Mount Rainier National Park

  • By David Norberg
  • Posted 10/13/2020
  • Essay 21111
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Standing at an official height of 14,410 feet -- 14,411 feet by more recent, unofficial measurements -- Mount Rainier became the nation's fifth national park in 1899 and is an iconic symbol and central attraction for those who live in its shadow. While it is universally loved, the mountain's history has been shaped by numerous controversies over control, access, industrial use, competing forms of recreation, and environmental preservation. Rainier's glaciers have been shrinking due to climate change, and a major storm in 2006 washed out roads, limiting access to parts of the park and concentrating use in already overcrowded areas. By 2020, Mount Rainier National Park was hosting more than 2 million visitors annually while trying to protect the sensitive environments that make the mountain so important to so many. 

Washington's 'Highest Hill'

Mount Rainier, along with the rest of the Cascades, formed when part of the Earth's crust, the Juan de Fuca plate, was forced under, or subducted, under the North American plate. Today's Mount Rainier began to form 500,000 years ago and grew to an estimated 16,000 feet. About 5,600 years ago, a massive volcanic mudflow, or lahar, known as the Osceola Mudflow sent an estimated 3.8 cubic miles of debris down the White and Puyallup River Valleys. The event lowered the summit by more than a thousand feet, left a mile-wide crater, and covered 212 square miles. Enumclaw, Orting, Auburn, Puyallup, Sumner, and parts of Kent are all built on it.

Numerous smaller lahars, such as the Electron Mudflow 600 years ago, have been identified by geologists. The threat of future lahars has led Pierce County to develop a warning system to protect those living along the Puyallup River, and in 2020, the county was planning to develop a similar system for the Nisqually watershed in the future. 

Native Americans in the region often referred to the mountain by a variety of names and variations including Tacoma, Tahoma, Takhoma, and Tacobet. Nisqually historian Cecelia Carpenter (1924-2010) explained that "Ta-co-bet" meant "nourishing breasts," as the Nisqually glacier was "the place where the waters began" (Carpenter, 19). Traveler Theodore Winthrop visited the region in 1853 and reported the name Tacoma was "a generic term also applied to all snow peaks," while So-To-Lick (1820-1895), often known as Indian Henry, maintained that Tahoma meant "highest" or "highest hill" (Winthrop, 36; Smith, 25).

Yakama, Taidnapam (Upper Cowitz), Nisqually, Puyallup, and Muckleshoot members, among others, began using and shaping the mountain's environment some 8,500 years ago as temperatures warmed and the glaciers that formed during the last glacial period retreated. In late summer, they traveled to the mountain's many sub-alpine parks where women picked and dried huckleberries. At the end of the season, they set fires to prevent encroachment from the surrounding forests and keep fields open. While berry picking was the priority, men hunted game, especially deer, elk and mountain goats. They also hunted birds, and the bones of marmots and mountain beaver have been found in archaeological digs. Plants with medicinal properties were sought out, and, at lower elevations, women stripped cedar bark from trees for baskets and clothing.

Early Ascents

As a fog lifted on May 7, 1792, British explorer George Vancouver, near Port Townsend, spotted a "very remarkable high round mountain" to the south "covered with snow" (Vancouver, 73). The following day he named it Mount Rainier "after my friend Rear Admiral Rainier" (Vancouver, 79). Explorers, fur traders, travelers, and settlers who followed Vancouver repeatedly found themselves drawn to the mountain on the horizon.

In August 1833, William Fraser Tolmie, a doctor for the British Hudson's Bay Company, convinced his superiors to allow a 10-day "botanising excursion" to the mountain, where he would "gather herbs" to be sent to Britain and used locally "if Intermittent Fever should visit us" (William Fraser Tolmie's Journal, 6). He hired five Nisqually and Puyallup guides who went "in great hopes of killing elk" (Tolmie's Journal, 7). After a cold, wet trek up the Puyallup River, Tolmie ascended through snow to the top of a small peak, likely Mount Pleasant, and collected plants at the snowline. He returned the following morning and described the view of Rainier as "surprisingly splendid and magnificent" (Tolmie's Journal, 10). After making a detailed description of the mountain, its glaciers, and the headwaters of the Puyallup River, he made his way back to Fort Nisqually.

