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Although claims for the discovery of Crater Lake in the 1840s have been made in the name of John C. Fremont and others, the first authenticated visit by white men was not made until 1853. After peaceful relations had been established temporarily with the Rogue Indians of southwestern Oregon in 1851 prospectors began entering the area looking for gold along the Rogue River and its tributaries. During the winter of 1851-52 four young packers transporting food supplies discovered gold on Rich Gulch in the vicinity of present-day Jacksonville. News of this discovery led to Oregon's first major gold rush, and soon new discoveries were made along the Applegate, Illinois, and Rogue rivers. A camp named Jacksonville took shape along Rich Gulch as merchants arrived with supplies of foodstuffs, mining tools, and liquor. One of a party of footloose and impoverished gold seekers to arrive at Jacksonville was John W. Hillman, a native of Albany, New York, who had joined the rush to California three years earlier as a youth of seventeen years. While drinking in a saloon he and his friends were told by a party of Californians that they possessed secret information that would lead them to a rich Lost Cabin Mine in the rugged mountains of present-day Josephine County. Hillman formed a party, consisting of Isaac G. Skeeters, Henry Klippel, J.S. Louden, Pat McManus, three others named Dodd, McGarrie, and Little, and possibly two more, to trail the Californians. Thereafter, both parties played a game of hide-and-seek until their rations began to get low. Hunting treasure gave way to hunting wild game, and soon the two parties agreed to work and hunt together. Several more days of floundering drew them further off course and soon they were hopelessly lost.

Hillman offered to lead a small party to the summit of the nearest peak so the party could reestablish its position. When the men reached the peak on June 12, 1853, the party gazed down on what would later become known as Crater Lake. In an article in the Portland Oregonian on June 7, 1903, Hillman described the experiences of the party fifty years before:

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.

I was very anxious to find a way to the water, which was immediately vetoed by the whole party, and as the leader of the Californians had become discouraged, we decided to return to camp; but not before we discussed what name we should give the lake. There were many names suggested, but Mysterious Lake and Deep Blue Lake were most favorably received, and on a vote, Deep Blue Lake was chosen for a name. [1]

Upon their return to Jacksonville the miners reported their discovery, which was largely ignored for several reasons. News of the discovery could be spread only by word of mouth as no newspaper was published in southern Oregon at the time. Furthermore, the 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. General Indian unrest in the area, coupled with the continuing search for gold, also diverted attention away from news of the discovery. Nevertheless, Hillman is credited as being the first white man to gaze upon Crater Lake. [2]


According to documentary records more than nine years passed before the lake was visited a second time. Meanwhile, thousands of prospectors had stampeded from southwestern Oregon across the Cascades to new diggings in central and eastern Oregon. Apparently none stumbled onto the lake until October 21, 1862, when a six-man mining party headed by Chauncey Nye did so. The party was crossing the Cascades on its way to the Rogue River Valley from the Granite Creek mines on the North Fork of the John Day River. While searching for a camping place for the night and a high summit from which to view the surrounding countryside, they came upon the lake. The importance of the Nye party's discovery lay in the fact that the men not only authenticated the lake's existence and provided a description of its approximate location but published the first printed account of the lake in the Oregon Sentinel (Jacksonville) of November 8, 1862. The article, written by John W. Sessions who was one of the members of the party, stated:

On the afternoon of the 21st day of October last [1862], a small party of us were wending our way up the Cascade Mountains, about 15 miles south of Diamond Peak, leaving behind us the black pine desert of the Klamath country, and anxious to reach the summit in time to obtain a view of the Promised Land, viz., Rogue River Valley. Reaching the summit aimed at, one of the highest points of the range, our course was changed by an unlooked-for obstacle, and one that even a John Day party were obliged to go around. Before us, and at our very feet, lay a large lake, encircled on all sides by steep and almost perpendicular bluff banks, fully as high as that we were standing upon. The circumference of the lake we could not estimate at less than 25 miles, and from the banks down to the water, not less than 3,000 feet. At no place could we see the remotest chance of being able to climb down to the water, without the aid of long ropes and rope ladders. Near the south end of the lake rises a butte island, several hundred feet high, and drifts of snow lay clinging to the crevices of the rocky banks. The waters were of a deep blue color, causing us to name it Blue Lake. It lays about one mile west of Mount Scott, 15 miles south of Diamond peak, and 80 miles northeast of Jacksonville. In the distance, and situated in the low pass that connects the Klamath country with the headwaters of Rogue River, another lake was visible, not so large, apparently, bordering, as it does, on a large prairie. From the banks of Blue Lake no outlet is visible, but on descending the west side of the mountain, which is densely covered with heavy hemlock timber, we found water gushing out, and fine grass, on what we called the water level of the lake, and following this level around the west and south sides, springs and small streams were crossed every few yards, the waters of which joined together in the large basin or valley below, form an important factor to the north fork of Rogue River, in fact, empty into it a volume of water equal in amount to one-quarter of the whole river at Table Rock ferry. . . . [3]

