From Historic Resource Study 1983 Olympic National Park
By Gail E. H. Evans and T. Allan Comp
Cultural Resources Division
National Park Service

First O'Neil Expedition.

In 1885 well-known explorer, U.S. Army Second Lieutenant Joseph P. O'Neil, executed his first of two expeditions into the Olympic Mountains. O'Neil's interest with the Olympics began in 1884 and 1885 when stationed at Port Townsend: "I was attracted by the grand noble front of the Jupiter Hills [just east of the present Park boundary], rising with their boldness and abruptness, presenting a seemingly impenetrable barrier to the farther advance of man and civilization" (NPS OLYM 1885, 1). To O'Neil it seemed clear that previous efforts to penetrate this "barrier" had been unsuccessful since inquiries about them elicited very little reliable information, and "it seemed to me that Jupiter Hills and the Olympic Mountains were almost as unknown to us as the wilds of Alaska" (NPS OLYM 1885, 1).

After O'Neil was restationed at Fort Vancouver earlier in 1885, General Miles of that fort selected the adventuresome young O'Neil to lead an exploration party into the unknown interior. His specific assignment was to "make a reconnaissance and find out, if practicable, what the country was, its character and its resources in case of military emergency" (NPS OLYM 1885, 3). With a party of seven; Sergeants Heargraff (or Neargraff), Green and Gore; Private Johnson; Engineers H. Hawgood and R. E. Habersham; and Port Angeles resident Norman Smith, O'Neil traveled overland from Port Townsend to Port Angeles in mid July 1885. Later in the trip an Indian guide and packer and a Mr. Pilcher joined the party (NPS OLYM 1885, 3, 11, 15).

The 1885 O'Neil party expedition traversed a sizable portion of rugged mountainous country now included in the eastern section of Olympic National Park. O'Neil's written record of the trip provides the first description of the route and events that took place during this exploration into the interior of the Peninsula. Leaving Port Angeles on 17 July 1885, the O'Neil party headed south-southeast and followed present-day Ennis Creek to its headwaters. O'Neil continued south and made a steep ascent into the area called The Sisters (now known as Mount Angeles and Klahhane Ridge). He was impressed by the scene before him: "Looking east, west and south, mountains, free from timber, some covered with snow, rise in wild, broken confusion. The grandest sight is a cluster of mountains about thirty miles or so due south of Freshwater Bay. This cluster I set down as Mount Olympus" (NPS OLYM 1885, 12). While camped in the area, O'Neil ascended "the lesser of the Sisters Peaks," probably present-day Klahhane Ridge (NPS OLYM 1885, 12).

The group then proceeded on to Hurricane Ridge at which point the party divided, one segment descending into the Elwha Valley and the other continuing along the ridge above Lillian River probably into what is known today as Cameron Basin. From the expedition camp there (referred to by O'Neil as "Noplace"), O'Neil and Private Johnson continued still further south to an area near Mount Anderson (NPS OLYM 1885, 13-14).

Without warning, Joseph O'Neil was unexpectedly halted from further reconnoitering of the interior mountain peaks and passes. By courier messenger, O'Neil was directed to report to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for duty, and on 26 August he sailed from Port Angeles. Summarizing the expedition, O'Neil wrote: "The travel was difficult, but the adventures, the beauty of the scenery, the magnificent hunting and fishing, amply repaid all our hardships, and it was with regret that I left them before I had completed the work I had laid out for myself" (NPS OLYM 1885, 18). The O'Neil expedition of 1885 left behind one place name that has persisted to the present. The 6,800 foot peak of Mount Claywood was named for Assistant Adjunct General H. Clay Wood, who signed the orders for the 1885 O'Neil expedition (Olympic Mountain Rescue, The Mountaineers 1979, 6).

