How April Fools Saved Mt. Whitney

Long ago, the geological survey party of the state of California clambered up to the summit of Mt. Brewer (a peak they had named in honor of the leader of the field party).  From the summit they realized that the true crest of the Sierra lay farther east, and several of the peaks were much higher.  The highest they christened Mt. Whitney in honor of Josiah Dwight Whitney, their boss and the California State Geologist. Two members of the party, Clarence King and Richard Cotter, headed off on July 4, 1864 to try and climb the peak but failed (though they did summit and name Mt. Tyndall).  King would try a few more times before succeeding seven years later–he thought.

But King had in fact summited Mt. Langley (Sheep Mountain back then), and once the error was discovered, he set out to summit the right peak only to be beaten by three fishermen in 1873. In the previous year, a major earthquake had devastated Lone Pine and the state geologist, Whitney, came out to examine the damage and geological impacts.  Apparently Whitney’s behavior enraged the locals (he seemed rather dismissive of the whole episode, writing his brother that he’d write out his observations for publication “if they prove interesting enough to make a readable article.”). The three fishermen decided that the first atop a peak got to name it, so they proposed to rename the summit Fisherman’s Peak. Taking aim at any supporters of Whitney, they wrote in the local paper “Ain’t it as romantic as ‘Whitney’?… Wonder who the old earthquake sharp thinks is running this country, anyhow?”

Appeals from Lone Pine failed to sway the Geographical Names Board, so a bill was introduced in 1881 in the California Legislature to rename the peak.  It passed in the California Assembly and went on to the State Senate; it came before that body on April 1, 1881. Here the bill got hijacked by a joker in the Senate who took advantage of April Fools Day. The peak’s name became Fowler’s Peak, a name that continued to honor the hook and bullet crowd while also honoring Thomas Fowler, a State Senator. The bill went on to be vetoed by the governor, thus preserving Whitney’s name on the peak. Despite the legislative defeat, residents in the Owens Valley would for many years refer to the peak as either Fisherman’s Peak or the Dome of Inyo.

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  1. Geohero or geochump? | The Grumpy Geophysicist - June 24, 2017

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