Printer-friendly version Share:  Share this page on FacebookShare this page on TwitterShare this page by emailShare this page with other services

John Muir in Oregon [1]

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" [2] .

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 local conservationists.

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" [3] . 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" [4] .

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 ... " [5] .

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" [6] .

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" [7] .

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 Crater Lake.

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 reservation" [8] .

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 [9] . 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 [10] .

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 [11] .

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 [12] .

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, ... " [13] . 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.


  1. The determination 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:

  2. "John Muir Talks About Maintaining the Forest Reserves," The Oregonian , May 31, 1899.

  3. "Mount Shasta," Picturesque California , 1888.

  4. Muir to Louis Strentzel, July 9, 1879.

  5. The Oregonian , various dates, January 1880.

  6. "The Basin of the Columbia River," Picturesque California , 1888, p. 471.

  7. Ibid., 476-478.

  8. Resolution of the Sierra Club, March 14, 1896.

  9. Journal of John Muir, July 22, 1896, Muir Papers, Reel 28.

  10. Wolfe, John of the Mountains , pp. 356-357, 1979.

  11. Ibid., pp. 379-380.

  12. Oregon Statesman, September 6, 1908.

  13. Wolfe, John of the Mountains , p.437, 1979.

Sierra Club® and "Explore, enjoy and protect the planet"® are registered trademarks of the Sierra Club. © 2024 Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club Seal is a registered copyright, service mark, and trademark of the Sierra Club.