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Oregon Trails: Gem Of The Cascades

By Ron Brown

CRATER LAKE, Ore. — It was 110 years ago this week that President Theodore Roosevelt signed the legislation creating Crater Lake National Park. It remains one of the most striking and beautiful of the nation’s national parks. There’s really nothing like it in the world.

Nearly two thousand feet deep, Crater Lake sparkles it’s cobalt blue waters under the summer sky. It’s beauty and it’s geology were two of the reasons it was one of the nation’s first national parks. On May 22nd, 1902, President Teddy Roosevelt signed the legislation creating Crater Lake National Park. And one of the reasons was a series of historic photographs taken in 1874 by pioneer Jacksonville photographer Peter Britt. In a week-long trip with his son, Britt, wrestled a wagonload of equipment to the rim to capture legendary images, which were easily worth a thousand words in the halls of congress.

It was William Steele who made it his life’s mission to get Crater Lake made a national park. Then he fought for years to make it user-friendly. People visited by horse and wagon before the automobile arrived. But motorized travel and roads to the lake from Medford and Klamath Falls made it a day trip instead of a week-long adventure. The lodge at the south rim was on of Steele’s pet projects. But his plans were bigger than the budget. While it looked great from the outside, it was long plagued by dark, dingy rooms and its size.

Finally a 15-million dollar renovation project by the park service a few years ago made it more like what Steele probably envisioned.
The man who probably did more than anything to get visitors out and around the lake was Alex Sparrow, who became park administrator in 1917. That year, some 12,000 people visited the park. But it was Sparrow who got the project done that punched a 33 mile road around the rim of the lake. A year later, the visitor count jumped more than four thousand, mostly because of the improved roads in the park. Sparrow retired from the park in 1922, and became a wildly popular Jackson County Commissioner in the ‘20’s. He died a tragic death when he accidentally fell into a concrete coal bin in Klamath Falls ten years later.

While Sparrow is now largely forgotten, the lake and park continue to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. One of the oddities of the park is a carved rock down a trail behind the administration building. Known as “the lady of the woods,” for years, many people thought it was a mysterious Native American relic or icon. Actually, a bored doctor carved it with the 1917 road construction crew!

While few know of the “lady” today, this year half a million visitors or more will visit the park’s natural attractions. In 1908, there were barely a thousand visitors willing to make the trek. Crater lake is the deepest lake in the United States and the second deepest lake in the western hemisphere. The park receives an average of 66 inches of precipitation, including 44 feet of snow, a year; it was discovered by gold prospectors in 1853.