John Muir in Oregon
by Ronald Eber
(Reprinted from the
John Muir Newsletter
, Vol. 3, No. 4, Fall 1993)
"It is unreasonable to suppose," John Muir told the people of
Portland, Oregon in 1899, "that (the northwest forest reserves)
should be destroyed or imperiled for any local convenience, as a
mere present to men engaged in one local industry ... they are the
property of the nation and for its greatest good"
Muir's statement epitomizes his advocacy for the protection of
Oregon's forests and the Cascade Range Forest Reserve established
by President Cleveland just 100 years ago. From 1874 to 1908, John
Muir studied and explored Oregon's wonders including the Cascades,
Columbia Gorge and Crater Lake but its lush forest inspired him
more than anything else. Muir's published works about Oregon are
limited, but a close look at his letters and journals clearly shows
a thorough study of the northwest and his extensive contacts with
He first glimpsed Oregon country in 1874 while exploring Mount
Shasta. He wrote that from its summit the "snowy volcanic cones of
Mounts Pitt (McLoughlin), Jefferson, and the Three Sisters rise in
clear relief, like majestic monuments, above the dim dark sea of
the northern woods"
. This view must have compelled Muir to explore
these forests and mountains of the great northwest.
In the fall of 1877, he planned to visit Oregon and secured a
letter of introduction to Oregon's pioneer geologist Thomas Condon.
But before he left, English botanist Sir Joseph Hooker and Harvard
Professor Asa Gray persuaded Muir to change his plans and guide
them around the Mount Shasta area. His interest in Oregon
remained, and early in 1879 Muir exchanged letters with P.C.
Renfrew, an early mountain climber and road builder living outside
Eugene. Renfrew urged him to explore the Cascades with him and
provided information, at Muir's request, about the tree species and
glacial action around the Three Sisters.
Muir finally came to the Northwest in the summer of 1879. He
sailed from San Francisco to Seattle, exploring Puget Sound and the
lower Columbia River before sailing to Alaska from Portland.
"Rainier and St. Helens are the noblist [sic] mountains I ever
saw," he wrote, "surpassing even Shasta in the beauty of their
lines ... " "The one is the pole star - the great white light of
the Sound, the other of the lower Columbia"
After six months in Alaska, Muir returned to Portland by January
1880. Although intent on exploring the Columbia River, he was
immediately "pounced upon" to lecture about his travels in Alaska.
The natural Science Association sponsored three "illustrated"
lectures entitled "the Glacier of Alaska and California"; "Earth
Sculpture: The Formation of Scenery"; and "resources and Gold
Fields of Alaska."
These lectures captivated his audiences. The Oregonian reported
that with a "slightly peculiar enunciation" he spoke to standing
room only crowds without interruption for up to two hours. His
talks were "intellectual and entertaining" and free from the
technical and usually unintelligible terms which characterize
scientific addresses." Using sketches and his "wonderful powers of
generalization and condensation" Muir's "whole face lighted up as
he talked of the youth of the world, the present morning of
creation, (and) the beginning of the work of the infinite ... "
Everyone whom Muir met in Portland is not known, but we do know
that he gathered information about Oregon's forests, mountains and
natural history. This information and those he met no doubt aided
his future efforts to protect Oregon's forestlands.
Muir's most extensive trip to Oregon and the northwest was in the
summer of 1888 with William Keith, which took him to Portland,
Mount Rainier, Multnomah Falls, and along the Columbia River. This
trip allowed further exploration for a series of articles later
published in "picturesque California." His most complete
descriptions of Oregon's diverse landscapes are found in his essay
entitled "The Basin of the Columbia River," published in 1888.
As he traveled north through Oregon, Muir described the country
form Ashland to Portland as "one bed of fertile soil ... Man and
beast will be well fed." He wanted to climb Mount Hood, but was
unable due to illness. Instead he hiked the wooded heights of
Portland's west hills. "Mount Hood is in full view ...," he wrote.
"It gives the supreme touch of grandeur to all the main Columbia
views, rising at every turn, solitary, majestic, awe inspiring, the
ruling spirit of the landscape"
In the 1880's, Oregonians began a long campaign to reserve the
forestlands of the Cascades from acquisition under the nations'
public land laws. The Oregonian noted, during Muir's Portland
visit in 1880, its great concern over the "steady advance made by
the wood choppers upon the groves surrounding the city."
