Only about a third of visitors to Alaska get to see North America’s tallest mountain. The thing is so tall, it actually creates its own weather. So it can be a picture-perfect day (which, for all the state’s beauty, doesn’t happen often here), and there will likely still be clouds hovering around the peak. We were within view of the mountain for the better part of five days, and didn’t see it until the tail end of the last day, when a thick fog blew over and the sky opened up. Our tour bus pulled over to allow us to take some photographs. Alaskans like to say that it’s the mountain with “the tallest vertical rise” in the world, noting that the mountain starts from a much lower base than the taller peaks in the Himalayas and the Andes. It’s certainly a beautiful and dramatic thing to behold. Probably the biggest object of any kind I’ll ever see.
Here’s a fun history lesson: For centuries, the native Tanaina Indians have been calling the mountain “Denali,” which translates into “the high one.” That’s also what most Alaskans call it–including the state government. But due to the politics of geography, silly regional pride, a dash of cultural imperialism, and–believe it or not–monetary policy, the federal government and most of the rest of America still officially calls the thing Mt. McKinley.
That’s because for reasons that aren’t all that clear, the federal government allowed a gold prospector named William Dickey to name the mountain in 1896. Dickey wasn’t the first human to see the mountain, or the first white person, or even the first American. He missed the first achievement by thousands of years, the second by hundreds of years, and the third by decades. He apparently was merely the first person to come to Washington to request an official name (and write about his Alaskan experience in East Coast newspapers). Fortuitous timing took care of the rest.
So why “McKinley?” At the time, William McKinley wasn’t even president, he was merely a candidate. McKinley had never stepped foot in Alaska, and never did. During his stint prospecting for gold, Dickey had gotten into heated arguments with silver prospectors over what precious metal should back U.S. currency. The election of 1896 pitted McKinley, who backed the gold standard, against the loathesome William Jennings Bryan, who backed silver. When Dickey returned to the East Coast, he advocated to name the mountain “McKinley,” entirely to spite his fellow prospectors. Once McKinley was elected, the name stuck. When McKinley was later assassinated, the name was assured for decades.
Beginning in about the 1970s, Alaska went about trying to change the name back to the more aesthetically pleasing and culturally and historically appropriate Denali. In 1975, the state’s legislature asked the federal government to change the mountain’s name to Denali, offering in compromise to preserve the surrounding park’s name for McKinley. That offer was blocked by Ohio Rep. Ralph Regula, who represented (and still represents) McKinley’s old district, which also includes McKinley’s hometown of Canton. Regula laughably testified at the time that changing the name would be an “insult to the memory” of McKinley, one of America’s crappier presidents. While individual states don’t name landmarks, they do have the power to name the parks within their borders, so after Regula’s stand, Alaska changed the name of the park to Denali. But the mountain would have to remain McKinley.
The naming of landmarks is the province of the federal Board of Geographic Names. The board is amenable to changint the mountain’s name, but that agency is trumped by the legislative process–Congress can overrule or change any name the board assigns. So as long as there’s a bill in Congress pertaining to a landmark’s name, the Board of Geographic Names won’t get involved, even if there’s never an actual vote on the bill.. So in each Congress since the 1970s, the ancient Rep. Regula pulls a parliamentary meneuver, and introduces a bill to preserve McKinley’s name on the mountain.
About a decade ago, an aid to Regula gave historian James Loewen the dubious explanation that Regula’s aim with the legislaiton is merely to save the country the money it would cost to change the name on maps. The good congressman also fears that changing McKinley to Denali would open the floodgates to native people clamoring for other changes of landmarks inappropriately named after white politicians (God forbid!).
Regula’s bill has never been voted on–it never gets out of committee. But merely introducing it is enough to ensure that America’s tallest mountain continues to bear the name of a forgettable, war-mongering, tariff-loving president from Ohio who never got within a thousand miles of the magnificent thing. It’s also an annual slap in the face to the indigenous Alaskans who, let’s face it, have endured more than their fair share of kicking around over the years.