An Administrative History of Mount Rainier National Park
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Mount Rainier ranks among the great mountains of the world. With a summit elevation of 14,411 feet above sea level, it is the largest in a chain of volcanoes that extends through the Pacific Coast states from Mount Shasta in California to Mount Baker in Washington. Most of these volcanoes rise several thousand feet above the other summits of the Cascade Range and are visible for a hundred miles or more, appearing ethereal at this distance like islands in the sky. Mount Rainier's significance relates in part to its premier place in this impressive range of Pacific Rim volcanoes. As viewed from Seattle or Tacoma through the intervening haze, the mountain's glistening, white dome appears to rise directly from a low, forested tableland.

Viewed at closer range, Mount Rainier reveals its distinctive form: massive, rugged, and asymmetrical. Successive eruptions of lava, ash, and cinders, and the probable movement of the volcano s main vent during the period of Mount Rainier's growth, produced a broad, irregular cone with interbedded layers of black andesite and lighter-shaded ash. The cone was further modified by the cutting action of streams in the soft ash, and later by the erosive force of huge glaciers which formed during the Pleistocene Epoch. Today a number of resistant dikes of lava radiate out from the mountain core, including the massive buttress on the southeast flank known as Gibraltar Rock and the 11,117-foot spire on the east known as Little Tahoma. Together with the mountain's broken summit, these features account for Mount Rainier's varied appearance.

Mount Rainier's twenty-five separate, named glaciers comprise the largest single-peak glacier system in the United States outside of Alaska. The largest of these glaciers descend into forested lowlands near the foot of the mountain. Measurements of the movement of the Nisqually Glacier date from 1857 and become detailed after the turn of the century, constituting the longest such record in the Western Hemisphere. The glaciers are another outstanding feature of Mount Rainier National Park and have long attracted both scientific and scenic interest.

Mount Rainier National Park is renowned for its subalpine meadows or "mountain parks." Often graced by mountain lakes and profusions of wildflowers, these mountain parks are the most visited and photographed areas of the park. Encircling the mountain between approximately 5,000 and 7,000 feet elevation, the mountain parks are practically unique to Mount Rainier, without parallel in the Cascades or on the other volcanoes which occur at latitudes to the north and south. Early scientists attributed this feature, and Mount Rainier's great diversity of flora in general, to the mountain's tremendous range of elevations and the influence of its bulk and height on local climate. In the classic phrase coined by campaigners for the national park in the 1 890s, Mount Rainier was "an arctic island in a temperate zone." Since then biologists have identified much more intricate variations in the flora than the vertical zones that were once used to describe the mountain's varied plant life. The flora of Mount Rainier is influenced by differences of elevation, contrasting climates from one side of the mountain to another, variety of soil types, and disturbances from fire, flood, and other phenomena.

Mount Rainier's biological diversity extends to animal life, too. The national park's wildlife has probably played less of a role than its lush forests and flower fields in shaping the popular conception of Mount Rainier as a natural paradise; nevertheless, sightings of mountain goat, black bear, deer, and various small mammals have long been among the park's popular attractions. Some 130 species of birds and 50 species of mammals occur in the park. Protection of wildlife habitat constitutes an important and longstanding management concern.

These natural features--the volcano, the glaciers, the flora, and the fauna--are Mount Rainier National Park's principal resources. As Congress proclaimed in the Mount Rainier National Park Act of March 2, 1899, they give the area national significance. In the course of the national park's long history since 1899 another significant resource has developed: the cultural heritage of the national park itself. Today the park contains four historic districts and more than one hundred historic buildings of national significance, virtually all associated with the first half-century of administration and development of the park. With its carefully planned roads, campgrounds, and administrative areas, the built environment of Mount Rainier National Park exhibits perhaps as well as that of any other national park the philosophy of the U.S. National Park Service during its formative years.

