Crater Lake
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III. Discovery of Crater Lake

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]

B. Chauncey Nye

Nothing more was heard of the lake for several years. By 1861 new gold discoveries were being made on the John Day and Powder rivers of eastern Oregon. On October 21, 1862, six miners, including Chauncey Nye, James Leyman, Joseph Bowers (or J. Brandlin), Hiram Abbott, S.H. Smith, and John W. Sessions, were crossing the Cascades on their 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 too stumbled across "a large lake, encircled on all sides by steep and almost perpendicular bluff banks, fully as high as that we were standing upon." [4] Nye and his party estimated the lake to be about twenty-five miles in circumference, the rim at their discovery point to be about 3,000 feet above the water, and the site itself to be about eighty miles northeast of Jacksonville. Thinking at first that they might be able to obtain drinking water from the lake surface, they rolled large rocks down the wall to ascertain the distance involved. They soon decided the water was inaccessible without ropes.

The Nye party noted not only the butte-shaped island near the south end of the lake, rising several hundred feet above the surface, but also the abundance of bunch grass and scarcity of timber. Unlike The Hillman party's experience, no difficulty concerning names arose, and the lake was unanimously dubbed "Blue Lake" because of its intense color. The importance of the Nye party's discovery lies in the fact that they not only authenticated the lake's existence and correctly pinpointed its location by word of mouth, but also did so by publishing the first printed account of it in the Oregon Sentinel (Jacksonville) of November 8, 1862. They also named a prominent volcanic core peak in the area which they had utilized as an observation post to determine their position relative to the Rogue River valley. On top of the mountain they had found remains of a circular stone parapet, indicating its possible use in the past as a watch tower by the Indians. In deference to their sympathies in the ongoing Civil War, it became "Union Peak." [5]

C. Captain Franklin B. Sprague

Although the Nye party account of its discovery had more exposure because of its publication in a newspaper, apparently readers were not sufficiently interested to attempt the journey to the lake themselves. Further explorations by prospectors were probably rare or even nonexistent due to the lack of mineral content, especially gold, in the surrounding mountains. In 1863 the small military post of Fort Klamath was established north of Upper Klamath Lake. Manned by cavalry and infantry, the objective of the garrison was to quell any Indian disturbances and to prevent harassment of emigrant wagons passing through the Klamath Basin by roving tribesmen. Another more peaceful duty of the fort's inhabitants was to improve the old trails connecting major supply points in eastern and western Oregon and build new roads as needed.

One of the new wagon routes being projected in July 1865 would trend north from Fort Klamath, across the Wood River valley, up along present Annie Creek to its rugged canyon, thence across the mountains to Union Creek, the upper Rogue River, and eventually on to Jacksonville. Captain Franklin B. Sprague and twenty men from Company I, First Oregon Volunteer Infantry, were assigned the task of cutting the timber and building this road. Hunters were dispatched daily to obtain fresh venison to supplement the salt pork given the road crew. On August 1, 1865, two hunters, John M. Corbell and Francis M. Smith, accidentally came upon a lake and, oblivious of its previous discovery, excitedly reported to Sprague the finding of a large body of water in a deep hole. His curiosity aroused, Sprague determined to see the sight for himself as soon as possible.

According to accounts by Sergeant Orson A. Stearns and W.B. Gorman, the opportunity for Sprague to see the lake did not arise until about August 12, when he left Fort Klamath to find the road crew in order to solicit volunteers to assist him in an operation against the Snake Indians. This duty accomplished, and before returning to the fort, Sprague and Stearns, accompanied by several civilians from Jacksonville who had come to the area to inspect the new wagon road and also see the wondrous lake of which they had heard rumors, set off to find it. This party, including William Bybee, James Cluggage (of Jacksonville fame), J.B. Coats, Peyton Foote (sometimes referred to as Peyton Ford), Orson A. Stearns, and Sprague, visited the lake on August 24. [6] Stearns's account notes that

We reached the bluff, overlooking the lake on the west or south-west side, about 9 o'clock in the morning of a clear day, and for the first time feasted our eyes upon what we then pronounced the most beautiful and majestic body of water we had ever beheld. [7]

Trying with difficulty to "comprehend the majestic beauties of the scenery," Captain Sprague found that his thoughts would "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." [8]

Enchanted by the blueness of the water, Sergeant Stearns determined to make his way down to the shore. Accompanied by Peyton Ford (Foote), and after a slow, seat-of-the-pants descent, Stearns reached the water and fired a pistol as a sign of success. Seeing that the feat was not impossible, Sprague and the civilian Coats soon joined them at the bottom. Although no fish were observed in the clear water, the sighting of a kingfisher suggested the possibility of their presence. According to the story, Stearns, the first person to reach the shoreline, was given the honor of naming the lake. As he hesitated in thought, his captain suggested the name "Lake Majesty," and this was agreed upon.

