Campaign – 04

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

A National Park in the State of Oregon

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Once Congress began appropriating money for managing the forest reserves in 1898, staff hired by the General Land Office (the Bureau of Land Management’s forerunner) could patrol them. Trespass grazing consequently ceased in the area around Crater Lake, but the few forest reserve rangers hired for that summer had several competing demands on their time. Their priorities also included preventing wildfires (a stand replacement fire that started north of Fort Klamath grew to 18,000 acres in September 1898 and gave Grayback Ridge its name) and locating the reserve’s actual boundaries on the ground.

J. S. Diller, USGS geologist, Crater Lake NP
J.S. Diller: the geologist who first unraveled the story of how Crater Lake came to be. Courtesy National Park Service.

Mapping efforts in the vicinity of Crater Lake ran ahead of other areas in the forest reserve, mainly due to the U.S. Geological Survey having begun work during the Cleetwood Expedition of 1886. Geologist Joseph Diller can be credited with taking the Crater Lake topographic sheet to publication in 1898 because it helped to illustrate his study of how volcanic forces shaped the area around Mount Mazama. Among the things Diller discovered in compiling the map was that the ten townships reserved in 1886 did not extend far enough east to encompass all of Crater Lake. He and others agreed that the boundaries needed reworking, so subsequent bills aimed at establishing a national park were redrafted to reflect the dimensions of the USGS Crater Lake map. On it were features Diller thought directly related to Mount Mazama’s climatic eruption and the geological story of Crater Lake. He deleted Diamond Lake and Mount Thielsen in favor of including all of Mount Scott, then went far enough south to encompass such features as Union Peak, the Pinnacles, and most of Annie Creek Canyon. [10]

Thomas Tongue, a congressman from Astoria, introduced a new bill containing the reworked boundaries in January 1898. Supporters took heart when the House Committee on Public Lands issued a favorable report on the proposed legislation. The report, titled “National Park in the State of Oregon,” consisted of testimonials by former Congressman Hermann (at that time chief of the General Land Office), as well as Diller and the other scientists who had assembled at Crater Lake in 1896. The bill went no further, however, because of opposition from some key congressmen who still saw national parks in places such as Crater Lake as a continual drain on the Treasury, with little hope for any real return on the government’s investment. Enactment of legislation establishing Mount Rainier National Park on March 2, 1899, did not presage action on the Crater Lake measure. Tongue introduced another bill in the House, identical to the previous one in December 1899. Tongue’s bill and another introduced in the Senate by the Oregon delegation three months later, again went nowhere. [11]

Wizard Island, Crater Lake NP, 1910
Wizard Island looms in this 1910 Park Service lantern slide. Steel named the island on his first visit to the lake in 1885. Steel also planted the first fish in Crater Lake in 1888, and served as the park’s second superintendent from 1913-1916. He died in Medford in 1934, and was buried in Siskiyou Memorial Park wearing his Park Service uniform. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

Only when Theodore Roosevelt arrived in the White House in 1901 did the stars start to align. That December, Tongue introduced House Resolution 4393, worded identically to the bill he brought to the House almost four years earlier. The same report from the Department of the Interior accompanied it as in the previous three tries, but this time Steel acted on Tongue’s advice to work up a petition and secure additional testimonials on Crater Lake. Steel collected 4,000 signatures on the petition by March and solicited endorsements from prominent figures, both in and out of government. As might be expected, the replies he received from John Muir and Gifford Pinchot differed, since their views about the use of the forest reserves had openly diverged over sheep grazing in 1897. (Pinchot believed in carefully regulated grazing, while Muir opposed it under all circumstances.) Oddly enough, Muir was noncommittal about Crater Lake’s suitability as a national park. Pinchot, by contrast, expressed great enthusiasm to Steel. He also became a critical ally for the bill in his role as the new president’s leading advisor on conservation and public lands.

Gifford Pinchot
Gifford Pinchot: Theodore Roosevelt’s forestry advisor. Courtesy Jeff LaLande.

Pinchot went to Roosevelt about the Crater Lake bill, and the president had a word with the House speaker, who objected to letting the bill out of committee for debate on the house floor. This kept the bill alive to be debated, but Tongue still had to negotiate with congressmen who could block any further progress. The House passed it on April 19, but with an amendment that allowed the location and working of mining claims. Three of the bill’s six sections were deleted, though none of these (appointment of deputy marshals, payment of court costs, and authorization to deploy troops) constituted crucial sticking points. The House version was referred to the Senate committee on April 21, and its members reported favorably on it later that month. Passage of HR 4393 by the Senate came May 9, without debate or amendments. It became law on May 22, 1902, when Roosevelt signed the bill.[12]

Steel wrote to the president the day after Senate passage in order to obtain the pen Roosevelt later used in signing the bill. Pinchot, Diller, and Tongue also received letters from Steel expressing his gratitude for their part in the long campaign to establish Crater Lake as a national park. Almost a century later it stands alone in Oregon, even though national park proposals involving at least ten other areas within the state have been made at one time or another. Those efforts have so far failed for a variety of reasons, with perhaps the most important one being timing—though the story of how Crater Lake National Park came to be also includes no small amount of perseverance and good fortune.

W.G. Steel, 1931, Crater Lake National Park
During a visit to the park in 1931, former Park Superintendent William Steel, right, examines the lake-sounding device used in 1886. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

Steve Mark is the park historian for Crater Lake National Park and Oregon Caves National Monument.