The purpose of this administrative history is three-fold: to provide a summary of the park's century-long development, to present a synthesis of the many issues that have concerned park managers from 1899 to the present, and to offer an analysis of local and regional influences that have contributed to making Mount Rainier National Park's history distinct from other national parks. Four main historical themes emerged in the course of this study which may be summarized as follows:

(1) The nearby cities of Seattle and Tacoma profoundly influenced the development of Mount Rainier National Park. The proximity of these cities had myriad effects. In the first place, recreational use of Mount Rainier by urban, middle-class visitors developed at an early date and contributed significantly to the campaign for the park's establishment. This pattern of use continued during the park's early years, forming a contrast to the predominantly upper-class visitor use that was typical of Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon, and other early national parks. Moreover, Seattle and Tacoma businessmen provided virtually all of the private capital for the development of hotels and camps in the park, supplanting the role played by railroad companies in many other national parks of the American West. Since most Mount Rainier visitors came to the park by automobile from nearby communities, and most private investment in the park came from local businessmen, it followed that local interests took an unusually keen interest in this national park's early road, hotel, and campground development.

(2) Changing patterns of visitor use posed constant challenges to the park administration. These changing patterns were complex, involving such developments as growing numbers of visitors, rising visitor expectations for overnight accommodations and other services, new modes of transportation, new forms of recreational use, and increasing socio-economic diversity among the visitor population. The implications for management were as varied as the patterns themselves, but can be broadly defined into three central challenges.

First, the administration continually had to adapt the park's infrastructure to accommodate new patterns of visitor use. Roads and trails, lodging and camping facilities, museums and waysides all required extensive modification over the years. At best, this process of adaptation was costly; at worst, it occasionally resulted in overdevelopment and visitor dissatisfaction.

Second, some types of visitor use called for developments that detracted from other types of visitor use, and the park administration had to weigh these conflicting uses and determine which were more appropriate. Winter use of Mount Rainier National Park, with its attendant demands for aerial trams, permanent downhill chair lifts, and snowsheds on the road to Paradise--eyesores in any other season--best exemplified this problem.

Third, changing patterns of visitor use increasingly raised critical resource protection issues. Growing numbers of backcountry users denuded the highcountry camps of vegetation; growing numbers of climbers produced a human waste problem on the upper mountain; growing numbers of dayhikers cut up the fragile alpine meadows with unintended foot trails.

Because of Mount Rainier National Park's proximity to two growing metropolitan areas, it frequently experienced the management problems associated with changing patterns of visitor use earlier than most other national parks.

(3) Mount Rainier National Park twice served as a model for national park development plans. In 1928 it became the first national park in the system to be given a master plan for the development of all roads, visitor services, and administrative sites. In 1955 it served as a pilot park for the design of a ten-year redevelopment plan under the Park Service's Mission 66 program. Add to this impressive record the creation of the Rainier National Park Company out of the new national park concession policy of 1916, and it becomes clear why the history of Mount Rainier National Park's physical development was so significant for the national park system as a whole.

(4) Master plans only partially succeeded in modifyiing established patterns of visitor use. The Master Plan of 1928 and the Mission 66 Plan of 1955 shared the essential goal of spreading visitor use more evenly around the developed sections of the park. The earlier plan sought to deflect some of the heavy use at Paradise to the new development area at Sunrise, while the latter plan had the more far-reaching object of moving visitor services from these fragile alpine areas to lower elevations within and outside the park. In both instances the park's private investors and some of the park's most frequent users opposed the change and blunted the planning initiatives. Similarly, the Master Plan of 1972 sought to alleviate automobile congestion through the introduction of a mass transit system, but local opposition to the idea dissuaded park officials from pursuing it. The National Park Service found it difficult to modify established patterns of visitor use even when such uses were inimical to park resources and visitor experiences. This was due in part to the close relationship of Mount Rainier National Park to its Seattle and Tacoma constituencies.