American interest in the mountain grew as migration over the Oregon Trail developed in the 1840s and the region officially became U.S. territory through the Oregon Treaty of 1846. On July 5, 1841, American explorer Charles Wilkes (1798-1877), using triangulation, concluded that the mountain was 12,330 feet tall. "Mount Rainier is at all times a very striking object from the prairies about Nisqually," he noted, and he lamented that "other duties" prevented him from attempting an ascent, as he was "very anxious" to see the crater (Wilkes, 413-414).

A desire to survey new roads led John Edgar, Sidney Ford Jr. (1829-1900), Robert Bailey, and Benjamin "Frank" Shaw (1829-1908) to climb to the 14,000-foot mark in 1852. The following year Edgar worked on the effort to expand a Native path over Naches Pass into a road. That fall, James Longmire (1820-1897) led the first wagon train over it and settled on Yelm Prairie.

Two unknown Americans apparently climbed the mountain in the mid-to-late 1850s, according to Yakama leader Saluskin (sometimes spelled Sluiskin) (d. 1917). In a 1915 interview, Saluskin explained that the men hired him as a guide a few years after the Walla Walla Treaty Council of 1855. They carried a telescope and wanted to observe reservation boundaries established in the treaty. He refused to go farther than their camp at Mystic Lake, but the men claimed they summited and "looked with glass all along Cascades towards Okanogan and British Columbia, Lake Chelan and everywhere. They said, 'we find lines'" (McWhorter, 99). Their ascent was not otherwise documented and was not generally known or recognized at the time.

An 1857 climb made by Lieutenant August Kautz (1828-1895) was documented and recognized. The U.S. Army sent Kautz to the Pacific Northwest to fight Natives in the treaty wars. After conflict in Western Washington ended, Kautz developed a friendship with then imprisoned Nisqually Chief Leschi (1808-1858) and formed a plan for climbing Mount Rainier. At Leschi's suggestion, he hired another Nisqually, Wapowety, as a guide and set out with a small party. On July 16, 1857, Kautz made it to 14,000 feet. He turned back to avoid returning in the dark, but planned to try again the next day. Instead, he returned to Steilacoom as Wapowety woke with snow blindness, and they were critically short on food.

Hazard Stevens (1842-1895) and Philemon Van Trump (1838-1916) successfully made it the top on August 17, 1870. The more experienced English climber Edmund Coleman joined them (1824-1892), and the Olympia Transcript promoted the expedition. "The party expects some difficulty in reaching the top of the mountain," it announced, "but will go prepared for the trip, and will accomplish the task if it is possible to do it" (Haines, Mountain Fever, 33). James Longmire led them up the Nisqually River and helped them find a Native guide. After some looking in the Cowlitz Valley, they met and hired Sluiskin. Later accounts conflated Sluiskin with Saluskin, but Saluskin insisted in his accounts that Sluiskin "was a Columbia River Indian" and "no kin to him" (McWhorter, 100). After leaving the straggling Coleman behind on the 16th, Stevens and Van Trump reached the summit late in the day on the 17th. They did not have enough daylight for a safe return, and only the chance discovery of steam vents in an ice cave allowed them to survive the night. 

Stevens claimed that Sluiskin refused to climb and warned them of terrible dangers on the mountain. "Superstitious fears and traditions," he suggested, kept Natives such as Sluiskin from climbing (Blee, 426). Other climbers told similar tales, but these stories are dubious. Natives in the region see the mountain as a place of spiritual power, and some visited the mountain on spirit quests. Cecelia Carpenter commented, for example, that for the Nisqually the mountain was the "home of the most high of spirit powers," but that did not absolutely prevent climbing (Carpenter, 23). Yakama leader Kamiakin (ca. 1800-1877), for instance, reported a trip up the mountain as a young man.

Historians have offered a number of interpretations for warnings like Sluiskin's. Lisa Blee explained that it was likely the guides wanted to protect their lands and knowledge. Stevens suspected that Sluiskin objected to taking a more-direct return route to prevent "further exploration of the country by whites" (Blee, 428). Similarly, Saluskin was warned "do not show them the trail. They want to find money" (McWhorter, 97-98). Theodore Catton suggested that Stevens and others used "the Indian guide" as "a foil for demonstrating the climbers' courage and impetuosity" (Catton, Wonderland, 11). Finally, guides may have simply worried about safety and their own reputations. Sluiskin, according to Stevens, asked "for a paper" explaining that he was "not to blame" should they die (Haines, Mountain Fever, 43).

