Mt. Whitney P5K SPS / WSC / LVMC

Thu, Sep 15, 1994
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
later climbed Sun, Aug 12, 2001

Mt. Whitney (14,494 ft.)

Named by Whitney Survey in 1864

Also Pass, Creek, Meadow, Portal

"Josiah Dwight Whitney (1819-96), state geologist and chief of the California State Geological Survey ('Whitney Survey'), 1860-74; professor of geology at Harvard, 1865-96. (Brewster; portrait in SCB 12, no. 2, 1925: opp. 126.)

The mountain was named in July 1864 by Clarence King and Richard Cotter of the Whitney Survey from the summit of Mount Tyndall when they made the first ascent of Tyndall. 'On setting the level, it was seen at once that there were two peaks equally high in sight, and two still more elevated, all within a distance of seven miles. Of the two highest, one rose close by. ... The other, which we called Mount Whitney, appeared equally inaccessible from any point on the north or west side. ...' (Whitney, Geology, 386.)

'Whitney had forbidden his subordinates to name for him the mountain which is now called after the Rev. Lorentine Hamilton [just east of San Jose]. This time, in their chief's absence, they stood upon their rights of discovery, and called their great peak, Mt. Whitney.' (Brewster, 238.)

'For years our chief, Professor Whitney, has made brave campaigns into the unknown realm of Nature. Against low prejudice and dull indifference he has led the survey of California onward to success. There stand for him two monuments, -- one a great report made by his own hand; another the loftiest peak in the Union, begun for him in the planet's youth and sculptured of enduring granite by the slow hand of Time.' (King, 280-81.)

In 1871 King climbed what he thought was Mount Whitney, but he was actually on Mount Langley -- then known as 'Sheep Mountain,' a name applied by King himself in 1864. The real first ascent of Whitney was made on August 18, 1873, by John Lucas, Charles D. Begole, and Albert H. Johnson, all of Lone Pine, who made the climb from a summer camp on the Kern River. 'Charley Begole, Johnny Lucas and Al Johnson took a trip to the summit of the highest mountain in the range, and christened it "Fisherman's Peak." Some people are now trying to take the credit of their being the first there away from them, but they won't succeed. Prof. Whtney's agent has just returned from the mountain, and finds fault with the people here for their lack of romance in calling it "Fisherman's Peak." Ain't it as romantic as "Whitney?" The fishermen who found it looked mighty romantic on their return to Soda Springs. Wonder who that old earthquake sharp thinks is running this country, anyhow?' (Inyo Independent, September 20, 1873.) For a detailed account of the name controversy and of early ascents of the mountain, see Francis P. Farquhar, 'The Story of Mount Whitney,' SCB 14, no. 1, Feb. 1929: 39-52.)

The name 'Whitney Creek' was at first applied to what is now named 'Golden Trout Creek,' because the creek arose near Mt. Langley, which had been thought to be Mt. Whitney. Those who discovered the error tried -- in 1881 -- to correct it. 'The third day we camped on Whitney Creek, upon which we tried unsuccessfully to impress the named "Volcano Creek," as that stream does not rise in the vicinity of Mt. Whitney.' But later on, the same party applied the name to the correct stream, where it is today. 'We were at an altitude of about 11,500 feet, in a little meadow, through which flows the clear, cold water of a creek heading at the foot of the mountain. This is the stream which we thought should have been named Whitney Creek.' (W. B. Wallace in MWCJ 1, no. 1, May 1902: 2-3.)

When Joseph N. LeConte passed through Big Whitney Meadow in 1890 he referred to it as 'Whitney Creek Meadows.' It became simply 'Whitney Meadow' on the 1907 Olancha 30' sheet; the word 'Big' was added with publication of the 1956 Kern Peak 15' map. Little Whitney Meadow was called 'Long Meadow' on early editions of the Olancha 30' sheet; it was changed to its present name in 1938 by a BGN decision because the name was in common use.

'Whitney Pass' was the route of the first trail built to the summit of Mt. Whitney from Owens Valley, in 1904, and probably was named at that time.

