From the American Indian tribes who gathered resources in the area for millennia to the bustling park that exists on the land today, a wide variety of groups have found meaning and importance in the mountain now called Rainier. All of these groups mapped their values on the landscape and contributed to a broader sense of what the area should be. Though these values were often very different and sometimes conflicted, they are all held together today in a delicate balance by the park. The mountain is a product of its past in more than just a geological sense: understanding the human history of Mount Rainier is crucial to realizing the intricacy of the mountain today.
Mount Rainier History
American IndiansAs European explorers began to ‘discover’ the Pacific Northwest in the latter half of the 18th century, they came to a land that was already inhabited by American Indian tribes. In the area around what is today Mount Rainier National Park, the Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin Island, Muckleshoot, Yakama, and Cowlitz tribes all used the natural resources surrounding the mountain they called “Takhoma.” Archaeological evidence traces native use of the area back 9,000 years. For millennia, the ancestors of modern tribes came to the mountain seasonally to hunt and gather resources. Today, those tribes continue to maintain a deep connection to the mountain.
Early ExplorersThe mountain captivated early European and American visitors. Captain George Vancouver of the British Royal Navy observed the mountain while surveying the Pacific coast in 1792 and decided to name the mountain after his friend, Rear Admiral Peter Rainier (picture). Mountaineers made some of the first non-native incursions on land, eager to summit the iconic peak. P.B. Van Trump and his friend General Hazard Stevens made the first recorded climb of the mountain in 1870 and others would soon follow. In 1883 James Longmire, on his way down from summiting the mountain, found a mineral spring and opened a hotel and spa there not long after. The entrepreneurial spirit and scenic appreciation for the mountain that drove Longmire would emerge as key themes in the future development of Mount Rainier National Park.
Creation of the parkA wide variety of groups came together to help establish the park in 1899. Scientists, mountaineers, conservation groups, local businesses, and large railroad companies all saw some possible benefit from a national park around Mount Rainier. They combined their often disparate interests into a lobbying campaign starting in 1893. It stressed the potential for tourism from the nearby cities of Seattle and Tacoma, the unsuitability of land for other commercial purposes like agriculture, grazing, or mining, and a need to preserve the unique glacial landscape for further study. After hesitant congressmen received assurances that the park would not come as an added expense to the government, the bill passed in 1899. Mount Rainier became the nation’s fifth national park and the first to be established after the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 that created the U.S. Forest Service. This resolved any questions as to whether the nascent national park and national forest systems would be administered as separate entities with different objectives.
Early YearsDevelopment at the park grew at a torrid and often chaotic pace. Visitation ballooned from 1,786 in 1906 to 34,814 nine years later and park administrators struggled to keep up with the constant demand for more roads, lodging, and other services. The advent of automobiles increased the accessibility of the park but also created new challenges. Mount Rainier was the first national park to allow cars and by the time a road was built to Paradise Park in 1910, one third of the ranger force was being used for traffic control. Concurrent with the growth in tourist activity was an increased commercial interest in the natural resources of the park. During the first fifteen years of the park’s existence and in the absence of established regulations, mining, water development, and timber schemes sprang up but met with limited success.
1916-1930The creation of the National Park Service in 1916 brought significant changes to Mount Rainier. A professional ranger force began to take on a greater role in managing the park, including starting interpretive programs in 1921. This early period before the Great Depression was also key for the development of park infrastructure. The Paradise Inn was opened in 1917 and plans to develop Sunrise were crafted throughout the 1920s. Road construction reached its peak with all of the roads in the park being built or surveyed by 1930. These changes stimulated a larger debate that continues to this day over the degree certain areas should be developed or left as primitive wilderness.
Great Depression and WWIIDuring the Great Depression, the park was forced to shift its goals and priorities. Visitation initially fell leading to new efforts to attract sightseers. A nine-hole golf course at Paradise, a new visitor area at Sunrise, and plans for a ski lift provide just a few examples. President Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ brought new funding to Mount Rainier and over 1,000 men from the Civilian Conservation Corps to work on trail construction, campground improvement, and forest fire protection. Funding and visitation plummeted during World War II, though the park did find new use as a training ground for the army’s new mountain divisions.
1945-1965After World War II, the focus of the park shifted toward visitor use. During the mid-1950s, the federal government’s Mission 66 project sought to upgrade and expand visitor facilities at national parks while relieving the congestion that accompanied increased day-use. Mount Rainier was the first national park to get a development plan under the new program as it exemplified several nationwide trends – greater use of cars, shorter stays, and growing use overall. The program provided money for new park buildings, roads, and trails to ease congestion and spread use around the park. The east and west sides of the park were finally linked in 1957 when Stevens Canyon Road was completed, 25 years after it was started. The renewed focus on visitor use did correspond to a decreased interest in the natural resource program. In what was a larger trend across the National Park Service, funding for environmental monitoring fell and did not rebound until the early 1960s.
1965-TodaySince the mid-1960s, Mount Rainier has shown a great deal of consistency. With the majority of the park’s infrastructure in place, the major change has been an increase in park use. Over 1.8 million people visited the park in 2016 but visitation has shown considerably variability, reaching almost 2.5 million in 1977. Attempts to summit Mount Rainier have grown almost ten fold since 1965. In response to these shifts, the park has zoned the mountain in to different use areas to manage the various impacts of recreation. A new visitor center in Paradise, built in 2008, also provides an expanded an updated examination of the park’s resources. New funding for natural resource protection has led to a more concerted effort to understand the complex ecosystems of Mount Rainier and how they are impacted by human use. The Washington Wilderness Act of 1988 designated 98% of the park as wilderness, giving these lands greater protection against development.
Throughout its history, Mount Rainier has varied widely in its significance and utility to its visitors. The idea of what the area can and should be has changed dramatically and will continue to shift. These changes are particularly evident in the century since Mount Rainier became the nation’s fifth national park. The park is no longer home to a health spa and golf course, but the core values of enjoyment and preservation continue to drive its existence. As Mount Rainier pushes into the 21st century, park management faces a challenge balancing the competing meanings of the area with increased use. But if its past history is any guide, the park will adapt to new challenges and continue to preserve the mountain as a place of wonder and amazement.
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Last updated: November 3, 2017