Tourism Up High

In 1883, after climbing the mountain himself, James Longmire stumbled upon mineral springs. Recognizing opportunity, he developed the springs and filed a mineral claim in 1887. He built bathhouses, cabins for tourists and, in 1890, a hotel. He advertised in local papers claiming his springs "prepared in nature's own laboratory" would aid "those afflicted with rheumatic pains, heart disease, catarrh, piles, and other afflictions" (Longmire's Medical Springs). His resort attracted tourists and became a stopping point for climbers such as the famed naturalist John Muir (1838-1914), who lodged there before his ascent in 1888.

The Northern Pacific Railway joined Longmire in promoting tourism. After completing the line to Tacoma (the line's terminus) in 1883, the company opened the grand Tacoma Hotel in 1884, advertised passenger service to Rainier by way of Wilkeson, and generated controversy by announcing that it would exclusively use "the Indian name Tacoma" to refer to the mountain in all of its advertising and publications (Kirk, 54). Residents of Tacoma were understandably delighted, while those in Seattle, Olympia, and other competing cities howled in protest. As historian Genevieve McCoy noted, the decision would show which city "had won economic dominance in the region" (McCoy, 139-140). Although federal agencies refused to change the name, debate raged through the mid-1920s.

Increasing tourism fueled desires to protect the mountain and surrounding forests. In 1891, Congress established the Forest Reserve Act to better conserve the nation's timber and water resources. Agent Cyrus Mosier (1837-1905) assessed the Mount Rainier region, denounced any idea of logging it, and suggested that keeping it "unsullied" would allow for the creation of a "great public park" (Catton, National Park, City Playground, 13). President Benjamin Harrison, with significant local support, responded by creating the Pacifc Forest Reserve in 1893. While encouraged, the mountain's advocates wanted more. The mountain's western flanks extended past the reserve's borders, and forest reserves were created to manage logging but not absolutely prohibit it.

Geologist Bailey Willis (1857-1949) started the campaign for a new national park in 1893. Scientists, climbers, tourists, and business interests joined the campaign for varying reasons. Scientists wanted to preserve the ecosystem that Willis described as "an arctic island in a temperate sea" (Catton, National Park, City Playground, 20). Climbers and tourists, through clubs such as the Washington Alpine Club, the Sierra Club, and the Appalachian Mountain Club, recognized that increased use led to environmental degradation, and they wanted the federal government to protect places such as Paradise Meadows. Additionally, they wanted to protect public access and keep the mountain from falling into corporate hands. In contrast, business leaders in Tacoma and Seattle hoped to profit from the tourists that a national park would surely attract.

Washington Senator Watson Squire (1838-1926) proposed a bill to create "Washington National Park" in late 1893, but it took nearly six years, multiple bills from multiple sponsors, and numerous revisions to get the bill through Congress. Borders were one issue, as Watson used those of the Pacific Forest Reserve. His second bill, in 1894, expanded the border to include the entire mountain but accommodated mining interests by removing lands to the south and east. The final bill reduced the size of the park even more and explicitly allowed mining even inside the park's borders.

Land acquisition was another challenge. The Northern Pacific Railway owned some 450,000 acres in the park and surrounding forests. To resolve the matter, Congress controversially allowed the company to swap its holdings for more valuable, federally owned timberlands elsewhere. Finally, powerful leaders in the House of Representatives worried the park would be a drain on the federal budget. An informal promise to not request funds for development during their tenure cleared opposition, and, after a last-minute decision to change the name to "Mount Ranier [sic] National Park," Congress passed the bill. President McKinley signed it into law on March 2, 1899.

Developing the Park

Improving access to the new park was a priority, and the Tacoma Eastern Railroad took the lead. Led by John Bagley (1852-1920), the Tacoma Eastern extended tracks to Ashford by the summer of 1904. The route was immediately popular, and total ridership on the line jumped from about 32,000 in 1905 to 120,065 in 1913. To accommodate the flood of tourists, the Tacoma Eastern obtained a lease from the federal government and opened the two-story National Park Inn near Longmire's Hotel in 1906. Outraged, the Longmires tried to open a saloon and claimed 160 acres under the Homestead Act. Park officials quashed both efforts, burned the homestead's cabin, and eventually bought out the Longmires in 1939.

Rail service fueled development in the park's early years, but road construction, first for wagons and then automobiles shortly thereafter, played a much greater role in the park's growth and development. In 1903, Congress appropriated $10,000 for surveys and road construction. Eugene Ricksecker (1859-1911), working for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, planned a route to Paradise that prioritized scenery and the driving experience. The first automobile entered the park in 1908, and the road to Paradise opened for full public use in 1915.

