Names in high places


An old college friend lives near Seattle. He's about as chauvinistic about his Cascades as I am about our Rocky Mountains. I used to annoy him by pointing out that his majestic Mt. Rainier was only 14,410 feet high, while our rather nondescript Mt. Harvard was a towering 14,420. 

And Harvard is only the third-tallest mountain in Colorado; it's sole "highest" distinction is that it's the highest point in Chaffee County. 

But surveying technology improves all the time, and the latest numbers from the U.S. Geological Survey makes Rainier higher at 14,416 to Harvard's 14,406. 

While nosing around on elevations, I noticed that in many Western states, the highest peak is named for a surveyor. 


California's Mt. Whitney, 14,502, is named for Josiah Whitney, who headed the California Geological Survey when the peak was mapped in 1864. 

Wyoming's Gannett Peak, 13,799, comes from Henry Gannett, a government geographer who accompanied several 19th-century Western expeditions. 

Clarence King, first director of the U.S. Geological Survey, has his name on Utah's highest point, 13,520-foot Kings Peak. 

Wheeler Peak, 13,163 in New Mexico. honors Capt. George M. Wheeler, director of 19th-century military surveys in the West. 

Arizona's highest point, 12,562-foot Humphreys Peak, honors Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys, who commanded the Army Corps of Engineers after a distinguished Civil War career. 

As for namesakes in other Western states, there are British admirals (Washington's Ranier and Oregon's Hood), politicians (Idaho's Borah and Colorado's Elbert), geography (Nevada's Boundary Peak near the California line) and geology (Montana's Granite Peak). 

So surveyors (most of whom also practiced as civil engineers and cartographers) dominate the names of high places in the West. And for that matter, the highest mountain in the world is named for George Everest, surveyor general of India when it was a British colony. 

In a way that's fitting, since without surveyors we wouldn't know which places are highest. Also, surveyors are important to American history, as I heard one morning in the post office when I was in line behind a local surveyor. 

He was sending some priority mail, and the clerk asked if he wanted to use a Mt. Rushmore stamp. He looked at one and said "Do you know what you see there? Three surveyors and a politician." Theodore Roosevelt was the politician; the three surveyors were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln.

Photo of Mount Rushmore from user jimbowen0306, used under a Creative Commons license.