The enigma of the Olympic Mountains was not broken by Joseph O'Neil's 1885 trek in the jagged peaks of the eastern Olympic range. The mountains of the Peninsula continued to be publicized as "unknown," "wild," "untamed," and "mysterious." Perhaps one of the most colorful and hyperbolic descriptions of the Olympic wilderness was captured by the words of Eugene Semple, governor of Washington Territory. In 1888, impressed with the mountains' grandeur as he viewed them from the east side of Puget Sound, Semple sent a report of the Olympic Peninsula to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. Both the prestigious West Shore magazine (1888) and the Seattle Press (1890) published Semple's report which in part, follows:

The space between Hood's Canal and the ocean is almost entirely occupied by the Olympic range and its foothills. The mountains seem to rise from the edge of the water, on both sides, in steep ascent to the line of perpetual snow as though nature has designed to shut up this spot for her safe retreat forever. Here she is [e]ntrenched behind frowning walls of basalt, in front of which is Hood's Canal, deep, silent, dark and eternal, constituting the moat. Down in its unfathomable water lurks the giant squid, and on its shores the cinnamon bear and the cougar wander in the solitude of the primeval forest. It is a land of mystery, awe inspiring in its mighty constituents and wonder-making in its unknown expanse of canyon and ridge (Semple 1888, 428-29; Seattle Press 1890c, 16 July).

Second O'Neil Expedition.

In addition to the Press and the Gilman's explorations, 1890 was the year of Lieutenant Joseph O'Neil's second expedition into the interior of the Olympics. During that summer, the expedition was organized "for the purpose of passing through the Olympics from east to west climbing Mt. Olympus en route, and making abundant side trips" (Henderson 1932). The expedition was sponsored by the U.S. Army under the auspices of General John Gibbon and the Oregon Alpine Club (forerunner of the Portland Mazamas hiking club) founded by William Gladstone Steel (Olympic Mountain Rescue, The Mountaineers 1979, 7). With Steel's assistance, Joseph O'Neil assembled his expedition party. The entourage consisted of ten enlisted men, five civilians, including three scientists recruited by the Oregon Alpine Club, plus Indian packers, a dozen pack animals and one dog named Jumbo. Members of the team were: Yates and Marsh; Corporal Haffner; Privates Danton, Bairens, Fisher (James Hanmore), Higgins, Hughes, Kranichfeld, Krause; and civilians Frederic Church and M. Price. Three scientists representing the Oregon Alpine ClubBernard J. Bretherton, naturalist; Louis F. Henderson, botanist; and Nelson E. Linsley, noted mining engineer, mineralogist and geologistcompleted the team (NPS, OLYM 1890, 2; U.S. Congress 1896, 2-3; Wood 1976, 54). Remarking on the scientific contingency, expedition member Private Fisher humorously commented in his diary: "It is suffice [sic] to say that the scientific branch of our party were men of means and prominence and it was no small sacrifice for them . . . [to deny] many luxuries, such as feather beds, pies, cakes, & tarts, which the Olympics did not produce" (Wood 1976, 54).

Unlike his 1885 expedition beginning at the north end of the Peninsula, Lieutenant O'Neil planned to enter the mountains from the east and proceed westward to the Pacific Ocean. On 26 June the party's ten enlisted men and enough supplies for a "three month's siege" assembled in Port Townsend (Wood 1976, 55). Soon after, the collection of men, animals and supplies navigated by sternwheeler down the Hood Canal to the mouth of the Lilliwaup Creek. With the civilians joining the military troupe at various points along the way, the entourage finally set off over a rough trail to Lake Cushman in early July (U.S. Congress 1896, 3-6).

At the outset of their 1890 trip, O'Neil expedition members and packhorses were photographed "awaiting laggards at the North Fork Skokomish River." (Courtesy of National Archives and Record Center, RG 393, Olympic Mountains Exploring Expedition, 1890)

Members of the O'Neil expedition gathered around an Oregon Alpine Club (OAC) flag at "Camp Nellie Bly" during their 1890 Olympic exploring expedition. (Courtesy of National Archives and Record Center, RG 393, Olympic Mountains Exploring Expedition, 1890)

Slowly they proceeded up the Skokomish, cutting a trail passable by the pack animals as they went. O'Neil soon established a pattern of sending out exploring parties, leaving a sizable number of trail workers to continue work on the main trail (U.S. Congress 1896, 3-6). The first of these exploring parties headed up into jagged cliffs and snowfields ascending a peak (probably Mount Lincoln, just inside the Park boundaries) about ten miles west of Lake Cushman. As the sun was setting, they reached the summit and were overwhelmed by the ruggedness and grandeur of the country that stretched before them, much of which is now embraced by Olympic National Park boundaries. Inspired by the view, botanist Louis Henderson described the spectacle:

