John Muir in Portland

Exhibit by: Anton Vetterlein

A Budding Conservation Movement

John Muir photography taken 1893

John Muir c. 1893

John Muir is remembered as a man of nature, who espoused wilderness values and is most closely associated with Yosemite and the Sierra Mountains in California. However, Muir relied on like-minded influential people who lived in cities to help him in his cause, to preserve America’s special environments. He made good use of the means of publicity available to him to advance his causes including magazine articles and the lecture circuit. His work was his passion, he had an insatiable desire to explore the wild areas of the West. As such it shouldn’t be surprising that Muir visited Portland numerous times between 1879 an 1908.

Muir was known and well received in Portland. The city’s role as the dominant hub of the Pacific Northwest in the late Nineteenth Century made it a center for the budding conservation movement. Portland’s rapid growth paralleled that of the region and was built largely on the settlement of the frontier and resource extraction. The effects of these changes on the environment would have been apparent to anyone in just a decade or two. The Oregonian published an editorial on the first day that Muir lectured in Portland, saying:

“…to those who have long lived in Portland, and who have seen the steady advance made by the wood-choppers upon the groves surrounding the city, the conclusion must come that, unless more economy is practiced, the green hills around Portland, now so pleasant to the eye of the visitor, will ultimately become as bald as those which surround San Francisco.”

Portland’s Muir Connection

John Muir c. 1893 in Yosemite

John Muir c. 1893

One of the most colorful individuals in Portland’s early history was Lester Leander Hawkins, who moved to Portland from California in 1877 to work in the business enterprises of John C. Ainsworth. L.L. Hawkins attended the University of California in Berkeley when it was first founded and studied with the noted geologist Joseph LeConte.

In 1870, while still a student, he organized an “excursion party” to explore the Yosemite region and the Sierra mountains and invited Professor LeConte to join them. LeConte wrote an account of the trip called “Ramblings Through the High Sierra” in which he describes Hawkins as “the most indispensable man in the party” and “the soul of our party”.

While camping in the Yosemite Valley the group met John Muir, who was then living in the valley and working at a sawmill near the base of Yosemite Falls. Muir had first arrived in Yosemite only two years earlier but he already had a reputation when the UC Berkeley group arrived. He accompanied the group for seven days on its journey over the High Sierras to Mono Lake and during that time he and Hawkins became well acquainted. The photo at right shows Hawkins sitting at center and LeConte standing at center with Yosemite Falls in the background.

Muir’s Portland Associates

General O.O. Howard photograph

General O.O. Howard

C.E.S. Wood photograph

C.E.S. Wood

John Muir’s first introduction to Portland was in January 1880 on the return from his first trip to Alaska. He had planned to explore the Columbia River Gorge but became “entangled in a snarl of lectures” about his Alaska travels. The Oregonian publicized the lectures in advance and reported on them afterward, describing Muir as a “celebrated geologist and naturalist” with a “national reputation”. The Oregonian was owned and edited by Henry L. Pittock who is credited as the first person to climb to the top of Mt. Hood in 1857.

General Oliver Otis Howard, then stationed at Fort Vancouver and a celebrated veteran of the Civil War and Indian Wars, wrote an “Enthusiastic Report” to the editor of the Oregonian to praise Muir’s lecture on Glaciers in Alaska.

There is speculation that Gen. Howard’s assistant, Lieutenant C.E.S. Wood, may have also attended the lectures. Wood explored the upper reaches of the Alaska Panhandle two years before Muir in 1877 and is thought to be the first white man to enter Glacier Bay (…later in 1877 Howard and Wood pursued Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce through Yellowstone National Park to the astonishment of tourists.) While in Portland Muir visited with Rev. A.L. Lindsley, who had done missionary work in Alaska and who lived across the street from General Howard.