To better manage the growing number of national parks, Congress established the National Park Service in 1916. Stephen Mather (1867-1930), the first director, hoped to develop the nation's parks through partnership with private enterprise. In his vision, the government would build critical infrastructure, while private interests would provide lodging, transportation, and attractions. Each park would grant an exclusive monopoly to a chosen company.

Business leaders in Seattle and Tacoma formed the Rainier National Park Company (RNPC) in 1916 and secured a 20-year contract. They opened the Paradise Inn in 1917, and with support from the park, bought out competing camps. By 1920, they had secured leases for the National Park Inn and the Longmire Hotel. While these early successes encouraged company officials, they failed to achieve their long-term goals. Instead of attracting well-heeled patrons from afar, too many park visitors drove from Seattle and Tacoma on summer weekends and preferred free, government-run campgrounds over the company's hotels, tent camps, and dining halls.

The Cooperative Campers of the Pacific Northwest opposed the very existence of a corporate monopoly in the park and offered an alternative. Founded in 1916 and led by the journalist, socialist, pacifist, and labor activist Anna Louise Strong (1885-1970), the nonprofit Cooperative Campers charged a $1 membership fee and set up seasonal camps complete with furnished tents, meals, and hiking gear for $1.25 a night. Campers could pay an extra fee to have bags transported from one camp to another. RNPC leaders objected to this competition, and park officials sided with them. They arrested and fined a packer working for the Campers in 1918 for running an unauthorized concession, but they shied away from more decisive actions against the organization to avoid public backlash. Conflict ended after the 1922 season when, seemingly, the Cooperative Campers disbanded.

Protecting Paradise

Growth and development spawned numerous battles over use of the park, and it was up to park officials and rangers to police and define acceptable limits. The Department of the Interior first appointed a ranger to monitor Mount Rainier and the larger forest reserve shortly before the park was established. In 1903, Forest Supervisor Grenville Allen became the first superintendent for the park and recruited seasonal rangers. At his urging, the park hired two permanent rangers in 1909. Among other duties, rangers built trails to serve as patrol routes and improve access to the park's backcountry for tourists. They completed the park's flagship trail, the Wonderland Trail, in 1915, although the original route was substantially longer and different than today's 93-mile trail.

The park act clearly prohibited large-scale, industrial logging, but Grenville Allen briefly allowed limited timber sales. In 1908 and 1909, he let companies take dead cedar for shingles, as foresters at the time placed little ecological or aesthetic value on dead, decayed, and downed trees. Park visitors objected, and an investigation launched by The Mountaineers found that companies used an extremely broad definition of "dead." Richard Ballinger (1858-1922), the Secretary of the Interior, shut these operations down in 1910 after an inspector confirmed that the definitions being used applied to "practically all the standing cedar in the National Park" (Catton, National Park, City Playground, 54).

Officials had to accept mining in the park. More than 100 claims existed when the park was created, mostly near Eagle Peak, along the Carbon River, and in Glacier Basin. Pressure from park officials led Congress to prohibit new claims in 1908, but the law had no effect on existing operations. Few of the mines were significantly developed and none of them yielded real profits, but the park did not obtain possession of all claims until 1984. Despite the environmental threat posed by mining, related road construction benefitted the park. The Mount Rainier Mining Company in Glacier Basin, for instance, poured money and labor into building the White River Road, and improved access for miners, rangers, and tourists.

Park rangers also had a mandate to protect game and fish. They flatly prohibited hunting and patrolled to combat poaching, but the small number of rangers and size of the park limited their effectiveness. In one dramatic case, rangers, in the summer of 1915, confronted a party of Yakama hunters camped in Yakima Park (Sunrise). The hunters argued they had a right to hunt under the terms of the 1855 Walla Walla Treaty. Park officials sought guidance, and a solicitor in the Department of the Interior sided with the hunters. Ultimately, park officials ignored his conclusions, sent rangers to arrest Yakama hunters in 1917, and apparently convinced them to not return. Rangers also hunted predators to protect game. In 1925, the Mount Rainier Nature News Notes celebrated reports that Ranger William Baldwin killed five cougars near Ohanapecosh Hot Springs and estimated that his work saved 100 deer from predation. In contrast, the park actively encouraged sport fishing and, in 1915, began to stock lakes with non-native species — a practice that altered ecosystems and harmed native fish and amphibian populations.