The next documented visit to the lake occurred on August 24, 1865, when hunters accompanying a military expedition approached it from a southerly direction. Two years earlier Fort Klamath had been established in the Wood River Valley, some twenty miles south of the lake. The objectives of the small garrison were to quell Indian disturbances and prevent them from harassing emigrant wagon trains heading into southern Oregon and northern California. The soldiers were also charged with building new roads and improving old trails connecting major supply points in eastern and western Oregon. Thus, in 1866 soldiers from the garrison built the first road approaching Crater Lake from the south. Known afterward as the Fort Klamath-Jacksonville Military Road it followed the general location of the present park south entrance road to Annie Spring, continuing over the Cascade Divide just west of Annie Spring and connecting with the Jacksonville Road to the John Day country.

Captain Franklin B. Sprague and twenty men from Company I of the First Oregon Volunteer Infantry were assigned to the road building. On August 1 John M. Corbell and F.M. Smith, who were hunting to provide Sprague's men with fresh meat, spied the lake and reported to Sprague that they had come upon a large body of water in a deep hole. He determined to see it for himself and in several weeks Sprague left Fort Klamath with a party of six soldiers and several curious civilians from Jacksonville.

After visiting the lake on August 24, Sprague returned to Fort Klamath where he wrote an account of his experiences the following day. His account, which was published in the Oregon Sentinel on September 9, 1865, included several significant perceptions: the volcanic origins of the lake, his description of Wizard Island as a remnant of volcanic activity, and his observation that the lake "will be visited by thousands hereafter, and some person would do well to build upon its banks a house where the visitor could be entertained, and to keep a boat, or boats upon its waters, that its beauties might be seen to a better advantage." In his account Sprague observed further:

Upon rising the slope bordering the lake, the first impression made upon your mind is one of disappointment; it does not come up to your expectations; but this is only momentary. A second look, and you begin to comprehend the majestic beauties of the scenery spread out before you, and you sit down on the brink of the precipice, and feast your eyes on the awful grandeur, your thoughts wander back thousands of years to the time when, where now is a placid sheet of water, there was a lake of fire, throwing its cinders and ashes to vast distances in every direction. The whole surroundings prove this lake to be the crater of an extinct volcano. The appearance of the water in the basin, as seen from the top of the mountain, is that of a vast circular sheet of canvass, upon which some painter had been exercising his art. The color of the water is blue, but in very many different shades, and like the colors in variegated silk, continually changing. Now a spot will be dark blue, almost approaching black, the next moment it will change to a very pale blue; and it is thus continually changing from one shade to another. I cannot account for this changeableness, as the sky was perfectly clear, and it could not have been caused by any shadows; there was, however, a gentle breeze, which caused a ripple of the waters; this may account for it.

At first sight a person would not estimate the surface of the water to be more than two or three hundred feet below the summit of the surrounding bluffs; and it is only after a steady look almost perpendicularly down into the water, that you begin to comprehend the distance. In looking down into the lake the vision seems to stop before reaching the bottom, and to use a common expression, you have to look twice before you see the bottom.

Heretofore, it has been thought by those who have visited the lake, that it was impossible to get to the water, and this was also my impression at first, and I should have continued to remain on the summit, and view its beauties from that point without attempting to get to the water, but for Sergeant Stearns and Mr. Ford, who, after gazing for awhile from the top, disappeared over the precipice, and in a few minutes were at the bottom, near the waters edge, where no human beings ever stood before. Their shout induced Mr. Coats and myself to attempt the feat, which is in fact only perilous in imagination. A spring of water bursts out of the mountain near the top, on the side where we were, and by following down the channel which the water has made, a good footing may be obtained all the way down. . . . The water in the lake is as clear as crystal, and about the same temperature with the well water in Rogue River Valley. We saw no fish of any kind, nor even insects in the water; the only thing we saw that indicated that there are fish in the lake, was a Kingfisher. . . . Near the western shore of the lake is an island, about one half mile in diameter, upon which there is considerable timber growing. The island is not more than one quarter of a mile from the western shore of the lake, and its shape is a frustrum of a cone; the top seems to be depressed, and I think there is a small crater in the summit of the island. . . . I do not know who first saw this lake, nor do I think it should be named after the discoverer. Sergeant Stearns and Peyton Ford are the first white men who ever reached its waters, and if named after any person, should be named for them; but as I do not believe any more majestic sheet of water is found upon the face of the globe, I propose the name "Majesty" . . . . [4]