John B. Waldo portrait

John B. Waldo

Other prominent individuals who attended Muir’s lectures in 1880 were Judge Matthew Deady and Judge John B. Waldo. Waldo, a Salem resident, is often referred to as “The John Muir of Oregon” for his efforts to preserve Crater Lake and the forests of the Cascades, however Muir and Waldo don’t appear to have had a close association. We can also presume that L.L. Hawkins attended if he was able, and perhaps also Reverend Thomas Lamb Eliot whose varied interests included mountain climbing.

An Aspiring Civilization

John Muir’s first chance to explore the Pacific Northwest was in 1888 when he made an extended trip through Oregon and Washington. While in Portland he had planned to climb to the summit of Mt. Hood, but illness kept him from that plan. He managed to hike up the Tualatin Mountains instead where he gained panoramic views of the region and mountains. After the trip he published a detailed description of the natural features of the Oregon Country in the magazine “Picturesque California” and used his famed observational and descriptive talents to paint a picture of the Portland of 1888:

“The city of Portland is at our feet, covering a large area along both banks of the Willamette, and, with its fine streets, schools, churches, mills, shipping, parks, and gardens, makes a telling picture of busy, aspiring civilization in the midst of the green wilderness in which it is planted. The river is displayed to fine advantage in the foreground of our main view, sweeping in beautiful curves around rich, leafy islands, its banks fringed with willows.”

Mt. Hood from Hood River by William Keith

Mt. Hood from Hood River by William Keith

Accompanying Muir on the journey was his friend William Keith who painted landscapes in the Hudson River School style which typically depicted man as a small presence in a grand landscape. Muir’s further description of seeing Mt. Hood from the new Willamette River bridge conjurs a similar vision:

“There stood Mount Hood in all the glory of the alpine glow, looming immensely high, beaming with intelligence, and so impressive that one was overawed as if suddenly brought before some superior being newly arrived from the sky. The atmosphere was somewhat hazy, but the mountain seemed neither near nor far. Its glaciers flashed in the divine light. The rugged, storm-worn ridges between them and the snowfields of the summit, these perhaps might have been traced as far as they were in sight, and the blending zones of color about the base. But so profound was the general impression, partial analysis did not come into play. The whole mountain appeared as one glorious manifestation of divine power, enthusiastic and benevolent, glowing like a countenance with ineffable repose and beauty, before which we could only gaze in devout and lowly admiration.”

William G. Steel

William Steel in 1905

William Steel in 1905

John Muir’s most prolific conservation associate in Portland was William Gladstone Steel. It is unknown whether Steel attended Muir’s 1880 lectures in Portland but we know that by Muir’s 1888 visit the two were working for the protection of Crater Lake and the forests of the Cascade Range.

Steel first visited Crater Lake in 1885 and then set to work to make it a National Park. He wrote a petition with Judge John Waldo to President Cleveland asking that Crater Lake be reserved from logging and homestead claims. The petition was signed by many of Portland’s leading citizens including L.L. Hawkins, Henry Pittock, Rev. Eliot, Rev. Lindsley, Judge Deady, Judge M.C. George, Henry Corbett, Henry Failing, and William Ladd.

In 1886 President Cleveland “withdrew” the Crater Lake area from private claims but did not formally protect it. Steel and Waldo continued to work to protect the forests throughout the Oregon Cascades. Muir lent his support to this effort and in 1893 President Cleveland used the 1891 Land Revision act to create public reservations of the Cascade forests, a precursor to the National Forests. Also included in the reservation, was improved protections for Crater Lake and protection of the Bull Run Watershed.

Crater Lake became the sixth National Park in 1902 by order of President Teddy Roosevelt. William Steel became known as “The Father of Crater Lake” and in 1913 left Portland to take the job of Superintendent of Crater Lake National Park.


Mazamas on Mt. Hood 1894 (Oregon Historical Society)

Mazamas on Mt. Hood 1894 (Oregon Historical Society)

William Steel was a busy man. In 1887 he helped start the first mountaineering club in the West. The Oregon Alpine Club, engaged in exploration, science, and conservation, but its lack of focus caused it to fail in a few years.