Defining the proper forms of recreation in a national park posed an additional, long-term challenge. In 1931, the RNPC opened a nine-hole golf course at Paradise in an effort to attract tourists to the inn. The park service allowed it as golf was "a country game, not a city one," and felt golf could be "justified in a national park easier than tennis" (Catton, National Park, City Playground, 99). The short summer season, however, made the course impractical, and it closed the following year.

Skiing at Paradise endured. The first skiers took to the mountain in 1912 and, in the 1930s, downhill skiing exploded in popularity. The first Silver Skis race in 1934 attracted a crowd of 5,000 and gained enough attention that the U.S. National Downhill and Slalom Championships and U.S. Olympic trials were held at Paradise in 1935. The park added a rope tow in 1937, but the RNPC and skiing enthusiasts repeatedly pushed for a permanent chair lift or aerial tram. Park officials refused, and they increasingly questioned the appropriateness of downhill skiing in the park. Due to the lack of development and the growth of competing facilities, downhill skiing at Paradise ended in 1975.

Increasing Federal Management

The onset of the Great Depression led to changes in park use and spurred the federal government to take a greater role in park development. The New Deal, through the Civil Works Administration and Public Works Administration, put the unemployed to work on numerous improvement projects. More significantly, the Civilian Conservation Corp established eight camps in the park. Each camp housed 200 men, and, among other projects, they worked to build and maintain roads, trails, picnic shelters, backcountry shelters, and campgrounds. Visitorship declined at the start of the Depression, but quickly rebounded by the mid-1930s. Visitors eschewed the relatively expensive concessions offered by the RNPC, including new facilities at Sunrise, and flocked to the park's campgrounds.

New Deal projects ended with the rise of World War II, but the federal government found new, military uses for the park. The park welcomed soldiers with free recreation, and the park served as a training ground. In the winter of 1940-1941, 24 soldiers stayed at Longmire and trained on skis alongside park rangers. One thousand soldiers in the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment trained over the next winter and alternated use of the slopes at Paradise with tourists. After joining the 10th Mountain Division in Colorado, the 87th fought in the 1945 Italian campaign and suffered heavy casualties.

Prosperity and improved transportation in the post-war era fueled a surge in park attendance and an increase in development. RNPC facilities fell into disrepair during the Depression and World War II and no longer met visitor needs. Again, the federal government stepped in. It bought out RNPC buildings in 1952, although it continued to contract out operations to the RNPC until 1968 and has partnered with other companies since then. Increased funding from the Mission 66 project, a national effort to improve parks by 1966, led to more road construction. Officials opened the Stevens Canyon Road in 1957, and a new route, more suitable for winter driving, was built to Paradise. Some users demanded even more development. The Automobile Club of Washington tried to "change the thinking of the NPS" and demanded the creation of a luxury resort at Paradise without success (Catton, National Park, City Playground, 128).

Development led to growing concerns about the park's environment, and the Wilderness Act of 1964 forced the park to address them. Under the law, the park had to determine what areas should be designated as wilderness. Mount Rainier made its proposal in 1972, and, today, roughly 97 percent of the park is classified that way. Increasingly, the park worked to protect and restore overused environments by placing limits on backpacking, climbing, and other recreation. Simultaneously, the park studied visitor behavior and added education programs to support restoration efforts in Paradise Meadows and elsewhere.

New Challenges Ahead

In the early years of the 21st century, Mount Rainier National Park faces many of the same challenges and controversies that it has throughout its history. The park is cherished, more than 2 million people visit annually, and the park struggles to accommodate them while protecting the sensitive environments that make the park so important to so many. At the same time, the park faces new challenges. Rainier's glaciers are shrinking due to climate change, and major storms washed out the Westside and Carbon River roads, limiting access and concentrating use in already overcrowded areas. The federal government has not provided adequate funding and, as of 2015, the park had deferred more than $298 million in maintenance and repair projects.

Debate over the mountain's name also resurfaced. Puyallup activist Robert Satiacum Jr. proposed renaming it Ti'Swaq in 2010, and others have proposed returning to Mount Tacoma or a variant of that indigenous name. President Obama's decision to restore the name of Denali in Alaska and national battles over Confederate monuments and names breathed new life into this longstanding controversy. As of 2020, the park was looking to the public to guide planning. Citizen involvement spurred the creation and development of the park, and citizen activism will be essential if the park is going to successfully navigate the challenges of the 21st century and retain its status as a regional sanctuary.


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