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The Kansas Connection to Crater Lake

Crater Lake in Oregon (Photo courtesy of

America the Beautiful. It's not just the title of a patriotic song. It's a poetic statement about the exquisite, alluring, physical places in this country that anyone can visit. Commentator Rex Buchanan recently visited one. It's a national park in the northwestern United States - and one that includes a strong connection to Kansas.

Commentator Rex Buchanan is a frequent traveler and director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey. He lives in Lawrence.  

Learn more about Crater Lake National Park.   


A few weeks ago I visited Crater Lake in southern Oregon, a place I’d wanted to see for a long time.  It was incredible, even more amazing than I expected.  Formed in the crater of a collapsed volcano, or caldera, it’s more than five miles across and 1900 feet deep, the deepest lake in the United States.  The water is an ineffable blue.

What I didn’t know, until one of the folks I was with mentioned it, was that Crater Lake owes much of its status as a national park to a Kansan.  William Steel grew up in Oswego, down in Labette County in southeastern Kansas, not far from the Oklahoma border.  In 1872, while still in high school, Steel’s family moved to Portland, Oregon.  A few years after that, Steel and some friends made the trip to southern Oregon and saw Crater Lake for the first time.

Steel said later that “the thought occurred to me that at no point around this wonderful cauldron had the hand of man yet desecrated it with peanut stands or other marks of desolation and something should be done to forever save it for the people of this great country.”

Maybe the differences between Crater Lake and Oswego made Steel so passionate about the place.  The land around Oswego is fairly flat, mostly farm ground.  The main natural feature is the Neosho River, a flood-prone, meandering stream, laden with silt.

Crater Lake, on the other hand, is at elevation, 7000 to 8000 feet above sea level, the rim surrounded by volcanic rock and weather-beaten, whitebark pines and hemlock. The lake’s water is pristine.  During our visit, a black bear lumbered across the road in front of us.

Steel eventually started a campaign to officially recognize Crater Lake.  In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt signed the bill that made it the country’s fifth national park.

Today there’s a highway around the crater’s rim, a lodge perched over the lake.  But for the most part, the place probably looks largely the way it did when Steel and his friends first saw it.

I traveled out west several times this fall.  From the places I went, one lesson became clear.  For a place to remain beautiful, you don’t have to do much.  Just let it be.  Don’t build more dams, don’t try to “improve” things.  Leave a place alone, and odds are that it’ll be special.  Like doctors, we should “first do no harm.”

During my visit to Crater Lake, we had supper at the lodge and visited with a couple who were warming themselves by the giant fireplace.  They were from Portland, but the man’s family had moved to Oregon from Coats, Kansas, out by Pratt.  Coats may have even less in common with Crater Lake than Oswego.

Kansas has little public land.  Much of the state has been cultivated.  Maybe that’s why it’s easy for us to appreciate natural places, both in the state and outside it.  To understand their importance.  And to know that sometimes the best thing we can do for nature is leave it alone.



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