The Sierra Club is the oldest existing mountaineering club in the West and was founded by John Muir, Joseph LeConte and others in 1892.

Two years later, Steel played a pivotal role in founding the Mazamas, a mountaineering club that still exists today and is the third oldest in the nation. Although based in Portland, its members hailed from all around the Northwest and included Washington State members who would eventually split off to form the Seattle-based Mountaineers in 1906.

The Mazamas were officially formed on the summit of Mt. Hood on July 19, 1894 with a group climb that saw 155 men and 38 women reach the top. The picture above shows members of the inaugural climbing party, with L.L. Hawkins and his niece on the horse at right and Henry Pittock at upper left-of-center wearing a hat, beard, and vest.

John Muir visited Portland again in 1896, 1899, and 1908. On each visit he met with L.L. Hawkins, William Steel, and other Mazamas. By that time the Mazamas and the Sierra Club were working together on numerous conservation activities. Hawkins was a member of both clubs, and Joseph LeConte and Muir were honorary members of the Mazamas. However, the Oregonian was out ahead of many equivocal Mazamas when it supported Muir by editorializing against sheep grazing in the Forest Reserves during his 1896 visit.

The Beautiful City

“The strongest feelings about Mt. Hood occurred in the 1890’s, when interest in city planning following Burnham’s Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, the Beaux Arts style in architecture, and landscape amenity were at their height. The appreciation for sheer, towering, monumental scale was never greater whether in natural or man-made forms, nor the identification with a seemingly incorruptible purity more welcome.”

Portland: The City Beautiful (Oregon Historical Society)

Portland: The City Beautiful (Oregon Historical Society)

In 1905 the Mazamas and the Sierra Club held joint activities in the Pacific Northwest. Although Muir was not present other members of the Sierra Club leadership were, as were many of the Mazama regulars. They climbed both Mt. Hood and Mt. Rainier and had a special Mazamas day at the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition.

Stephen Mather, who was later to become the first Director of the National Park Service, traveled from Chicago to join the groups on their climbs. Those events sealed the alliance of the Sierra Club and Mazamas. Over the next eight years the Mazamas supported the Sierra Club in their fight to prevent Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park from being dammed to supply water for San Francisco.

By the time of the Lewis and Clark Exposition, the City Beautiful movement was exerting its influence on Portland. The Portland Parks Commission, made up of L.L. Hawkins, Rev. T.L. Eliot, and architect Ion Lewis, hired the Olmsted Brothers to design a comprehensive park system for Portland. When John C. Olmsted came to Portland to work on the plan he was escorted around the city by the indefatigable Hawkins, who no doubt expressed to the eminent landscape architect, his own ideas about the Portland landscape. Thus, Hawkins became the link between John Muir and the Olmsteds in Portland.

President Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir, Yosemite, 1903

President Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir, Yosemite, 1903


Much of the chronology and facts for this exhibit are from papers published by Ronald Eber (see Bibliography below.)

[1] William J. Hawkins III provided valuable information, especially regarding L.L. Hawkins.


[2] Eber, Ronald. John Muir and the Pioneer Conservationists of the Pacific Northwest in “John Muir in Historical Perspective”, Sally M. Miller editor, Peter Lang Publisher, 1999.

[3] Eber, Ronald. John Muir in Oregon in “John Muir Newsletter”, Vol.3 No. 4, (Fall 1999). On-line here.

[4] Muir, John. “Steep Trails”, Houghton-Mifflin, Boston, 1918. Chapter 21: Physical and Climatic Characteristics of Oregon can be viewed On-line here.

[5] LeConte, Joseph. Ramblings Through the High Sierra, “Sierra Club Bulletin III” (January 1900) On-line here.

[6] Fuller, O. Muriel. “John Muir of Wall Street: A Story of Thrift”, Knickerbocker Press, N.Y., 1927

[7] Creese, Walter L. “The Crowning of the American Landscape”, Princeton University Press, Princeton N.J., 1985

[8] Grauer, Jack. “Mount Hood: A Complete History”, Portland, 1975