One Person Can Make The Difference: The Story of William Gladstone Steel & Crater Lake National Park
Our agency is greater than we’ve been led to believe. While we expect our leaders to do right and take charge, we each have the ability to lead and affect the world. Each of us has the ability to change another’s thinking through action and passion, making it possible for just one of us to be the tipping point for a better and brighter tomorrow. History is full of peasants, working-class, and middle-class folks who believed so fervently about a cause that they changed the course of events forever. Sometimes all it takes is a teenage Kansas farmboy to read a newspaper article wrapped around his lunch to be the first pebble cast into a large cause.
This is the story of William Gladstone Steel. A man who ceaselessly dedicated himself to one cause for decades, became friends with a President, and safe-guarded Oregon’s crown jewel: Crater Lake National Park.
Born of fire and fury, Crater Lake is all that remains of a massive volcano. Mount Mazama exploded over 7000 years ago and collapsed into a caldera five miles across and nearly four thousand feet deep. Over the next 2000 years, rain and snowmelt filled the caldera until the surface came to rest, leaving the world with a pure lake of sapphire blue surrounded by majestic cliffs.
“It’s up to you and me to save the lake.” -W.G. Steel
It was this place on which William Steel first set eyes at the age of 31, fifteen years after he first read about it. From the plains of Kansas, Steel’s family migrated to Portland, OR in 1872. Over the next decade, Steel would earn his high school degree (at the age of 20), fail at establishing a small town paper, and ultimately settle in as a delivery man for the Post Office. Despite living just a few hundred miles from his obsession, Steel's first opportunity to visit Oregon’s azul jewel wasn’t until 1885, when a chance meeting gave Steel the opportunity of a lifetime.
Together with a friend, Steel traveled from Portland down to Fort Klamath. There, he met US Army Captain Clarence E. Dutton, who was simultaneously leading a survey team to Crater Lake. Unable (or unwilling) to wait for the survey party, Steel and his friend raced to the rim to see the magnificent spectacle he had read about 15 years earlier. When his eyes first set upon the crystal blue waters 2000 feet beneath his feet, Steel was stunned into silence. Finally, he turned to his comrade and said, “Johnny, there isn’t a claim around or near the lake. It all belongs to the government and it’s up to you and me to save the lake.”
And here's the most wondrous part of our story: Without connections, without riches, without any prototypical influence, Steel would do just that. His effort would furnish his relationships with businessmen and politicians that help tell the rest of our tale. His dedication would keep Crater Lake legislation alive. His persistence would catch the eyes of an iconic President.
When he returned home that fall, Steel set out to work. He wrote to newspapers across the country, asking them to print editorials in favor of the lake’s protection. He wrote to Oregon’s editorial writers. He wrote to every postmaster in his state. But, ultimately, it was his chance meeting with Captain Dutton that started moving the stone. Dutton's endorsement paid off in the form of the signatures of 120 prominent business and civil leaders on petitions circulated with Steel's mailings, including none other than Oregon’s only at-large congressman and the governor himself.
Steel had self-financed an array of pebbles and their ripples were starting to take hold. Within a year of his campaign, both Oregon’s senators and its congressman had introduced bills in their respective chambers to preserve and protect Crater Lake and significant portions of the land around it. Every sign pointed towards a quick conclusion of Steel's hope of a Crater Lake National Park.
Then, suddenly, the whole process came to a crashing halt.
Timber, ranching, and mining interests cried foul. Supposedly, setting aside any of Oregon’s vast resources would threaten their businesses—Portland didn’t earn the nickname of Stumptown simply by looking at pristine old growth forests. Dedicating a portion of our great country to perpetual wilderness, they argued, would send them to ruin. Steel’s dream was burned at the hands of the same (demonstrably false) arguments we still hear today: Wilderness kills our economy.
It would be another 16 tenacious years before legislation establishing Crater Lake National Park would get so close to making its way to the President’s Desk.
“It is a curious fact that the home of Liberty has always been in the mountains.” -W.G. Steel
Despite initial disappointment, Steel continued to labor. In 1890, he wrote, published, and sent copies of his first and only book, “The Mountains of Oregon,” to not only members of Congress, but also President Benjamin Harrison and his cabinet! Still, subsequent bills continued to die in committee due to opposition from lumber, sheeping, and ranching lobbyists. From 1886 to 1893, every piece of legislation in every new Congress failed. Steel was making no tangible progress. Even efforts for Crater Lake to become an Oregon State Park couldn’t make its way out of committee.
