It is the loftiest volcano within the boundaries of the United States, one of our greatest mountains, and certainly our most imposing mountain, rises from western central Washington to an altitude of 14,408 feet above mean tide in Puget Sound. It is forty-two miles in direct line from the centre of Tacoma, and fifty-seven miles from Seattle, from both of which its glistening peak is often a prominent spectacle. With favoring atmospheric conditions it can be seen a hundred and fifty miles away.
North and south of Rainier, the Cascade Mountains bear other snow-capped volcanic peaks. Baker rises 10,703 feet; Adams, 12,307 feet; St. Helens, 9,697 feet; Hood, 11,225 feet, and Shasta, 14,162 feet. But Rainier surpasses them all in height, bulk, and majesty. Once it stood 16,000 feet, as is indicated by the slopes leading up to its broken and flattened top. The supposition is that nearly two thousand feet of its apex were carried away in one or more explosive eruptions long before history, but possibly not before man; there are Indian traditions of a cataclysm. There were slight eruptions in 1843, 1854, 1858, and 1870, and from the two craters at its summit issue many jets of steam which comfort the chilled climber.
This immense sleeping cone is blanketed in ice. Twenty-eight well-defined glaciers flow down its sides, several of which are nearly six miles long. Imagining ourselves looking down from an airplane at a great height, we can think of seeing it as an enormous frozen octopus sprawling upon the grass, for its curving arms of ice, reaching out in all directions, penetrate one of the finest forests even of our northwest. The contrast between these cold glaciers and the luxuriantly wild-flowered and forest-edged meadows which border them as snugly as so many rippling summer rivers affords one of the most delightful features of the Mount Rainier National Park. Paradise Inn, for example, stands in a meadow of wild flowers between Rainier’s icy front on the one side and the snowy Tatoosh Range on the other, with the Nisqually Glacier fifteen minutes’ walk away !
The casual tourist who has looked at the Snowy Range of the Rockies from the distant comfort of Estes Park, or the High Sierra from the dining-porch of the Glacier Point Hotel, receives an invigorating shock of astonishment at beholding Mount Rainier even at a distance. Its isolation gives it enormous scenic advantage. Mount Whitney of the Sierra, our loftiest summit, which overtops it ninety-three feet, is merely the climax in a tempestuous ocean of snowy neighbors which are only less lofty; Rainier towers nearly eight thousand feet above its surrounding mountains. It springs so powerfully into the air that one involuntarily looks for signs of life and action. But no smoke rises from its broken top. It is still and helpless, shackled in bonds of ice. Will it remain bound ? TOr will it, with due warning, destroy in a day the elaborate system of glaciers which countless centuries have built, and leave a new and different, and perhaps, after years of glacial recovery, even a more gloriously beautiful Mount Rainier than now?
The extraordinary individuality of the American national parks, their difference, each from every other, is nowhere more marked than here. Single peaked glacial systems of the size of Rainier’s, of course, are found wherever mountains of great size rise in close masses far above the line of perpetual snow. The Alaskan Range and the Himalayas may possess many. But if there is anywhere another mountain of approximate height and magnitude, carrying an approximate glacier system, which rises eight thousand feet higher than its neighbors out of a parkland of lakes, forests, and wild-flower gardens, which Nature seems to have made especially for pleasuring, and the heart of which is reached in four hours from a large city situated upon transatlantic railway-lines, I have not heard of it.
Seen a hundred miles away, or from the streets of Seattle and Tacoma, or from the motor-road approaching the park, or from the park itself, or from any of the many interglacier valleys, one never gets used to the spectacle of Rainier. The shock of surprise, the instant sense of impossibility, ever repeats itself. The mountain assumes a thousand aspects which change with the hours, with the position of the beholder, and with atmospheric conditions. Sometimes it is fairy-like, sometimes threatening, always majestic. One is not surprised at the Indian’s fear. TOften Rainier withdraws his presence altogether behind the horizon mists; even a few miles away no hint betrays his existence. And very often, shrouded in snow-storm or cloud, he is lost to those at his foot.
Mysterious and compelling is this ghostly mountain to us who see it for the first time, unable to look long away while it remains in view. It is the same, old Washingtonians tell me, with those who have kept watching it every day of visibility for many years. And so it was to Captain George Vancouver when, first of white men, he looked upon it from the bridge of the Discovery on May 8, 1792.
“The weather was serene and pleasant,” he wrote under that date, “and the country continued to exhibit, between us and the eastern snowy range, the same luxuriant appearance. At its eastern extremity, Mount Baker bore by compass N. 22 E.; the round snowy mountain, now forming its southern extremity, and which, after my friend Rear Admiral Rainier, I distinguished by the name of MOUNT RAINIER, bore N. (S.) 42 E.”
Thus Mount Rainier was discovered and named at the same time, presumably on the same day.
Eighteen days later, having followed “the inlet,” meaning Puget Sound, to his point of nearest approach to the mountain, Vancouver wrote :
“We found the inlet to terminate here in an extensive circular compact bay whose waters washed the base of mount Rainier, though its elevated summit was yet at a very considerable distance from the shore, with which it was connected by several ridges of hills rising towards it with gradual ascent and much regularity. The forest trees and the several shades of verdure that covered the hills gradually decreased in point of beauty until they became invisible; when the perpetual clothing of snow commenced which seemed to form a horizontal line from north to south along this range of rugged mountains, from whose summit mount Rainier rose conspicuously, and seemed as much elevated above them as they were above the level of the sea; the whole producing a most grand, picturesque effect.”
Vancouver made no attempt to reach the mountain. Dreamer of great dreams though he was, how like a madhouse nightmare would have seemed to him a true prophecy of mighty engines whose like no human mind had then conceived, running upon roads of steel and asphalt at speeds which no human mind had then imagined, whirling thousands upon thou-sands of pleasure-seekers from the shores of that very inlet to the glistening mountain’s flowered sides !
Just one century after the discovery, the Geological Society of America started the movement to make Mount Rainier a national park. Within a year the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Geographic Society, the Appalachian Mountain Club, and the Sierra Club joined in the memorialization of Congress. Six years later, in 1899, the park was created.