William Steel + Crater Lake National Park

Contributed by Anthony Myers
with excerpts from William Gladstone Steel’s
Crater Lake, One of the World’s Great Natural Wonders

A trip to Crater Lake is, to a lover of the grand and beautiful in nature, an important event, around which will ever cluster memories of unalloyed happiness, thoughts of little adventures and weird experiences that go to make life worth living.

Imagine stumbling upon a new natural wonder.  What if you were the first to glance upon a landscape unknown to man?  Just think for one moment. How would you feel?  Would it be something of excitement and awe or fear and superstition?

It was clear how it impacted the American Indians who first discovered Crater Lake.

The Indians of Southern Oregon have known of it for ages…a tradition, handed down for generation to generation described it as the home of myriads of sea-devils, or, as they were called, Llaos; and it was considered certain death for any brave even to look upon it.

Interestingly, settlers had their own experience.  On June 12, 1853 a few hungry prospectors had broken away from their party is search of food when they stumbled upon one of the most enchanting lakes in the country.

For a time hunger forsook them, as they stood in silent amazement upon the cliffs, and drank in the awe of the scene stretched before them.  After partaking of the inspiration fostered by such weird grandeur, they decided to call it Mysterious, or Deep Blue Lake. It was subsequently called Lake Majesty, and by being constantly referred to as a crater lake, it gradually assumed that name, which is within itself so descriptive.

Young William Gladstone Steel first heard of this great lake while his family was living Kansas.

Lunch was wrapped in a newspaper and tied to my belt.  One hot day, probably in May or June, I sat in a window and lunched, then picked up the paper and read the short articles, one of which thrilled me as nothing has before or since.  It described a great sunken lake then recently discovered in Oregon.

Enthralled with curiosity William sought to see the Crater Lake himself.

Two years later I came to Oregon with my parents and immediately began inquiring for the great sunken lake, but it was nine years before I found anybody who could tell me of it.

After 15 years of patience and perseverance, Steel was able to make his dream a reality.  In sight of the crater he stood in silence with one of fellow crewman, John Breck Jr.

We were deeply impressed with the grandeur of the scene and stood for the sometime without speaking.  Finally, I said, ‘Johnny, there is not a private claim of any sort bordering the lake, or anywhere near it.  Every inch of the land belongs to the government.  Unless something is done immediately, there will be sheep camps, cow pens and filth everywhere and a scene of inspiration corrupted and remain one of the desolation forever.  It is up to you and to me to save it for future generations.

OrHi 101873
Steel’s party in boat on Crater Lake (Fred Kiser/Oregon Historical Society Research Library)

For the rest of his life Steel was involved in the development and preservation of Crater Lake.  He watched it receive protection and National Park status in 1902.  He was also able to serve as the park’s second superintendent and eventually as its commissioner. He spent time fighting hard for money from Congress to build roads, trails, and park buildings.  During the entire winter of 1912-13, William Gladstone Steel was in Washington D.C. pushing for $50,000 of grant money for the young park.

It’s clear that ever since Steel first heard about this “new natural wonder” as a school boy he was entranced.  Even once he was able to gaze upon it with his own eyes, that newness never left.

Crater Lake became his life.

One must wonder what Crater Lake would be like today if William hadn’t pushed to preserve it.  Would it be relentlessly logged and farmed?  Would the water still be so pristine?  Whether it is fear or inspiration, the moment of seeing unprecedented beauty is still available to everyone thanks to William Gladstone Steel.

In a final reflection of Crater Lake, Steel writes:

Crater Lake is one of the grandest points of interest on earth.  Here all the ingenuity of nature seems to have been exerted to the fullest capacity, to build one grand, awe-inspiring temple, within which to live and from which to graze up on the surrounding world and say: ‘Here would I dwell and live forever.  Here would I make my home from choice; the universe is my kingdom, and this my throne.

Crater Lake National Park (Epatsw/Wikimedia Commons)

Cover photo courtesy of PBS and PIXNIO

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