There is documentation indicating that at least three other parties visited Crater Lake in 1865. In mid-August an article appeared in the Oregon Sentinel mentioning the visit a week earlier of a party of citizens to "Great Sunken Lake" in the Cascade Mountains northeast of Jacksonville. Obviously referring to Crater Lake, it stated that "no living man ever has, and probably never will, be able to reach the water's edge." These visitors were probably citizens from Jacksonville who had gone out to inspect the progress of the Fort Klamath-Jacksonville wagon road and view the lake as news of its location and beauty was spreading throughout the area. [5]

On September 3, 1865, a party of eleven men, led by James D. Fay, arrived on the west side of the lake during a hunting trip to Diamond Peak. Fay found a more gentle slope enabling the party to descend to the water, where the men inscribed their names and the date on a nearby rock. Intrigued by Wizard Island they determined to return and bring a boat with which they could reach the island and explore its slopes and summit. [6]

The reports reaching surrounding settlements regarding the scenic grandeur of the remote lake began to capture the imagination of more adventurous spirits. Soon the Oregon Sentinel reported that the "desire to see and explore Lake Majesty" had become intense. [7] On October 9 a party of citizens and officers from Fort Klamath, including two women--Miss Annie Gaines and Mrs. O.T. Brown--visited the lake and camped in a clearing near where the present park administration buildings are situated. Annie Gaines, for whom Annie Spring and Annie Creek are named, became the first woman to reach the water's edge. [8]

An article appearing in the Oregon Sentinel on September 12, 1868, mentioned that during the previous week two men from the Rogue River Valley area had visited the lake with Captain Sprague. Two of the men had descended to the water during the visit. [9]

On July 27, 1869, a party led by James M. Sutton, editor of the Oregon Sentinel, left Jacksonville for Crater Lake, which was wrongly assumed to be the source of the Rogue River. The list of excursionists included J.B. Coats, James D. Fay, Miss Annie Fay, David Linn and James M. Sutton and their families, Miss Fannie Rails, Mrs. Catherine Shook, and John Sutton. The group proceeded along the Rogue River road to its junction with the Fort Klamath Road, at which point the wagons turned eastward toward the lake, blazing a route for a wagon road from the Cascade Crest of the Fort Klamath-Jacksonville Military Road to within two miles of the rim. Here they were joined by Colonel J.E. Ross, Lieutenant S.B. Thoburn, and a Mr. Ish from Fort Klamath.

Finding the slope too steep for the wagons to continue, camp was established and the party walked two miles to the rim overlooking the lake. Sections of a canvas and wood boat had been brought in one of the wagons and were soon assembled and lowered carefully over the rocks to the water. On August 4 J.B. Coats, James Fay, David Linn, James Sutton, and Lieutenant Thoburn set out on a voyage to Wizard Island in the first boat navigated by white men on Crater Lake. They climbed up to the crater where they left a record of their visit in a tin can cached in rocks at the summit. The boat was left at the lake on their departure from the area about ten days later, having proven too frail to circumnavigate and sound the entire lake. One sounding was taken 550 feet deep half a mile from the island and from the slope of the floor indicated at this point, the men estimated the lake to be from 1,500 to 2,000 feet at the deepest part. Some sources indicate that the party renamed this geologic wonder "Crater Lake" because of the crater in the top of Wizard Island. Upon their return home, Sutton published graphic accounts of the trip in editions of the Oregon Sentinel. [10]

During the summer of 1872 another widely publicized visit of Crater Lake was undertaken by Lord William Maxwell of Scotland and A. Bentley of Toledo, Ohio. Accompanied by a Dr. Munson, the post surgeon at Fort Klamath, they headed toward the lake and established camp below Castle Crest. After Munson died on what is now Munson Point, Captain Oliver C. Applegate, who had gained fame in the Modoc War while commanding the garrison at Fort Klamath, led Bentley and Maxwell, John Meacham, and Chester M. Sawtelle to the lake. The men placed upon the water the first boat to make an extended lake inspection tour. After visiting Wizard Island, they boated around the perimeter of the lake, naming some of the prominent peaks after each other. [11]

