading from Fort Klamath to Jacksonville by way of Annie Spring. On the other side of the Cascade Divide they turned north along a blazed trail that ran along a creek later named for Dutton. After climbing and climbing, the men at last reached their goal, and stood upon the caldera rim enraptured by the beauty of Crater Lake.

Making Crater Lake a national park seems to have been first discussed at their campsite in what is now Rim Village, but the idea became Steel’s primary focus for the next seventeen years. He stopped in Roseburg on his way home to discuss the idea with Oregon Congressman Binger Hermann, and began organizing a petition drive. The public support Steel wanted came with no difficulty and by the beginning of 1886, the petition had arrived in Washington, D.C. The petitioners sought to have the president withdraw the lands surrounding Crater Lake from settlement and from land claims arising from mining or timber values while Congress considered the merits of establishing a national park. [1]

With this handwritten executive order, President Grover Cleveland in 1886 withdrew from the public domain ten townships that would form the nucleus for Crater Lake National Park in 1902.

President Grover Cleveland ordered that ten townships of unsurveyed public domain adjacent to the lake be withdrawn from all forms of entry on February 1, 1886. This reservation was larger and slightly different from the actual park boundaries set in 1902. Only two townships wide, the withdrawal stretched from Union Peak in the south to well beyond Mount Thielsen. It simply represented a guess at what might be suitable for a national park, but the administration wanted to avoid infringing on the Fort Klamath Military Reservation to the south and the Klamath Indian Reservation to the east.

Crater Lake and its surroundings needed to be examined in greater depth, so Dutton headed a government-sponsored expedition during the summer of 1886. He needed civilian assistance for the procurement of boats and supplies, so Steel landed that job (he and Breck had hauled a canvas vessel to Crater Lake in 1885) and oversaw construction of three boats in Portland. The largest, Steel named the “Cleetwood” because of a dream he had had while traveling. In the dream, his deceased father joined Steel and both of them saw the heavens. As Steel’s father waved his hands above his head and told his son to look, the sky became filled with golden arrows, called “cleetwood” in the dream. [2]

Steel put the completed boats on a rail car in July 1886 and took the train to Ashland. From there, Steel and an expedition of thirty-five men loaded the boats on wagons and made their way to Crater Lake by way of Fort Klamath. Most in the party were soldiers, but some were United States Geological Survey personnel.

1886 expedition members row the Cleetwood on Crater Lake.
Photo courtesy National Park Service.

While some of the expedition’s members began mapping the topography around Crater Lake, others took on the challenge of measuring the lake’s depths. They had to use triangulation to pinpoint the boat’s position on the water, so as the two fixed points they used their camp (later called Rim Village) as one, and the Watchman (so named for the party of engineers stationed on the summit to receive signals) as the other. The great depths recorded by the party astounded the men, and they soon realized that Crater Lake was the deepest fresh water body in the United States. Several measurements (the party took 168 readings over a three-week span) exceeded 1,500 feet, with the deepest at an incredible 1,996 below the surface. This reading stood as official until soundings taken in 1958 established the maximum depth at 1,932 feet. [3]

Ropes and muscle had to be used to slide a boat down the steep slope to the lake in 1903. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

This so-called “Cleetwood Expedition” generated considerable publicity in Oregon and elsewhere, but seemed to have little effect on Congress. Bills introduced by the Oregon delegation in 1886 and 1887 died in committee because of considerable opposition. The issue was not Crater Lake’s worthiness, nor even the exploitation of natural resources, but the fear of many in Congress that national parks threatened to become a drain on the Treasury. It did not help that the administration of Yellowstone during this time had become so problematic that it required Army intervention.

William Steel led the fight not only to preserve Crater Lake, but to establish federal protection for the entire Cascade Range, as outlined in this 1898 map that appeared in the Oregonian. This Cascade Range Forest Reserve formed part of what became the Mount Hood, Willamette, Deschutes, Umpqua, Rogue River, and Winema national forests.

Alternatively, bills introduced in 1888, 1889, 1891, and 1893 would have conveyed Crater Lake to the state of Oregon in much the same way that Yosemite Valley had been given to California in 1864. These bills died, too, amid suspicions among House members that legislation providing for a state park would simply bring about the momentum needed to make Crater Lake a future national park. [4]

Steel opposed the state park bills and worried that Cleveland’s withdrawal could be reversed by a future president on the advice of his secretary of the interior. To buy time, Steel wanted a more permanent form of withdrawal. This would keep Crater Lake National Park, when finally established by congressional act, from being compromised by speculators having title to lands that should belong to the people. He had become a convert to the cause of forestry by 1889, and, with the help of a friend in Salem, started to think in terms encompassing the entire Cascade Range in Oregon.


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