The name Mount McKinley “was little more than a joke.”
That’s according to toponymist George R. Stewart, an expert in American place-names (apparently a real field of academic study).
There was no reason, Stewart explained in his 1945 tome “Names on the Land,” why a New Hampshire gold prospector of little consequence should have been able to christen America’s tallest peak.
But politicians, not toponymists, are the ones who control the nation’s maps, which largely explains how the craggy, ice-bound mountain remained named after America’s 25th president for more than a century. For decades, the mountain has towered over the Alaskan taiga — still impressive, still impassive, still the tallest thing for five thousand miles in any direction — while members of Congress debated how to label it. It took an executive decision from the White House and the Department of the Interior in favor of “Denali”, the original Athabascan name, to end the dispute.
William Dickey, the prospector behind “Mount McKinley,” was hardly the first person to spot the famous peak. The Russians, who controlled Alaska until 1867, had called it Bolshaya Gora (“big mountain”). English naval officer George Vancouver wrote about the “stupendous snow mountain” in 1794. Not to mention the Athabascan people, who arrived in Alaska several thousand years ago and had been calling the peak Denali, or “great one,” long before Europeans ever reached the Alaskan wilderness.
But Dickey was the only person to write an account in the New York Sun about his trip through the Alaska Range. He was also the only adventurer with the chutzpah to designate a geographic landmark for his favorite political candidate (perhaps it’s a good thing America is fully mapped now, otherwise we might end up with the Donald Delta or Clinton Creek).
He named the mountain “after William McKinley of Ohio, who had been nominated for the presidency, and that fact was the first news we received on our way out of the wonderful wilderness,” Dickey wrote in 1896.
McKinley, the Republican nominee, was an outspoken proponent of the gold standard. As a gold prospector with a vested interest in keeping the value of the precious metal high, Dickey picked the name as a form of symbolic revenge against silver standard supporters, with whom he spent much time bickering.
Petty or not, the name served a political purpose. There’s no way of knowing whether Dickey’s article changed any votes, but it certainly didn’t hurt. And after McKinley was assassinated in 1901, half a year into his second term in office, the name seemed a fitting tribute to the slain president.
Still, there was resistance to “Mount McKinley.” Missionary Hudson Stuck, a member of the first team to reach the mountain’s 20,237-foot summit in 1913, lobbied hard for the peak to be re-labeled Denali. According to a 1913 New York Times article, he appealed to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names and to his fellow Episcopal priests to support the name change. Stuck often spoke out against the mistreatment of Alaskan Natives and apparently believed that they were more in need of appreciation than McKinley (who was, after all, already on the $500 bill).
But when Congress designated the area around the mountain a national park in 1917, the name “Mount McKinley” gained official federal recognition.
Shortly after Alaska gained statehood in 1959, Alaskans — many of whom had never stopped referring to the mountain as Denali — began to wonder why the state’s natural crown jewel should be named for a president from Ohio.
In 1975, the Alaskan legislature backed a proposal to switch the name back to Denali. But when the Board on Geographic Names requested public comment on the matter, Ohio Rep. Ralph Regula, who represents the district where McKinley grew up, swiftly came to Mount McKinley’s defense. He convinced the entire Ohio congressional delegation to oppose the recommendation, and the names committee put off the matter. He also added an amendment to the 1980 legislation expanding the national park around the mountain that would rename the park “Denali,” but keep “McKinley” for the peak, in hopes that a compromise would settle the debate.
But the pro-Denali contingent still wasn’t satisfied, so the congressman soon adopted a different tactic, according to the National Park Service’s “Administrative History of Denali” (a stirring read). Taking advantage of a policy that prevents the Board from considering any name changes regarding landmarks that are being considered by Congress, Regula reintroduced a resolution every two years mandating that “the mountain … in the State of Alaska in the United States of America known as Mount McKinley, shall retain the name Mount McKinley in perpetuity as an appropriate and lasting tribute to the service of William McKinley to his country.”
“[McKinley] was a martyred president and a good one, I might add,” Regula told the Associated Press in 2001, a quarter of a century into his anti-renaming effort. “In any event, the mountain was named after him many, many years ago.”
If Alaska’s congressional delegation thought that Regula’s retirement in 2009 might offer an opening for reviving the naming question, they were sorely disappointed. Other Ohio representatives soon took up his cause.
But the decades-long fight was starting to wear, even among Ohioans. This summer, after Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski introduced yet another pro-Denali bill, the Columbus Dispatch issued an editorial chastising the “rather unseemly effort on behalf of a politician who never set foot near the mountain and had no known interest in it.”
“Ohio should gracefully concede,” the newspaper said.
The Obama administration’s announcement Sunday takes the decision out of the naming board’s and Congress’s hands.
“In changing the name from Mount McKinley to Denali, we intend no disrespect to the legacy of President McKinley,” Interior Department officials said in prepared documents. “We are simply reflecting the desire of most Alaskans to have an authentically Alaskan name for this iconic Alaskan feature.”
Ohio’s congressional delegation was, unsurprisingly, unhappy with the change. House Speaker John Boehner issued a statement against the renaming. Sen. Rob Portman quickly fired off a series of tweets saying he was “deeply disappointed” in the decision.
But most Alaskans were “super-happy,” as 29-year-old Celeste Godfrey, who leads tours in Denali National Park, told the Alaska Dispatch News. “Super-duper happy — verklempt, if you will.”
The only problem? Her tour company is called “McKinley Explorer Train.” Luckily for Godfrey, that name will likely be easier to change.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Alaska became a state in 1957. Alaska gained statehood in 1959.