Crater Lake
Historic Resource Study
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VI. Steps Leading Toward Establishment of Crater Lake National Park

A. Further Exploration of Crater Lake by Boat

With the more loudly announced "discovery" of Crater Lake by the Sutton party in 1869, its days of relative obscurity were practically over. It would still be another three years, however, before another widely-publicized visit--by Lord [Sir?] William Maxwell of Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland, and Mr. A. Bentley of Toledo, Ohio, travelers visiting Fort Klamath Accompanied by Dr. Munson, the post surgeon, they headed toward the lake and set up camp below Castle Crest. During their ascension of a ridge between their camp and the lake, Munson began to complain of feeling unwell due to the unaccustomed exertion. He bade the others go on while he rested before returning to camp. His companions found him dead in the same spot hours later in a position of ease, leaning against a boulder. The rocky point on which he died was thereafter referred to as Munson Point, and the valley below and a nearby ridge, creek, and springs were also named in his honor.

A few days later Captain Oliver C. Applegate of Fort Klamath led Bentley and Maxwell, a John Meacham (Mecham), and a Chester M. Sawtelle to the lake. After several laborious hours and unexpected dangers and hardships the men placed upon the water the first boat to make an extended inspection tour. After visiting Wizard Island, where they found the notes left by the Sutton expedition, they cruised the perimeter of the lake, naming some of the more obvious peaks after each other. The prominence now known as The Watchman was dubbed Bentley Peak; Hillman Peak (earlier Glacier Peak) was called Maxwell Peak; and the name Applegate Peak was given to a point on today's Vidae Cliff. [1]

B. Crater Lake Meets the Camera

Without question, Crater Lake would have risen to prominence much earlier if sketches of it had been made, or pictures taken, and circulated among the general public. By the late 1860s and early 1870s western geological wonders were beginning to intrigue the American people. Graphic accounts of adventures in Yellowstone and other wilderness areas that appeared in such magazines as National Intelligencer and Scribner's were widely perused. Popular also were congressional documents containing beautiful illustrations by such great artists as John Mix Stanley, who accompanied the 1853 Fremont expedition and made field sketches throughout northern Oregon. The illustrations of William Henry Jackson--who accompanied the Hayden Survey of 1871 to authenticate the existence of geysers in present Yellowstone National Park--that accompanied the final survey report were a major element in the argument for preservation of the area. They significantly helped motivate Congress to pass a bill establishing this as a national park, our first, thus setting a precedent for preservation of our national wonders. [2]

Unfortunately southern Oregon was as yet too unfamiliar, and her resources too unexplored, to elicit much interest among the general public or the federal government. Despite the fact that it was not a major goal of official expeditions to the West, Crater Lake had become somewhat of a local tourist attraction The improved military road between Jacksonville and Fort Klamath, connecting with both the old Southern Emigrant Route to the south and the Oregon-California Road to the west, passed within a few 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, in the present Rogue River National Forest just west of Crater Lake. Every fall for years this was one of the ideal camping spots for hundreds of Rogue River valley and Klamath County settlers and for Indians from the Klamath Reservation. A camp-city, often numbering more than 100 people, was organized each year and presided over by a mayor. A side trip to Crater Lake was a pleasant diversion: [3]

Soon it became a part of a summer camping trip to include a visit to the lake with the annual journey to Huckleberry Mountain. The people would drive to within a short distance of the lake, leaving the present road a few hundred feet north of the present Annie Springs cabin and drive about two miles to the old camping grounds. [4]

It was often possible to find up to 1,000 persons camped here, who later made the trip to the rim at their leisure on horseback, by foot, or in a light wagon.