The original name of Whitney Portal was 'Hunter Flat' or 'Hunter's Camp,' given many years ago for William L. Hunter, an early pioneer of Owens Valley and one of the two men who made the first ascent of Mt. Williamson, in 1884. The name 'Whitney Portal' was applied at the official opening of the new automobile road to the flat in June 1936. (USGS.) For a biographical sketch and portrait of Hunter (1842-1902), see Saga of Inyo County, 163-64."
- Peter Browning, Place Names of the Sierra Nevada

In July 1864 Whitney's four chief assistants -- William Brewer, Charles Hoffmann, James Gardiner, and Clarence King -- beheld from Mount Brewer what they rightly assumed to be the culminating peak of the Sierra Nevada. On this occasion they stood upon their privilege as discoverers and named it in honor of their chief. In 1871 Clarence King climbed the peak now known as Mount Langley, a few miles south supposing it to be Mount Whitney. His error was discovered by others two years later. He hastened to the scene; but before he could get there, three fishermen -- John Lucas, Clarles D. Begole, and A. H. Johnson, all of Inyo Co. -- made the first ascent on Aug. 18, 1873. There was an attempt to name the peak Fisherman's Peak in their honor; but the name Mount Whitney was firmly established by 1881, when the summit was occupied by Prof. S. P. Langley for observations on solar heat."
- Erwin Gudde, California Place Names

"When the legislature of California established a Geological Survey, most of those who voted for it undoubtedly thought they were setting up an agency that would point out with scientific accuracy just where gold was to be found; nothing thereafter would be left to chance and everyone would quickly become rich. That was not the intention of the Act, however, and nothing in its wording gave any such implication. It was definitely scientific, not utilitarian in purpose, as expressed in its opening section: "to make an accurate and complete Geological Survey of the State, and to furnish maps and diagrams thereof, with a full and scientific description of the rocks, fossils, soils, and minerals, and of its botanical and zoological productions, together with specimens of the same." If this led to a knowledge of the mineral resources of the state, so much the better, but an understanding of the entire resources must come first. To achieve the desired results the sponsors of the Survey knew that experienced, scientific direction was required, and this meant the elimination of patronage and politics. The extraordinary thing about the Act is that it did just this, by naming the Director in the Act itself and giving him authority to appoint his assistants. The Act, approved on April 21, 1860, states at the very beginning, "J. D. Whitney is hereby appointed State Geologist."

How did this come about? Someone with high ideals and unusual influence must have been behind it. Such a one was Stephen J. Field, a former member of the state legislature and in 1860 Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court, later a Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court. His motives were beyond suspicion, even when he insisted in putting Whitney's name in the Act. He had long known the Whitney family and had confidence in the integrity as well as in the scientific qualifications of J. D. Whitney. Others played a part in devising the Survey -- John Conness, afterwards United States Senator, steered the bill through the legislature -- but it was Field's prestige and influence that secured its passage.

Josiah Dwight Whitney, a native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Yale, was forty-one years of age at the time. He had received some European education and had been engaged in geological surveys in New Hampshire and in Iowa and Wisconsin, and already enjoyed a high reputation among men of science. He was well aware of the importance of securing competent men to assist him in carrying out his new task. His first selection was an especially fortunate one: William Brewer, thirty-two, a native of New York State, had graduated from the Scientific School at Yale, and he, too, had studied in Europe. For four years he was Whitney's right-hand man and leader of the field parties. His letters, composed on the spot from his pocket notebooks, furnish a day-by-day account of the experiences of the Survey and give a vivid picture of California in the years 1860-1864. Whitney's second appointment was William Ashburner, whose European education in mining proved useful in the mineral aspects of the Survey. He became one of the original group to be appointed Commissioners to Manage the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Tree Grove. A later appointment, which was to carry forward the influence of the Whitney Survey for many years, was that of Charles F. Hoffmann, a young German engineer with a talent for mapmaking.
- Francis P. Farquhar, History of the Sierra Nevada

The Whitney party spent the first three years traveling the Coast Range from Los Angeles to as far north as Mt. Shasta. Much of the work was done in and around the San Francisco Bay region, the most populated part of the state at the time. In 1863 and 1864 they turned their attention to the Sierra. Part of the first year was spent exploring Yosemite up through Tuolumne Meadows, down to Mono Lake, over Sonora and Carson Passes, and into the Lake Tahoe region, before returning down the American River to Sacramento and San Francisco.

