First photo of Crater Lake, Peter Britt 1874. Courtesy of NPS.
First photo of Crater Lake, Peter Britt 1874. Courtesy of NPS.

Crater Lake: A History

Crater Lake National Park has a fascinating history. Created by the explosion of Mt. Mazama 7,700 years ago, Crater Lake has long inspired reverence and wonder. The Klamaths kept the lake undiscovered by white explorers until 1853, and William Gladstone Steel devoted over thirty years to establishing the Park. In 1902, President Roosevelt signed legislation making Crater Lake America's 6th National Park.

Read the extensive National Parks Service Historic Resource Study of Crater Lake National Park.

A sagebrush bark sandal found buried beneath ash from the eruption of Mt. Mazama.  Fort Rock, Oregon.

TRIBAL HISTORY

The Klamath Tribes, which include the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin band of the Snake, knew Crater Lake as gii-was, meaning "a sacred place." The Cow Creek Umpquas also knew and respected Crater Lake.

Native Americans experienced the collapse of Mount Mazama about 7,700 years ago, and have many stories about the creation of Crater Lake and its many features. The National Park Service has collected many of their stories.

We encourage you to learn more about the Klamath Tribes and the Cow Creek Umpquas.

GEOLOGIC HISTORY

Formation

Crater Lake sits atop Mount Mazama, a Quaternary volcano that is part of the Western Cascade Range.  Mazama began to form a half million years ago.  42,000 years ago it stood at its tallest height at 12,000 feet.

Eruption

Mazama had its most destructive eruption about 7,700 years ago, spewing 12 cubic miles of rhyolite magma in the form of tephra as far north as Alberta, Canada, as far east as Wyoming and as far south as Nevada  and northern California. Pyroclastic flows and lahars descended down around the volcano and a thick layer of tuff formed on the landscape and can still be seen today.

Collapse

As a result of the eruption, Mazama lost enough material that the weight of the peak of the volcano could not be supported and it collapsed upon itself, creating a caldera.

Wizard Island

Mazama continued to have smaller eruptions, which sealed the caldera floor and created a cinder cone within the caldera which is know called Wizard Island.

Formation of the Lake

Over 700 to 1500 years, rain and snow melt gradually filled the caldera, forming Crater Lake. Today, there is a balance between evaporation and precipitation and the water level in the lake usually fluctuates less than three feet year to year.

Human Activity

In terms of geologic time, Crater Lake is very young.  It is believed that humans likely witnessed the explosion.  In fact, a sandal was found buried in the ash from the eruption.  

Click here to learn more about the geologic features of Crater Lake National Park in our Science and Discovery section.

HISTORIC STRUCTURES

In addition to the natural wonders, the human structures of Crater Lake National Park have much to offer.  The architecture of the buildings and the landscaping offer glimpses into the history of the National Parks Service.  There are two Historic Districts in the Park are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The significant areas include landscape architecture created from 1916 to 1942 and architecture from 1909 to 1942.

The Emergency Conservation Work Act

The majority of the buildings at Crater Lake are the result of the mid-1930s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration programs.  The Emergency Conservation Work Act, commonly known for the CCC, was created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to employ U.S. citizens during the depression as part of the New Deal.  In every state, workers planted trees, built roads and trails, strung telephone lines, and constructed buildings.  Within Crater Lake National Park, the CCC constructed buildings, built campgrounds, landscaped and improved the Rim Drive.

Rustic Style

Crater Lake buildings are significant examples of “rustic style”, also known as “NPS rustic”, architecture:

"The majority of the headquarters buildings, employees quarters, and service buildings display a unity of structural treatment, exemplified by massive boulder masonry, stained timbers, steep roof pitch, dormer windows, and rough-sawn or vertical board-and-batten siding." (Linda W. Greene, Crater Lake Historic Resource Study, NPS, 1984)

This style developed from the mid 1920’s to the early 1940’s.  The style features natural materials that are intended to blend into and not detract from the natural surroundings.  This style was popular with National Parks Service sites.

Historically Significant Buildings

  • Munson Valley Historic District
  • Administration Building
  • Employees Stone Houses
  • Garage and wood shed
  • Machine Shop
  • Meat House
  • Mess Hall/Bunkhouse
  • Naturalist's House
  • Ranger Dormitory
  • Sign Shop [former public comfort station]
  • Superintendent's House
  • Transformer House
  • Rim Village Historic District
  • Comfort Stations #68 and #72
  • Crater Lake Lodge
  • Sinnott Memorial Lookout and Museum

Click here to learn more about the National Register and other historically significant buildings in Oregon.

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