This administrative history is organized both chronologically and topically. The report is divided into six parts corresponding to six distinct eras in the park's history. Within each part, three to five chapters address such recurring topics as resource management, interpretation, development, concessions management, and research. The decision to organize the administrative history in this fashion was based on the judgment that the vital stories of Mount Rainier National Park's physical development, its extraordinarily long history of recreational use, and its hundred-year evolution of resource management could not be told separately from one another. Physical developments affected recreational use just as recreational use affected resource management. Resource management in turn affected physical developments and recreational use. Moreover, these stories are embedded in the history of the National Park Service, the region, and even the nation. It was decided that the nearly century-long administrative history of this important national park could be made more comprehensible if it were presented in a chronological narrative, with an emphasis on historical context. The single exception to this organizational scheme will be found in Chapter I, which carries the discussion of Indians and Mount Rainier National Park up to the present time.

The disadvantage of a chronological organization is obvious: the reader who is primarily interested in the history of one function of the park administration may have to look for that topic in four or five places in the report. Moreover, the reader will note that the names of administrative functions have changed over time. Thus the interpretive function was formerly called the nature guide service, resource management was earlier known as resource protection, and the park's current science program practically has no parallel in the years prior to about 1965. It is hoped that wherever chapter titles fail to guide the reader to the relevant sections, the subject index will succeed.

I am grateful to the numerous people who assisted me in the preparation of this report. I first wish to thank Gretchen Luxenberg, regional historian in the System Support Office (SSO) in Seattle, who set up the project and deftly kept it alive through two years of "downsizing" and reorganization of the agency. Through it all her sense of humor never deserted her. I also wish to thank Stephanie Toothman, chief of the Cultural Resources Division, SSO, and Darryll Johnson, project leader of the Social Science Program of the Cooperative Park Studies Unit, University of Washington, for assisting Gretchen in ensuring the project's completion.

Several members of the Mount Rainier National Park staff gave generously of their time in interviews and critical reviews of the draft report. I wish to thank Superintendent William Briggle, Donna Rahier, William Dengler. Loren Lane, John Krambrink, John Wilcox, Rick Kirshner, Gene Casey, Gary Ahlstrand, Regina Rochefort, Steve Gibbons, David Uberuaga, Eric Walkinshaw, and Glenn Baker. Former superintendents John Rutter and Neal Guse, Jr., and former assistant superintendent Robert Dunnagan also provided interviews and reviewed the draft report.

Several of my former colleagues in the SSO provided me with insights on Mount Rainier's administrative history, NPS policies, and agency culture. For this I wish to thank in particular Gretchen, Stephanie, David Louter, Fred York, Laurin Huffman, Cathy Gilbert, Kathy Jope, Mike Blankenship, and Nancy Hori, as well as Darryll Johnson of the Cooperative Park Studies Unit. I appreciate the final editing performed by Frank Norris of the Alaska Regional Office in Anchorage.

My parents, Nancy Catton and William R. Catton, Jr., introduced me to Mount Rainier National Park when I was three years old by leading me and my two older brothers on a thirteen-day backpacking trip over the rugged 93-mile Wonderland Trail around the mountain. Four years later we repeated the trip in the other direction, varying the route in the northern section of the park, this time with my then-three-year-old younger brother. Like so many other Seattleites, we also made innumerable short trips to the park, camped in the park campgrounds, visited the museums, hiked a good many of the trails, and packed toboggans and inner tubes up to Paradise in winter. Home movies of these adventures, narrated by my mother and father and set to Brahms and Beethoven symphonies, became the touchstones of my early boyhood years in the 1960s. In writing this report I have tried to eschew sentimentality and nostalgia. Nevertheless, I admit here to two biases that stem from those childhood experiences: one in favor of the local park visitor, and the other in support of the National Park Service's noble mission to preserve the park resources for present and future generations.

Theodore Catton
July 1995

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Last Updated: 24-Jul-2000