1864 found the party in the Sierra again, this time exploring portions of the High Country. They traveled to the Grant Grove of giant sequoias, to the Kings River, over Kearsarge Pass, back over Mono Pass (the southern one, out of Little Lakes Valley), down the San Joaquin, and another trip through Yosemite.

"The work of the Survey was by no means completed, but the ambitious program of the early days could not be carried out. Funds were provided by the legislature only intermittently. Whitney wrote to his brother in February, 1866, "It is terribly up-hill work to drag this concern which I have been pulling at for five years, up the hill of difficulty. It is hard enough work to do to carry on the Survey even if it were appreciated and no obstacles were placed in my way. While I could not help being secretly gratified, or at least relieved, if the Survey were stopped, yet my scientific instincts make me fight for its continuance." For a few more years money was provided and the work went ahead, but with a changing personnel. Brewer went East to become Professor of Agriculture at Yale; King and Gardner did a little more work for the Survey, then engaged in other surveys in the West; Cotter, after another summer with King, went to Alaska before settling permanently in Montana; Hoffmann recovered and produced a series of maps that set a new standard and influenced cartography in America for years to come. Whitney continued to be the titular head of the California Geological Survey and supervised its publications, the final ones printed at his own expense. The final field work of the Survey was conducted under Hoffmann and W. A. Goodyear and involved an ascent, in 1870, of Tower Peak, north of Yosemite, as well as the hot contest over the ascent of Mount Whitney [where King failed for a second time to climb the correct summit]. The breach between Professor Whitney and the California legislature, coupled with the antagonism of Governor Newton Booth, brought the Survey to an end in 1874."
- Francis P. Farquhar, History of the Sierra Nevada

"There is a plan to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the completion of the trail the summit of Mt. Whitney 17 July 2004. Because of that, I searched the internet for information and found your web site. It is a great overview of the history of Mount Whitney. Here are some comments in regard to my grandfather and his efforts on Mt. Whitney.

[My grandfather's] name is Gustave F. Marsh, he emigrated to the United States in 1890 at the age of twenty.

The Whitney Trail, a pack trail from the east, was completed by men lead by Gustave F. Marsh, Sunday, 17 Jul 1904.

From C. M. Wood: 'Soldiers of "I" and "M" companies, 9th Cavalry, Presidio, San Francisco, California, who were guarding the military reservation during the summer, had started improving the trail that had originally been a Indian pathway to a hunting ground at Ibex Park, now Whitney Portals.'

In a letter to Chester Versteeg dated 10/8/1922 Marsh wrote: '...the trail was started to Mt. Whitney by Ed Cross, F Harvey, Fred & R. C. Spear & some colored troops of the 9th Cavalry under Lt. Howard. Money was provided by subscript from the Citizens of Lone Pine. In Aug 1903 we started to get busy, now read the paper (enclosed was the San Francisco Chronicle dated 7 Nov 1909. A copy of the article can be found in the book Mount Whitney: Mountain Lore from the Whitney Store, Rev 2, Appendix B, p. 217)...'

The Whitney Trail needed repair & improvement & a shelter would be required to protect astronomers Abbot & Campbell while making observations from the summit in 1909. The citizens of Lone Pine, Keeler, Independence & others provided the funds and Marsh was the leader for the repairs & improvements to the trail as a necessary agreement with the Smithsonian in regard to building the observatory.

The Smithsonian Institution's Hodgkin Fund paid all of the costs to transport the materials & build the shelter and a grant from William H. Crocker paid for Director Campbell's expedition. In less than thirty days, Smithsonian Institution superintendent, G. F. Marsh built the observatory for the Smithsonian Institution.

Mary Austin, wrote in a newspaper (San Francisco Chronicle, March 27, 1904) that the Indians called Mt. Whitney 'Tipo Cap.'"
- George Marsh, grandson of Gustave F. Marsh via email, Jan 18, 2004 (and June 22, 2004)


References to can also be found in these files:

  • More of Bob's Trip Reports

    For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Whitney

    This page last updated: Mon Oct 5 10:04:41 2009
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