Interesting accounts of visits to Crater Lake appeared in several publications in 1873. Mrs. Frances Fuller Victor described her experiences briefly in a book entitled Atlantic Arisen. In the December 1873 issue of Overland Monthly S.A. Clarke wrote an account of his trip to the lake. [12]


Despite its local popularity Crater Lake remained a largely unknown natural wonder, because it was not visited by the artists and photographers who accompanied the federal surveys of the West. By the late 1860s and 1870s western geological wonders were beginning to attract national attention as a result of illustrated accounts published in The National Intelligencer, Scribner's Magazine, congressional documents, and popular travelogues. The illustrations of William Henry Jackson, who accompanied the Hayden Survey of 1871 to authenticate the existence of geysers in present Yellowstone National Park, played a prominent role in the argument for preservation of that area. These efforts helped to prod Congress to pass legislation establishing Yellowstone as our first national park, thus setting a precedent for preservation of other natural wonders such as Crater Lake. [13]

That Crater Lake went so long without being visited by official expeditions was due to the ruggedness and remoteness of southwestern Oregon and the fact that it had to compete with such natural wonders as the Grand Canyon of the Colorado and Yellowstone. Thus, it remained primarily as a local attraction despite the fact that by the early 1870s the three aforementioned frontier roads provided comparatively easy access.

While the Sutton party reportedly took a camera on its 1869 visit to the lake and "were the first to secure pictures of the Lake and of the most picturesque pieces of scenery on the way," no photographs taken by the expedition have ever been found. [14] Hence credit for taking the first photographs of the lake has been accorded to Peter Britt, a Swiss-born emigrant who would become southern Oregon's most distinguished pioneer artist and photographer. [15]

As a young man in his mid-twenties, Britt emigrated to the United States with his family in 1845, settling at Highland, Illinois. Trained as a portrait painter, he turned to photography and some time after 1847 he went to St. Louis to study with the famed frontier photographer J.H. Fitzgibbon. He purchased his first camera from his mentor, a small wooden daguerreotype box which he transported along with other photographic equipment across the plains to Oregon in 1852. Reaching Jacksonville in November, he tried mining and operating a pack train into northern California for several weeks before opening a photography studio which soon developed into a flourishing business.

In August 1874 Britt joined a small party taking a trek to Rogue River Falls and Crater Lake. Taking a large wet plate camera and a stereoscope camera, Britt took photographs of Crater Lake on August 13-15. While the photographs received little attention at the time, they would eventually be used to convince the public, Congress, scientists, and conservationists that steps should be taken to preserve the lake's significant features. [16]


By the mid 1870s Crater Lake had become a local tourist attraction. The improved military road between Jacksonville and Fort Klamath, connecting with both the old Southern Emigrant Route between central and eastern Oregon to the south and the Oregon-California Road linking Portland and Sacramento to the west, passed within several miles of the lake, providing relatively easy access to it. Added incentive for a trip to the lake was the opportunity to camp out at Huckleberry Mountain, which soon became an annual tradition for many settlers of the Rogue River Valley and Klamath County and Indians from the nearby Klamath Reservation. A camp-city, often numbering more than 50 people, was organized each year. A side trip to Crater Lake by horseback, foot, or light wagon became part of these annual camping trips. [17]

One such camping visit occurred in September 1877 when a party of seventeen persons left Ashland for Crater Lake. By the time they got to the rim, other tourists had joined them, swelling their numbers to more than forty. During the next three days eighteen more persons appeared. The newspaper writer described this as the "largest excursion party which ever left the marts of civilization to encamp along the ruins of what was once perhaps the grandest old volcano of the Cascade chain." [18]


In 1883 John Wesley Powell, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, sent Professor J.S. Diller and Everett Hayden to the lake as the first Geological Survey party to study the caldera and its formation. Their investigation of lava flows and rock formations would form the basis for Diller's later theory that the mountain top collapsed rather than being blown away. They studied the geological features of Wizard Island to which they journeyed on a log raft, improvised by tumbling "logs over the cliffs to the water's edge," and lashing "them together with ropes." [19] The results of their studies were published in various scientific journals, thus providing increasing publicity for Crater Lake among the scientific community in the United States.

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Last Updated: 13-Aug-2010