Later Sprague philosophized "I do not know who first saw this lake, nor do I think it should be named after the discoverer." [9] It seems odd that, although Sprague mentioned in his August 25 account that "the whole surroundings prove this lake to be the crater of an extinct volcano," [10] the appropriateness of such a name evidently did not occur to him.

Sprague estimated that the rim rose perpendicularly between 700 and 800 feet above the water and that the lake was roughly circular and between seven and eight miles in diameter. The group also noted the cone-shaped and densely wooded Wizard Island near the western shore. A slightly different account of this event was given by Judge William M. Colvig of Medford, Oregon, in 1931. He stated that twenty-five soldiers on a trip from Fort Klamath camped near the present park headquarters area and that from there some of the men wandered up to the rim and saw the lake. A vote among the members of the party resulted in the name of Lake Majesty. [11] One of the members of the detachment, R.J. Clark, later recalled that the lake was found during an expedition to locate a pass for the wagon road through the Cascades when it suddenly came into full view of Captain Sprague and Sergeant Stearns who were walking a little apart from the rest of the company. [12]

Whatever the precise details of the third discovery of Crater Lake, this was the first party known to have actually reached the water's edge. An account of the trip and of the christening of the lake, written by Sprague on August 25--the second printed story of its existence--appeared in the Oregon Sentinel (Jacksonville) on September 9, 1865. Several aspects of Sprague's visit to the lake are notable: his perceptions of it as being of volcanic origin, his description of Wizard Island as a remnant of volcanic activity, and his observations 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." [13]

D. Later Visits to Crater Lake

In mid-August 1865 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 mentioned that "no living man ever has, and probably never will, be able to reach the water's edge." [14] These visitors fired a rifle into the lake several times in an attempt to ascertain the distance from the rim to the water, but evidently did little other exploring. It must be assumed that this group was probably composed of visiting citizens from Jacksonville who had gone out to inspect the progress on the Fort Klamath-Jacksonville wagon road and view the lake, Stearns stating that "the news of its [Crater Lake's] discovery having already reached Jacksonville, and several besides the volunteers, who were building the road, having already seen it." [15]

Shortly afterwards a party of eleven men, including John Bilger, J.B. Coats, Isaac Constant, T. Constant, James D. Fay, Herman Helms, a Mr. Kibbert, James Layman, John Neuber, W.A. Owen, and T. Willitt, guided by James D. Fay, arrived on the west side of the lake on September 3, 1865, during a hunting trip to Diamond Peak. On this side of the lake Fay and Helms found a gentler slope enabling their descent to the water, where they inscribed their names and the date on a nearby rock. Intrigued by the topography of Wizard Island, they resolved to return and bring a boat with which they could reach the island and explore its wooded slopes and craterlike summit. [16]

The reports now reaching surrounding settlements regarding the beautiful lake, its remoteness, and its many unique features were beginning to capture the imagination of more adventurous spirits. On October 9, 1865, a large party of citizens from Fort Klamath, including two women--Miss Annie Gaines and Mrs. O.T. Brown--accompanied by some army officers, visited the lake. During their sojourn there, Miss Gaines became the first woman to descend to the water's edge. Annie Spring, and later the creek and canyon, were named in her honor. [17]

An 1868 editorial in the Oregon Sentinel mentions a party of gentlemen involved in mid-September in preparations for exploring the lake and taking soundings from a homemade boat. This may refer to the projected Sutton expedition, which, however, did not leave until the next summer. The article mentions that during the previous week a Mr. Cawley and a Mr. Beall, of the Rogue River valley area, had visited the lake with Captain Sprague, and two of the men had descended to the water. [18]

E. James Sutton Party

The lake did not acquire its present name until visited by a party from Jacksonville in July 1869. Headed by James M. Sutton, then in charge of the Oregon Sentinel, the party consisted of J.B. Coats, James D. Fay, Miss Annie Fay, David Linn and family, Miss Fannie Rails, the James Sutton family, Mrs. Catherine Shook, and John Sutton. Leaving town on July 27, the group proceeded along the Rogue River road to its junction with the Fort Klamath road, at which point the wagons turned east toward the lake, blazing a road nearly to the rim. Here they were joined by Colonel J.E. Ross, Lieutenant S.B. Thoburn, and a Mr. Ish from Fort Klamath.

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 Coats, James Fay, David Linn, James Sutton, and Lieutenant Thoburn set out on a perilous voyage to Wizard Island, in the first boat navigated by white men on Crater Lake. Considered to be the first human beings to set foot on the island, 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, however, 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, remarkably close to the actual depth of 1,932 feet. The men renamed this geologic wonder "Crater Lake" because of the crater discovered in the top of Wizard Island. Upon their return home, Sutton published a graphic account of the trip in the August 21 and 28, 1869, editions of the Oregon Sentinel. Here the appellation "Crater Lake" appears in print for the first time. [19]

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Last Updated: 14-Feb-2002