Presumably, if your name is on a map, you must be important. A glance at the topo maps of wild places reveal a swath of names. Some are familiar, and many are puzzling. Have you ever wondered who these places were actually named after, and why?
Needless to say, these places already had names to the people who had lived beside them for millennia. But the names given by white explorers tell a lot about what they valued. Some are obvious, like Mt. Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, on the crest of the Cascades. Others are endearing: Yosemite’s Mount Ritter was named by geologist Josiah Whitney for an old teacher and mentor. Some are shameless brown nosing: George Vancouver named Washington’s highest peak after his boss, Rear Admiral Peter Rainier.
But many are less obvious, or less cheesy. And they reveal some interesting stories.
Mount Watkins, Yosemite National Park
Mount Watkins is a granite monolith rising just across the narrow east end of Yosemite Valley from Half Dome. It’s named for Carleton Watkins, one of the first wave of American photographers. He was known for his “mammoth plates”, 18 x 22 plates that yielded massive images with enormous detail. He traveled to Yosemite in 1861. When he returned to Washington D.C, his images convinced Abraham Lincoln to sign a bill preserving Yosemite Valley, beginning the idea later became known as the national parks.
But Watkins’ life was filled with hardship. He lost his first studio, along with many of his images, to creditors who then reproduced them without ever mentioning Watkins as the creator. Later in life, he slowly went blind, and his inability to work led to him living in an abandoned railroad car in the 1890s. His second studio, in San Francisco, burned down in the fire that followed the 1906 quake, along with the vast majority of his images, negatives, and plates. The image of a blind Watkins being led away from his burning studio is too sad for words.
William O. Douglas Wilderness, WA
Legal scholars will tell you that Douglas was the youngest person appointed to the Supreme Court, at age 40, and that he served the longest, occupying the federal bench for 36 years. They’ll also tell you that he was a fierce defender of civil liberties. But his connection to wild places was both legal and personal. In 1972 he argued that inanimate aspects of nature like rivers, air, trees, wildlife, and ecosystems should have legal standing and that plaintiffs should be allowed to sue in their name. He helped launch the first law review dedicated to conservation, Environmental Law, published by Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland. Outside of the federal bench, he played a critical role in the preservation of the Buffalo River in Arkansas and Kentucky’s New River Gorge. The connection to Washington’s wilderness came from being a frequent guest at Spirit Lake Lodge on Mt. St. Helens.
Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana
Bob Marshall was a climber in the Adirondacks, a wilderness traveler in the American west and Alaska, and was later the head of the Forest Service’s recreation program under FDR. He cemented his place among the modern wilderness preservation movement by founding The Wilderness Society in 1935, and provided most of the funding for the organization’s first few years. And he undoubtedly would have accomplished even more had he not died young, passing away from heart failure at age 38.
Mather Point, Grand Canyon National Park
Stephen Mather was the wealthy, self-made head of a borax company. At the time, that the US government owned a random collection of parks, monuments, and civil war battlefields, mostly administered by the Army. When Mather’s friend Sterling Yard created a new agency to administer the parks, he tapped Mather to be its head in 1916. He turned the new National Park Service into one of the most prestigious and respected arms of the federal government, paying initial staff salaries out of his own pocket, launching publicity campaigns to increase awareness of the parks, and raising funds from his wealthy friends for new parklands. When the federal government balked at the cost of Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove and the right of way to Tioga Road, he bought them on the spot with his personal funds and donated them to the Park. He made the decision—appreciated by many, criticized by others—that parks should embrace the automobile, democratizing visitation beyond wealthy railroad tourists, and introducing the concept of the “scenic drive”. The decision brought new waves of interest in parks, and also opened the door to the crowds and development that would draw criticism decades later.
Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho
The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness is huge, encompassing the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, and, along with the Gospel Hump Wilderness, much of the Main Salmon drainage as well. It’s fitting. A progressive politician from a conservative state, Church represented Idaho in the US Senate, and put his stamp on most of the major conservation legislation of the 1960 and 70s. He was the floor sponsor of the 1964 Wilderness Act and the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the creation Hells Canyon Recreation Area, and the Sawtooth Wilderness. In 1980, his final year in the Senate, he secured the creation of the River of No Return Wilderness, the largest wilderness in the Lower 48, which now bears his name.
Ding Darling Wilderness, Florida
This 2,600-acre wilderness in the Florida mangroves is almost certainly the only Wilderness ever named for a cartoonist. Jay Norwood Darling, who went by “Ding”, was a cartoonist from, of all places, Des Moines, where he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1924 and 1943 for editorial cartooning. A passionate outdoorsman who became deeply concerned about the world’s rising population and the strain it put on soil, water, food supplies, and wildlife, he penned a number of conservation-focused cartoons, and initiated the Federal Duck Stamp program. He also played a major hand in founding the National Wildlife Federation.