Although M.W. Gorman states that the Sutton party took a camera with them on their 1869 visit and "were the first to secure pictures of the Lake and of the most picturesque pieces of scenery on the way," [5] credit for this particular deed has generally been accorded to Peter Britt, a Swiss-born emigrant who became southern Oregon's most distinguished pioneer artist and photographer. Arriving in the United States in his mid-twenties, Britt studied the new art of daguerreotype photography for five years under the renowned frontier photographer J.H. Fitzgibbon. From him Britt bought his first camera, a small wooden daguerreotype box, which he transported carefully to Oregon in 1852 along with several hundred pounds of equipment, including a Voigtlander lens No. 2115 and a stock of glass plates and chemicals.

Finally reaching the gold-mining town of Jacksonville in November, Britt enthusiastically joined in the search for gold. After several fruitless weeks he determined this decision had been a mistake, and, although he had a more successful stint as a packtrain operator, he ultimately built a small cabin and returned to his first loves--photography and portraiture. Business flourished as both successful miners and n'er-do-wells flocked to have themselves immortalized for the folks back home. By the time of the Civil War, Britt had a family, a prosperous business, and a large home with an elaborate studio.

Sometime after the war ended, Britt bought the large wet plate camera that, in 1874, went with him and a small party of friends to Crater Lake, still an unknown sight to most people. In addition he packed in his wagon a stereoscope camera and two large boxes, weighing more than 100 pounds each, containing glass plates, plate holders, chemicals, trays, and other related equipment necessary for coating the plates on the spot and then immediately developing them after exposure. Despite overcast skies and intermittent rainfall, Britt was able to take several pictures of the lake and vicinity. Although this historic event did not receive much attention at the time, it was these black-and-white photographs that would eventually help convince scientists and a budding conservation movement that steps should be taken to record and preserve the lake's significant features. [6]

Crater Lake
Illustration 5. First photograph of Crater Lake. Taken by Peter Britt, 1874. Courtesy Southern Oregon Historical Society, Jacksonville.

C. Scientific Studies Commence

Mentions of occasional visits to Crater Lake by the neighboring populace over the next few years have been found, but it was not until almost ten years after Britt's pictures appeared that scientists began making serious plans to visit the lake. [7] In 1883 John Wesley Powell, director of the United States Geological Survey, sent Professor J.S. Diller and Everett Haden to the lake as the first Geological Survey party to visit the caldera and study 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. Another topic of their study was the creation of Wizard Island, to which they journeyed on a log raft in order to view its cinder cone at close range. The brief report resulting from this trip, however, did not provoke much interest.

D. William Gladstone Steel

In 1870 a young Kansas farmboy happened to glance at the newspaper in which his just-consumed lunch had been wrapped and focus his attention on an account describing a unique lake in Oregon whose sapphire-blue waters were nestled in the midst of a crater and surrounded by precipitously steep walls. Burning with a desire to view it himself someday, Steel gladly moved to Oregon with his family in 1871 It was not until 1885, however, that he managed to reach the lake. Accompanied by a friend, J.M. Breck, Steel took passage on the Oregon & California Railroad to Medford, where he caught a stagecoach for the bumpy, dusty ride to Fort Klamath. There the two travelers ran into Captain Clarence E. Dutton, an army officer detailed to the Geological Survey who was the leader of a small military party escorting the famous geologist Joseph LeConte of the University of California on a summer trek through the Pacific Coast mountains to examine volcanic phenomena. Steel would later find both Dutton and LeConte to be sympathetic allies in his fight to save the natural resources of Crater Lake.

Steel and his companions walked the rest of the way to the lake, arriving at the rim on August 15. Steel's first view of the magnificent scenery and its inspiring beauty gripped him with a consuming passion:

Not a foot of the land about the lake had been touched or claimed. An overmastering conviction came to me that this wonderful spot must be saved, wild and beautiful, just as it was, for all future generations, and that it was up to me to do something. I then and there had the impression that in some way, I didn't know how, the lake ought to become a National Park. [8]

Steel's party had brought a canvas-bottomed canoe from Portland, in which they paddled over to Wizard Island for a brief exploration. They stayed in the area several days and left with a grim determination to save the lake and its environs from private defacement and improper use.

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Last Updated: 14-Feb-2002