Crater Lake was the first Oregon area to gain protection in 1886.
William Gladstone Steel, later to found the Mazamas, a local
mountaineering club, led the successful effort to reserve the lake
and its surroundings. Muir met Steel during his 1888 visit to the
northwest. Later, Muir too called for "a park of moderate extent
... " to protect "Oregon's abounding forest wealth ... ". To those
who would do this, Muir wrote, "The trees and their lovers will
sing their praises, and generations yet unborn will rise up and
call them blessed"
Oregon's Cascades received formal protection by his next visit in
1896. The Bull Run, Cascade and Ashland Forest Reserves were
withdrawn in 1892-83 under the 1891 Land Revision Act. The Cascade
Reserve was over 4 million acres, and stretched from Mount Hood to
Early that year, Oregon's Congressional Delegation made a concerted
effort to reduce significantly the size of the Cascade Range Forest
Reserve. William Steel and other members of the Mazamas organized
a national campaign to protect the Reserve. The Mazamas organized
a support for their effort and the Sierra Club responded with a
resolution "unalterably" opposing the reduction of "any forest
In July, Muir left the National Forestry Commission in Washington
State and returned to San Francisco before another trip to Alaska.
Enroute he met with with [sic] members of the Mazamas in Portland
These meetings no doubt focussed on protecting the Cascade Range
Forest Commission in Ashland and set out to for the [sic]
"remarkable" Crater Lake, the "one grand wonder of the region."
William Steel guided the group. After two days of camping at the
lake, the Commission headed down the Rogue River and on to the
redwood forests of northern California
In 1899, Muir stopped again in Portland to join the Alaska
Expedition organized by Edward Harriman. At a reception hosted by
the Mazamas, Muir discussed with their President Will Steel and
former presidents Judge M. C. George and L. L. Hawkins the need to
protect the forest reserves from grazing. Steel "promised to do
what he could against sheep pasture in the Rainier Park and also in
the Cascade Reservation." Steel kept his word, with a strong
condemnation of sheep grazing published later in the Oregonian
Muir's final trip to Oregon was to Harriman's Pelican Bay Lodge on
Klamath Lake in 1908. Here, Harriman induced Muir to dictate the
first part of his autobiography, later published as "The Story of
My Boyhood and Youth." While at Pelican Bay, Muir is believed to
have joined a trip led by Will Steel to Crater Lake with Harriman
and Governor George Chamberlain, a friend of Teddy Roosevelt.
Later Muir joined Harriman on a whistle stop train trip from
Ashland to Portland before returning to Martinez. In Salem, the
state capitol, Muir and Harriman were taken on a tour of the
surrounding countryside by a group of local dignitaries. They
included Governor George Chamberlain, the Mayor of Salem and future
United States Senator Charles McNary
While still at Pelican Bay, Muir wrote in his journal, "Happy the
man to whom every tree is a friend -- who loves them, sympathizes
with them in their lives in mountain and plain, ... while we, ...
rejoice with and feel the beauty and strength of their every
attitude and gesture, ... "
In Oregon, John Muir not only
explored "the dim dark sea of the northern woods" but met and
worked with many a friend of the trees. Oregon must have made Muir
the happiest man on earth.
Ronald Eber lives in Salem, Oregon and is a freelance writer about
Oregon's conservation history.
of John Muir's itinerary, meetings and
acquaintances while in Oregon is based on a review of the news
accounts of his visits as well as his published and unpublished
letters and journals.
Primary sources for this essay are:
Talks About Maintaining the Forest Reserves,"
, May 31, 1899.
Muir to Louis Strentzel,
July 9, 1879.
, various dates, January 1880.
"The Basin of the Columbia River,"
1888, p. 471.
Resolution of the Sierra Club,
March 14, 1896.
Journal of John Muir,
July 22, 1896, Muir Papers, Reel 28.
John of the Mountains
pp. 356-357, 1979.
Ibid., pp. 379-380.
September 6, 1908.
John of the Mountains
, p.437, 1979.