McKinley elected during gold era
Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series marking the 120th anniversary of Niles native William McKinley’s U.S. presidency.
Gold was first discovered along the Klondike River in the Yukon Territory in August 1896.
The locals of the area started staking claims and becoming very wealthy. News spread slowly due to the remoteness of the region, and it wasn’t until almost a year later, on July 17, 1897, the first shipment of gold mined out of the Klondike arrived in San Francisco and Seattle.
The steamship Portland was reportedly carrying more than a ton of gold and wealthy miners, a few claiming more than $100,000 in gold and hardly any with less than $7,000. The potential to gain wealth and prosperity through gold mining triggered “Klondike Fever” as hopeful goldseekers rushed to the area over the next few years.
In the early years of the Klondike Gold Rush, just as William McKinley was announced as the Republican presidential candidate, he was honored by having a mountain named after him. According to local historians, in 1896 William Dickey, one of the first U.S. explorers to the area, declared the peak Mount McKinley in support of the candidate. McKinley was a proponent of the gold standard of currency while his presidential opponent, William Jennings Bryan, favored the silver standard.
Dickey, being a gold prospector, supported McKinley in order to keep the value of gold high, and used the name Mount McKinley as an insult to Bryan and his supporters, known as silverites. The use of the name Mount McKinley caught on and started showing up on maps and in books. In this way, the tallest peak in North America was named as the result of a personal political disagreement. The name Mount McKinley would go on to be disputed for the next 100 years.
After McKinley’s assassination in 1901, some believed the name was a fitting tribute to the fallen president, while others disagreed. Hudson Stuck, a missionary and member of the first team to reach the summit, lobbied for the name to be established as Denali in 1913. For centuries, the Athabascan people of Alaska have called the mountain Denali, meaning “great one” or “high one”. Despite Stuck’s efforts, the name Mount McKinley was officially adopted by the federal government in 1917 when Congress designated the area around the mountain a national park.
Regardless of the official designation, many Alaskans continued to refer to the mountain as Denali. In the 1970s, Alaska’s state government made a concerted effort to have the name changed by the federal government. U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula, who represented the district where McKinley grew up in Canton, was not going to give the name up without a fight. Regula influenced the decision to postpone renaming the mountain and attempted to compromise by amending the legislation to rename the national park Denali, but the peak would remain McKinley. When it was evident this compromise would not settle the dispute, every two years Regula reintroduced a resolution to maintain the name Mount McKinley.
One argument of Denali supporters was McKinley never visited the mountain. Regula countered with the argument that not all prominent figures had visited the landmarks they are named after, as he explained, “it would be interesting to see if other Alaskan landmarks — Mount Foraker, Jefferson Peak, Fillmore Peak, Mount Cleveland, Grant Peak, Lincoln Island, Wilson Creek or Point Hayes — were visited by people for whom they were named, all information I find indicates they were not.”
After many years of disagreement, pro-Denali efforts succeeded in 2015 when the Department of the Interior under the Barack Obama administration made the decision to officially change the name to Denali.
Nicole Straub is the coordinator for the McKinley Birthplace Home