Seventeen Years to Success: John Muir, William Gladstone Steel, and the Creation of Yosemite and Crater Lake National Parks
Tactics Used by Muir and Steel
Once the components of the Yosemite and Crater Lake proposals had been formulated, Muir and Steel used some remarkably similar methods to achieve their aims. Although the two men were only acquaintances, they did have common interests and were in intermittent contact from 1888 to 1912.(16) This would explain some of the similarities, particularly with respect to the development and use of constituencies to back their proposals.
Both Muir and Steel obtained early local support, something that sustained them throughout their campaigns. The major cities of their respective states furnished each man’s base of support: Muir in San Francisco and Steel in Portland. Having already emerged as a literary figure, Muir had many powerful friends in California who could provide him with introductions to useful contacts. Likewise, Steel was well-situated within Oregon’s Republican Party and had two brothers who were Portland financiers. Each man received the support of their states’ major newspapers early in their campaigns. This move proved useful when sheep and timber interests tried to dismantle Yosemite National Park and the Cascade Forest Reserve. They also gave public lectures as a way to enhance their proposals’ credibility. The fact that each man was a renowned climber and participant in the scientific study of mountain areas helped attendance.(17)
Both men started their campaigns by writing articles in literary magazines. Muir had a national audience while Steel’s notoriety remained largely regional.(18) Nevertheless, Steel was the first to write a book that he could use to promote his proposal. The Mountains of Oregon was published in 1890 as a loosely-organized anthology of articles on mountaineering and proposed parks. Steel highlighted the longest piece, one about Crater Lake, when he mailed copies of the book to congressmen and other federal officials. The book’s title is interesting in light of an acknowledgment that Muir wrote to Steel after receiving a copy:
I thank you for a copy of your little book The Mountains of Oregon + congratulate you on the success with which you have brought together in handsome shape so much interesting + novel mountain material.
With pleasant memories of my meeting with you the year I was on Mt. Rainier.(19)
Muir’s The Mountains of California was published in 1894. Far more cohesive than Steel’s book (which was a hasty arrangement of material originally intended to be published in separate pamphlets), it enhanced Muir’s reputation among scientists and brought him critical acclaim from the public. With the Caminetti bill looming over Yosemite in 1895 and the forest reserves threatened by hostile interests, Muir began to intensify his literary efforts. Ten of his essays were published in the Atlantic Monthly starting in 1897 and later appeared as a book entitled Our National Parks in 1901.(20) Six of the ten pieces were devoted to Yosemite, while three others focused upon the fate of the forest reserves.
Both men found that groups organized to enjoy the outdoors could form a useful constituency. Steel predated Muir in this regard by organizing the Oregon Alpine Club on September 14, 1887. It was largely a social fraternity whose purpose was “to attract attention to the scenery of our [Pacific Northwest] mountain ranges.. By late 1892, the expense of a mountaineering museum had bankrupted the club and personally cost Steel $1,000. Membership had dwindled to less than a hundred and most observers thought the club was dead.(21)
Steel eventually realized that an active mountaineering club might have a longer life. On July 19, 1894, amid great local publicity, 193 climbers ascended Mount Hood and became the first Mazamas. According to Steel, one of the group’s aims was to make the Oregon Cascades famous and to sponsor regular outings.(22) After being elected its first president, Steel organized an outing to Crater Lake in August 1896. The group gave it wide publicity and supplied the event with an interesting touch by christening the mountain that contains the lake “Mazama.”(23)
The Sierra Club was organized May 25, 1892, and evolved from a proposal that R. U. Johnson made to Muir in 1889 regarding an “association for preserving California’s monuments and natural wonders.”(24) The public meetings in San Francisco were heavily attended at first and the club began publishing a regular bulletin. As president, Muir’s attendance at meetings was erratic so the organizing fell to other board members. Almost nonexistent by 1898, the club was revived when its new secretary William Colby sold the idea of sponsoring regular outings. The first was held from a base camp in Tuolumne Meadows in 1901 and was an immediate success. Aimed at attracting new members, the outings included organized hikes as well as natural history lectures by Muir and other club leaders.(25)
The differences between the Yosemite and Crater Lake proposals also shaped the way each group responded as a constituency. Muir aimed to provide better management for an area where there was substantial human impact, so the Sierra Club aimed at becoming a Yosemite Valley resident. As early as 1894, the Sierra Club’s board of directors wanted to establish a patrol system in the valley to help enforce state park regulations. This would be “the first step in the direction of preserving the Valley from the wanton destruction of visitors.”(26)
What evolved was an information bureau housed in a refurbished wood frame cottage in Yosemite Valley from 1898 to 1902. In 1903, the bureau was moved to the newly completed LeConte Memorial at the base of Glacier Point. The structure’s completion coincided with the chaos arising from a disastrous fire which burned from the Wawona Road to Glacier Point. This happened largely because the state commissioners and U.S. Army authorities could not agree who should fight the fire. The case for recession was further strengthened that summer when the state commissioners notified the transport companies not to allow more visitors to enter the valley until overcrowded conditions were relieved.(27)
The Mazamas’ response to its founder’s proposal was different because Steel wanted national park status for a feature little known to science. As a result, the group fostered scientific investigation at Crater Lake on one occasion and used the findings to promote the proposal. Although their involvement was largely peripheral, the Mazamas’ facilitation was important in allowing scientists to build upon what an earlier expedition had done at Crater Lake.