National events then took a turn for the worse in 1892. The country re-elected Grover Cleveland for his 2nd non-consecutive presidential term. If Steel couldn't get enough support for his park under a Republican president, prospects with the Democrats of 1893 were dimmer than ever (Note: In the late 1800s, positions of the respective parties on the environment and conservation were generally reverse of what they are today).
But Cleveland surprised everyone and lent a sympathetic ear to forest conservation advocates. In 1891, Republicans had passed the Forest Reserve Act, allowing the US government to better regulate how and where timber companies could log. Thanks to the efforts of Steel, who at this point was well known for his Oregon conservation cause, four-million acres of forest in the Cascade Range were placed into a forest reserve and gave Crater Lake its first form of protection. Earlier Steel efforts had requested an area of 12 miles by 30 miles, a total of just over 230,000 acres. While not necessarily preserving this area for posterity, the legislation ensured that the land would remain in federal hands. In an era where the United States government was still giving away free land as fast as it could, it was a heroic achievement.
The timber companies fought back ferociously. Politicians introduced bill after bill on their behalf attempting to rescind the federal protection, but Steel would not be out-dueled. He spent three months in Washington at the start of the 1895 meeting and speaking with senators and congressmen. Time and again, Steel's lobbying prevented the timber bills from making any headway. The Cascade Forest Reserve would remain intact for the foreseeable future, but the idea of a Crater Lake National Park remained out of reach.
1896, however, would prove to be the year when opportunity finally caught up with Steel’s decade of dedication. Famed-conservationist John Muir had been following his Oregonian counterpart’s work since Steel published his one and only book six years previous. While Muir would never champion Crater Lake like he did with Yosemite, Rainier, and Grand Canyon, he was the lynchpin in bringing another renowned and wealthy conservationist to Oregon: Future Director of the US Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot. Steel led his two counterparts to Crater Lake, and while Muir somewhat balked at its grandeur, Pinchot was immediately transfixed. “Crater Lake seemed to me like a wonder of the world,” he would later write.
Steel had found the ally he would need to finally make his dream a reality, but still needed the support of a President to facilitate National Park legislation across the finish line.
An anarchist’s bullet in Buffalo, NY would change everything.
“Here all the ingenuity of nature seems to have been exerted to the fullest capacity.” - W.G. Steel
William McKinley’s assassination made Theodore Roosevelt president just six months into his predecessor’s 2nd Term. Roosevelt’s Boone & Crockett Club had heretofore been the nation’s leading conservation organization and one Gifford Pinchot was among its most prominent members. Steel, a one-time USPS delivery man, now had direct access to the President of the United States. With Pinchot’s endorsement, Roosevelt’s clout, and oft-forgotten Congressman John Lacy’s legislative maneuvering, Steel finally had more power and influence than the timber and mining interests that had for so long beaten him at every turn.
On May 15, 1902, the bill establishing Crater Lake National Park passed the Senate. Exactly one week later, Roosevelt signed it. Seventeen years after seeing its sapphire blue waters and towering cliffs, the collapsed volcano at the center of Steel’s life would, forever and always, be protected as the United States’ sixth National Park.
Roosevelt sent the signing pen to Steel’s home in Portland.
“A beautiful dream exists that [National Parks] were created to maintain forever, nature in its wildest, most primitive state.” -W.G. Steel
For the rest of his life, Steel would be known as the Father of Crater Lake. He would go on to become the park’s superintendent, secure financing for the rustic lodge that rests on the precipice of its majestic cliffs, and continue to fight for funding improvements to park access. In 1917, Stephen Mather, the first Director of the National Park Service (and namesake of this site), proclaimed during a special recognition ceremony, “Seventeen years; think of the man so devoted to a cause that he will give the best years of his life and all the money that he could earn and borrow to create a national park.”
Unlike John Muir, whose conservation efforts remain famous to this day, Steel is hardly heralded much past a small room at Crater Lake National Park's visitor center. His photo rests just above a fireplace mantle in the theater room. But one must imagine that the man who dedicated his life to a quiet corner in Oregon is resting quite contentedly. Upon his death in 1932, the true impact of Steel’s life was summed up in a perfect remark from his eulogy, “He left no perishable fortune, but he did leave an imperishable monument in Crater Lake National Park”
Without fame or riches during life, Steel’s legacy endures. His life is a lesson that no matter where we come from or how much money we have, we have the ability to facilitate change. Dedication and persistence are effective weapons. They do matter. Steel’s torch has now passed to us.
It’s up to you and me to save the lake. Let’s get to it.