Monday, May 23, 2016

A Mirror of Us: CHS Celebrates NPS and Lassen Volcanic National Park Centennials

The Great Eruption, Lassen Peak, May 22, 1915 
California Historical Society
From Redwood National Park in the north to Joshua Tree in the south, California’s parks are as varied and diverse as the population of the Golden State itself. The oldest, Yosemite, was established in 1890; the youngest, Pinnacles, graduated from monument to park just three years ago, on January 10, 2013. Each California park has its own kind of beauty and all are a reflection of the society into which they were born—a reflection of us. 

With this offering in the “Mirror of Us” series, the California Historical Society celebrates the 100th anniversaries of the National Park Service and Lassen Volcanic National Park, featuring images from both the CHS and NPS collections.

“Fearfully Grand”: Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Peak and Manzanita Lake, c. 2013
Courtesy Alison Moore
On August 9, 2016, Lassen Volcanic National Park in northeastern California will turn 100 years old. The park, named for the 10,457-foot-high Lassen Peak, became one of the earliest national parks in the system by virtue of a series of volcanic eruptions that occurred for three years, from 1914 to 1917. The volcanic activity of this peak remained unparalleled in the continental United States until the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington State in 1980.

Lassen Peak Eruption from Red Bluff, 37 Miles Away, May 22, 1915 
Courtesy National Park Service
Although individuals and politicians local to the area had been advocating for a national park a number of years prior to 1916, the events of May 1914 thrust the peak into the national consciousness. Before the volcano had finished spewing rock, ash, and pumice into the area, Congress had signed the legislation creating the park.

The advent of popular photography clearly helped the park’s cause. Captured in a remarkable series of five photos by local businessman and amateur photographer Benjamin Franklin Loomis, Lassen Peak’s eruptions began with a series of steam explosions in that year and culminated in a massive lava-generated event in 1915. Standing at fairly close range to the first eruption, Loomis wrote that “The sight was fearfully grand.”

B.F. Loomis, Progression of Lassen Peak Eruption, June 14, 1914 
California Historical Society 
In addition to its seismicity, the park’s many alpine and sub-alpine peaks, lakes, and meadows also made it a popular choice for a National Park. Often described as “a little gem,” the park combines a touch of Yellowstone with Yosemite’s high country and the mountain itself, a petite version of Washington State’s Mt. Rainier. 

Lake Helen, Lassen Volcanic National Park, c. 2013
Courtesy Alison Moore
Paradise Meadows, Lassen Volcanic National Park, c. 2013
Courtesy Alison Moore
The testimony of a Columbia University professor, Douglas W. Johnson, was cited by the Department of the Interior at the park’s birth. Wrote Johnson: “On the whole it is difficult to imagine a region where the more striking phenomena of nature are developed on a grander scale or in a manner calculated to appeal more strongly to the average individual.”

“Lassen Glimpses”: The Lassen Park Guide Book, 1929 
California Historical Society
The park and nearby county were named, somewhat dubiously, for Peter Lassen, a pioneer who came to California in 1840 and was granted land in Tehama County in 1844. Returning to California in 1848 from a trip to Missouri, he directed settlers south off the main Applegate Trail to what became known as “Lassen’s cutoff,” a difficult and for many disastrous detour that culminated conveniently at Lassen’s Ranch, a rambling settlement where settlers and gold seekers could stay and purchase goods. Lassen was later murdered, reportedly by Indians, but more likely by one of the 15–20,000 persons led astray by his “shortcut.”

Seismographic Station, Lassen Volcanic National Park, c. 2013
Courtesy Alison Moore
“Early in the 20th century,” notes the National Park Service, “the eruption of the Lassen Volcanic Center spawned the development of the first U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) volcano observatory. Today, USGS scientists monitor the Lassen Volcanic Center with the goal of predicting hazardous conditions.” Seismometers are positioned around the park to monitor seismic activity.

Bumpass Hell, Lassen Volcanic National Park, date unknown 
Courtesy National Park Service
Geologically the park is part of the Cascade Range, which extends from northern California to British Columbia. Lassen Peak is the southernmost of the great volcanic peaks of the Cascades, which also include the aforementioned Mounts St. Helens, and Rainier, as well as Mt. Shasta, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Bachelor, among others.

Cinder Cone Volcano, Lassen Volcanic National Park, date unknown
Courtesy National Park Service
According to the National Park Service, “every rock at Lassen originates from volcanoes.” Noteworthy features of the park include the Cinder Cone, the steamy Bumpass Hell, Boiling Springs Lake, the Devastated Area, and vast fields of volcanic rocks strewn throughout the entire region.

Fantastic Lava Beds, Lassen Volcanic National Park, date unknown 
Courtesy National Park Service
Although there’s no known Peter Lassen fan club in the area, Mt. Lassen visitors are invited to join the park’s Volcano Club where they can learn about geology and also earn a very cool patch:

Lassen Volcano Club Patch, Lassen Volcanic National Park 
Courtesy National Park Service

Alison Moore
Strategic Initiatives Liaison

  • Michael A. Clynne, et al., A Sight ‘Fearfully Grand’—Eruptions of Lassen Peak California, 1914 to 1917 (U.S. Geological Survey, Fact Sheet 2014-3119, December 2014);
  • J. S. Holliday, The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981)
  • Diane Krahe and Theodore Catton, Little Gem of the Cascades: An Administrative History of Lassen Volcanic National Park, report prepared for the National Park Service through the Rocky Mountain Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit (Mineral CA: Lassen Volcanic National Park, 2010);
  • Douglas E. Kyle, Historic Spots in California (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1990)
  • B. F. Loomis, Pictorial History of the Lassen Volcano, 1926 (Mineral, CA: Lassen Association, 2015)
  • National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Lassen Volcanic brochure, 2013
  • National Park Service, Department of the Interior, Lassen Volcanic National Park

Read about other parks in the CHS blog series, A Mirror of Us: CHS Celebrates the National Park Service Centennial:

Death Valley National Park;

Joshua Tree National Park;

Pinnacles National Park, 

NPS Centennial Events at Lassen Volcanic National Park
Learn more about the NPS Centennial Initiative
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