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Historic Resource Study, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, 1984

 

III. Discovery of Crater Lake

 

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A. John Wesley Hillman

The question of which white man actually gazed on Crater Lake for the first time has been a matter of dispute, due to the fact that there have been several re-discoveries made unknowingly by different parties. Although claims for its discovery in the 1840s have been made in the name of John C. Fremont and others, the first authenticated visit was not made until 1853. By that time Oregon's first real gold rush was rapidly expanding, as parties swarmed not only over the Jackson Creek and Rich Gulch area, but penetrated deeper into the interior to make new discoveries along the Applegate, Illinois, and Rogue rivers. It was interest aroused by one party of California goldseekers, whose secretive camp outside Jacksonville and surreptitious laying in of provisions for an expedition to the Upper Rogue River attracted the attention of several Oregon miners, that led to Crater Lake's discovery. While quenching his thirst at a local saloon, one member of the California party became loquacious and was heard to mention having knowledge of the whereabouts of the fabulously rich "Lost Cabin Mine." This was a mythical lost mine searched for as early as 1850 by miners in northern California but that also was speculated about in southern Oregon in reference to a mine located a year earlier in Josephine County. The four California owners of that property were forced to bury a hoard of gold when attacked by Indians. Although the sole survivor of the group had been persuaded to divulge certain landmarks in the area, the cabin and the buried treasure had never been found.

As soon as the California prospectors left town to continue their search, a party of about eleven Oregon hopefuls, including a Mr. Dodd, John Hillman, James L. Loudon, Patrick McManus, George Ross, Isaac G. Skeeters, and Henry Klippel, was in hot pursuit, determined to follow the Californians up the Rogue and share in the imagined wealth. Hillman was at this time about twenty-one years of age, a footloose young man from Albany, New York, who had stumbled into Jacksonville in his search for gold. It was not long before this party's presence was detected, and in Hillman's words, it became a game of hide-and-seek, until rations on both sides began to get low. The Californians would push through the brush, scatter, double backwards on their trail, and then camp in the most inaccessible places to be found, and it sometimes puzzled us to locate and camp near enough to watch them. [1]

This game of cat-and-mouse took on serious undertones as each group's supply of provisions became exhausted. Such desperate straits were reached that ultimately a truce was declared and the parties determined to hunt for game and search for the mine together. They soon realized that they had blundered off course, but were unaware that they were far east of their objective and in fact nearing the headwaters of the Rogue River. Pitching camp on the side of a mountain, the two parties mutually agreed that only the hardier members should continue the quest. Hillman was one of these.

The first day out of camp, the following event occurred:

On the evening of the first day, while riding up a long, sloping mountain, we suddenly came in sight of water, and were very much surprised, as we did not expect to see any lakes, and did not know but what we had come in sight of and close to Klamath Lake, and not until my mule stopped within a few feet of the rim of Crater Lake did I look down, and if I had been riding a blind mule I firmly believe I would have ridden over the edge to death and destruction. We came to the lake a very little to the right of a small sloping butte or mountain, situated in the lake, with a top somewhat flattened. Every man of the party gazed with wonder at the sight before him, and each in his own peculiar way gave expression to the thoughts within him; but we had no time to lose, and after rolling some boulders down the side of the lake, we rode to the left, as near the rim as possible, past the butte, looking to see an outlet for the lake, but we could find none. [2]

Hillman and his party had reached the rim a little west of Victor Rock, a projecting ledge on the caldera wall later covered by the Sinnott Memorial building. From this vantage point they could see snow reaching clear down to the water's edge, and several years later Hillman recalled that, awed by the beauty of the scene, he proposed descending to the lake, but finally deferred to the unanimous vote of the others to return to camp as quickly as possible. They continued along the rim for a short while, however, estimating the lake to be at least twenty miles in diameter and their position as about 125 miles from Jacksonville. (The lake is actually six miles across at its widest point, about twenty-six miles in circumference, and roughly sixty miles northeast of Jacksonville.) The men noticed Wizard Island, but evidently failed to discern Phantom Ship in the distance. Because they strongly desired to memorialize their discovery, several names were suggested for this glorious natural wonder. A vote was finally taken between "Mysterious Lake" and "Deep Blue Lake," with the latter being chosen (although the discovery was occasionally referred to afterwards as "Lake Mystery"). In an attempt to document the event, a slip of paper containing the dicoverers names was slipped onto the head of a stick firmly fixed into the rim edge.

Upon their return to Jacksonville, the miners reported their find, which for several reasons was almost totally ignored. Partly responsible for this lack of fanfare was the fact that the account of the discovery could be spread only by word of mouth. No newspaper was published in southern Oregon until the Table Rock Sentinel began circulation in 1855. In addition, all members of the party had been so disoriented and exhausted when they found the lake that they were unable afterwards to describe its location accurately. More influential in downplaying the outcome of the search for the Lost Cabin Mine was the general Indian unrest in the area that kept the settlers' minds occupied when they were not intent on the search for gold. Nevertheless, for lack of earlier documentation, Hillman is thought to be the first white man to gaze upon this beautiful mountain lake and is credited with its discovery on June 12, 1853. [3]

 

 

 

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