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Former Albany newsman saved Crater Lake for a national park

He couldn't claim all the credit for it, although he sometimes tried; and his attitude toward Native Americans was unfortunate. But those who love Crater Lake, in large part, have William Gladstone Steel to thank for it.

William Gladstone Steel (far right) stands with (l-r) Phil Metscham, Dr. John Wesley Hill, Sen. Charles Fulton, and Joaquin Miller, on the rim of Crater Lake in 1903. (Image: Oregon Historical Society)
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in March 2009, which you’ll find here.

In Oregon, there’s one place where you’re allowed to fish for free — and you’ve got a former Albany newspaper owner to thank for that.

It’s in Oregon’s famous Crater Lake where you can wet a line without paying The Man. Yet very few people ever do, because the lake is one of the largest bodies of water in the state — not in terms of surface area, of course, but it’s so deep it holds an enormous amount of water — and the fish colony isn’t big.

It’s free because the fish aren’t actually supposed to be there. Crater Lake never had fish in it before, and that’s part of why its water is so clear and brilliantly blue.

So how did the fish get there? Well, that gets back to the newspaper man. His friends called him Will Steel, but when he founded the Albany Herald in 1880, his name was listed as William Gladstone Steel.

 

Steel was originally from Ohio, where his family participated in the Underground Railroad before the Civil War; his family later moved to Portland, and he graduated from high school there in 1873.

Seven years later, Steel went into the newspaper business, founding the Albany Herald as a Republican challenger to the town’s dominant newspaper, the States Rights Democrat.

The Herald would soldier on for half a century before being absorbed into its rival to form today’s Albany Democrat-Herald; but its founder didn’t stick with it nearly that long. By 1885 he was back up in Portland working as superintendent of mail carriers, a job secured for him by his brother, who had the plum political-patronage job of Postmaster there.

A postcard view of Phantom Ship, a rocky island near the shore of the lake. (Image: Postcard)

In that summer, Steel took a vacation from his job to make his first journey to Crater Lake. He took a friend with him, and by chance met up with two other pilgrims, including Capt. Clarence Dutton of the U.S. Geological Survey — who would in later years be probably his most valuable ally in the fight to preserve the lake.

Upon his return, Steel soon found that he no longer had a job with the Post Office. After 25 years of Republican dominance, the White House had been won by Democrat Grover Cleveland, and political plums like the Postmastership of Portland were not to be left in the hands of Republicans. The Steel Brothers were out.

But for Will, the timing couldn’t have been better. Suddenly at loose ends, he was free to act on the powerful feelings his visit to the lake had inspired. Back east he raced to Washington, D.C., where, with Dutton’s support, he convinced the president who’d fired him shortly before to block settlement in the area until it could be surveyed. Then Steel returned to Portland, hired a survey crew, and had three boats built and hauled to the lake, where they floated out on the water to take soundings.

Steel found he hadn’t brought enough line. He suggested that the lake might in fact be bottomless. Finally, with more line, the crew found the deepest part — at just shy of 2,000 feet.

After getting Steel’s report, Congress introduced a bill to preserve the lake and 36 square miles of the surrounding terrain as a national park — and the fight was on. There were a lot of trees on those 36 square miles, and several companies wanted to turn those trees into money. There was also plenty of opportunity to run sheep on the land, particularly in the eastern part, and the grazing interests were if anything more intransigent than the timber seekers.

This image of Crater Lake comes from a postcard that was mailed from Medford to El Dorado, Ark., postmarked Dec. 19, 1945. "Dearest Aunt," it reads. "At last I've gotten to see Crater Lake, and it's certainly a beautiful thing ... Love, Jimmy." This introduces a delicious mystery: Crater Lake is inaccessible in December! What could Jimmy have been up to ...? (Image: Postcard)

Steel fought tirelessly for his park. Realizing that outdoorsmen (yes, men — remember, this was the late 1880s) could help his cause, Steel decided to stock the lake with trout. So he offered some kids in Rogue River a dime for each minnow they caught. They brought him 600. A very worried (and out-of-pocket) Steel asked them what they wanted for the lot, and they requested four bits. Relieved, Steel gave them each a buck and took the minnows 45 miles to the lake. At each stream, he stopped to freshen the water, but most of them were dead by the time he got to the lake. Still, 37 of the original 600 survived to initiate the present-day problem there — although most of the fish in the lake today are descendants of the tens of thousands of hatchery fingerlings with which the lake was stocked in the early 1900s.

Steel also, during that time, founded the Oregon Alpine Club — a diverse outfit composed of campers and outdoorspeople of all sorts — possibly with the same idea in mind: More appreciators of nature meant more support for his lake. A few years later, he organized the state’s famous Mazama Club, open only to people who’d climbed Mount Hood.

Finally, after a 17-year fight with the timber and grazing interests in Congress, Steel saw his dream realized. In 1902, Congress officially made Crater Lake the nation’s fifth national park.

By that time, Steel’s was the name most associated with the park. Without his efforts, it almost certainly would not have happened; and when he started styling himself the “father of Crater Lake” no one objected.

A fancifully hand-tinted image of sunset over Crater Lake from the 1910s or 1920s. (Image: Postcard)

But it wasn’t all roses and laurels and victory laps. When the park was created, the government passed over Steel for park superintendent and named William Arendt, a rancher from Klamath Falls, to the job.

This was almost certainly because the parks administration didn’t want someone as effective, independent and well-connected as Steel in the job. Still, Steel took it very hard. After that rebuff, nothing would ever be enough for him; for the rest of his life, no matter how many accolades were showered upon him, he constantly complained of being unappreciated.

Steel did get the job of superintendent at Crater Lake some years later, after more or less forcing Arendt out of the job, but was only able to hang onto it for a few years. After that, he was made commissioner of the park – essentially, he was “kicked upstairs,” promoted to a prestigious but powerless position to get him out of the way. As commissioner, he was essentially the park’s presiding magistrate for when a judge was needed, but the job was almost entirely superfluous. He held that position until his death in 1934.

(Sources: Harmon, Rick. Crater Lake National Park: A History. Corvallis: OSU Press, 2002; Mark, Stephen R. “William G. Steel,” Oregon Encyclopedia, oregonencyclopedia.org; Gulick, Bill. A Roadside History of Oregon. Missoula: Mountain Press, 1991)