A more magnificent scene had never presented itself to my eyes, and I doubt whether anything in the higher Alps or the grand ice-mountains of Alaska could outrival that view . . . . Canyon mingled with canyon, peak rose above peak, ridge succeeded ridge, until they culminated in old Olympus far to the northwest; snow, west, north and south; the fast descending sun bringing out the gorgeous colors of pale-blue, lavender, purple, ash, pink and gold. Add to this the delightful warmth of a summer sun in these altitudesthe awful stillness broken every now and then by the no less awful thunder of some distant avalanchea fearful precipice just before us down which a single step in advance would hurl us hundreds of feet#151;and one can form some slight idea of the reasons that compelled us to gaze and be silent (Wood 1976, 104-105)."

The expedition party and parade of pack mules went on up the North Fork Skokomish. Circling around the north side of Mount Steel to O'Neil Pass, they descended into Enchanted Valley and followed the Quinault River to Lake Quinault. Throughout the three month trip, O'Neil dispatched several side parties that explored and mapped the drainages of the Dosewallips, Duckabush, North Fork Skokomish, Humptulips, Wynoochee, Satsop, Wiskah, North and East Forks of the Quinault, and the Queets Rivers (Olympic Mountain Rescue, The Mountaineers 1979, 7; U.S. Congress 1896; Wood 1976, maps). An account of the sometimes perilous adventures and actual trip routes taken by O'Neil's main expedition scout parties is thoroughly described in Robert Wood's Men, Mules and Mountains.

It was one of the O'Neil expedition's side parties that made what is generally conceded to be the first ascent of Mount Olympus. In mid September a party of six men, led by Nelson Linsley, set out from O'Neil Pass heading northwesterly to the Queets Basin. Ascending to the head of Jeffers Glacier on the south flank of Mount Olympus, Linsley, Bretherton and Private Danton reached the summit of one of the three Mount Olympus peaks on 22 September 1890. In rocks near the summit, the trio planted a copper box belonging to the Oregon Alpine Club. It contained a book for future climbers to record their names and descriptions of their trips along with various trinkets. To this day the box has never been found (Bretherton 1907, 148-53; Olympic Mountain Rescue, The Mountaineers 1979, 7).

In early October a main contingent of the O'Neil expedition arrived in the town of Hoquiam, thus completing the first crossing of the Olympic Mountains from east to west. As a result of the prodigious amount of work accomplished by O'Neil and his men in their 1890 expedition, the body of knowledge about the interior of the Peninsula expanded. Samples of rock and plant specimens were collected and examined. A map tracing the routes of the expedition parties was published in 1891 (by William Steel). Photographs, records and reports of O'Neil and several expedition members documented the daily events and routes of travel, geology, hydrology, wildlife and plant life encountered throughout much of the southern half of the Olympic range. Dramatized accounts of the O'Neil expedition were widely reported in major cities in western Washington and Oregon. O'Neil and others in his group made appearances before audiences eager to learn of this terra incognita that had been wrapped in mystery for so long.

Three members of the 1890 O'Neil expedition posed "near the summit of Olympus." (Courtesy of National Archives and Record Center, RG 393, Olympic Mountains Exploring Expedition, 1890)

Today, reminders of the O'Neil exploring expedition exist in the form of extant sections of O'Neil's trails and in place names of prominent physical features. Sections of trail blazed by the O'Neil expedition members are now part of the currently maintained trail system in Olympic National Park. Contemporary place names in or near the present Olympic National Park boundaries that commemorate the 1890 O'Neil expedition include Mounts Anderson (for Colonel Thomas M. Anderson, O'Neil's commanding officer), Bretherton, Church, Henderson, O'Neil (after members of the 1890 expedition party), and Steel (after William G. Steel), O'Neil Pass, O'Neil Peak and O'Neil Creek (Hitchman 1959, 16-17).

The legacy of the O'Neil expedition that, perhaps, has persisted the longest was contained in O'Neil's summation of the potential resources of the Olympic Mountains written to the 54th U.S. Congress: "In closing," O'Neil wrote in 1896, "I would state that while the country on the outer slope of these mountains is valuable, the interior is useless for all practical purposes. It would, however, serve admirably for a national park. There are numerous elk that noble animal so fast disappearing from this countrythat should be protected" (U.S. Congress 1896, 20).


Return to Site Map