Mountains and Social Class (part 3)

Seneca Ray Stoddard, The Adirondacks Illustrated

Seneca Ray Stoddard, The Adirondacks Illustrated (1887)
Fly Fishing Collection, F127.A2 S73

Fears that intensive logging in New York’s Adirondack Mountains would damage the state’s watershed, including the commercially vital Erie Canal, led to the creation in 1885 of the 6.1-million acre Adirondack Park. Tourists flocked to the area to enjoy the clean mountain air and scale peaks like Mount Marcy, the highest point in New York. (In 1901, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was climbing Mount Marcy when he received word that President William McKinley, coincidentally the namesake of the highest mountain in North America, was near death after being shot a week earlier.)

Settlers already living within the park’s boundaries clashed with politicians and conservationists over the right to hunt and cut timber. In their eyes, the government was prioritizing the recreational needs of urban dwellers over the basic subsistence needs of farmers, a dilemma that was playing out farther west around the same time in regard to Native Americans. Locals also resented the policing of government-imposed conservation laws. These replaced the old system of community-based stewardship, modeled on indigenous practices, which ostracized or physically punished anyone who abused nature’s bounty.

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Photo of miners on Mount Larrabee

Photo of miners on Mount Larrabee, ca. 1910
Gargett (Gold Run) Mine Photographs
Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, Gargett_Page 015

Map of the Whatcom County gold fields, early 1900s
Bellingham Bay Improvement Company Records
Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, #6-4

Gold was discovered in rural Whatcom County, Washington, in 1897, setting off the so-called Mount Baker Gold Rush. More than 5,000 mining claims had been filed on Mount Baker and neighboring peaks by 1937. The earliest roads into the mountains east of Bellingham catered to mining rather than recreational interests. Although miners and mountaineers seem to have peacefully coexisted, the gold rush ties into historical and ongoing debates over the competing demands of urban leisure and “working-class wilderness.”

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Harvey Haggard running in the Mount Baker Marathon

Harvey Haggard running in the Mount Baker Marathon, ca. 1913
Galen Biery Papers and Photographs
Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, GB1726

Hoping to increase tourism to the region, Bellingham businessmen staged the first Mount Baker Marathon in 1911. This grueling footrace from downtown Bellingham to the summit of 10,781-foot Mount Baker—and back—was more than a trial of endurance; it was also a testimony to the working-class men who lived and labored near the mountain. Joe Galbraith, a farmer and ranger, won the first race. Harvey Haggard, a logger, won in 1912 and Johnny Magnusson, a “timber cruiser,” in 1913.

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The Mountain

Jules Michelet, The Mountain (1872)
Mountaineering Collection, GB511 .M62 1872

French historian Jules Michelet, who coined the term Renaissance to describe Europe’s “rebirth” at the end of the Middle Ages, turned his attention in 1868 to mountains. Although the focus of his book La Montagne, translated into English as The Mountain, was natural history, Michelet included a chapter at the end titled “Will Our Era Succeed in Regenerating Itself?” Europe, he believed, was once again in a state of social, cultural, and moral decline; a “life of action” in the mountains would reverse this trend.

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The Ascent of Mount Stalin

Michael Romm, The Ascent of Mount Stalin (1936)
Mountaineering Collection, DK861.S75 R6 1936

Russians took little interest in mountaineering until the 1930s, when Communist leaders used geographic exploration to promote the ideal of a classless society and stimulate national pride. The highest point in the Soviet Union, Mount Stalin (later renamed Communism Peak and now Ismoil Somoni Peak), had yet to be climbed. Standing at 24,590 feet in present-day Tajikistan, it was first summited in 1933. At that time, it was the highest mountain ever climbed outside the Himalayas. 

Ironically, having defied death on the mountain, at least four of the nine climbers, including Nikolai Gorbunov, former personal secretary to Lenin, were later killed in Stalin’s purges.