Time to rename Coon Lake after an early-day black prospector who staked a mining claim in the North Cascades.
NESTLED at the base of craggy 8,000-foot McGregor Mountain in the Stehekin River valley, deep in the North Cascades range, lies a small lake.
The Pacific Crest Trail winds around the lake’s western flank, through huckleberry and serviceberry bushes and forests of pine, fir and maple. A trailside granite outcropping provides an excellent lunch spot overlooking lily pads and buzzing dragonflies. The lake’s south shore offers good fishing. Raptors regularly wheel in the air overhead, eyeing their next meal.
The hundreds of people who annually visit the picturesque lake can be forgiven for unknowingly repeating a racial epithet as they read the National Park Service’s trail sign: “Coon Lake.”
Some 125 years ago, prospectors headed into the upper Stehekin Valley in search of copper, gold and silver, thrashing through untamed wilderness to stake their claims. It was a tough go. One miner, Wilson Howard, staked claims around the lake at the base of McGregor in 1891. He named it Howard Lake. It’s hard to learn much about Howard. Like so many of his anonymous compatriots, Howard didn’t strike it rich and his life story disappeared into the ether of time.
But this much is known: Howard was a black man, one of only two men of African descent who prospected in the North Cascades in the late 19th century. And this also is known: Within a few years of Howard’s departure from the Stehekin Valley, the white residents there renamed the lake “Coon Lake.”
No, there are no raccoons there.
I first became acquainted with the lake in 2002, introduced to it by my wife. Her grandparents settled in the Stehekin Valley 70 years ago. Her mother was born there. After learning about the origins of the lake’s name, I petitioned the state Board on Geographic Names to restore the Howard name to the lake and its associated creek, to honor Wilson Howard and remove the racial slur.
This was no parade of the political-correctness police: My petition was supported, among others, by the Chelan County commissioners, the County Sheriff and the Eastern Washington State Historical Society. The state board — chaired by then-Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland — unanimously approved the name change in 2007 and confirmed it in 2008. Howard Lake thus became the official name of the lake under state law.
An injustice undone, right? Not quite, as Crosscut.com recently reported.
Normally the federal government rubber-stamps names issued by state authorities. But here something extraordinary happened: The U.S. Board on Geographic Names, at the urging of the National Park Service, which oversees the federal recreation area encompassing Howard Lake, refused to recognize Washington state’s decision. The Park Service argued that there was no written record proving that “Coon Lake” was intended as a racial epithet, even while acknowledging that during and after Howard’s time the term was a common pejorative slur against black people.
So the Park Service has steadfastly kept the “Coon Lake” trail signs and map designations, even while state maps and records have been updated to recognize the lake’s new name.
Even accepting the Park Service’s contention that no harm was intended — an argument embraced by some of my Stehekin friends — the circumstances beg for repair today. Names matter. Just last month, President Obama, by executive order, restored the native name, Denali, to Alaska’s highest peak. Likewise, the Obama administration should ratify Washington state’s decision to recognize Wilson Howard, and, in doing so, honor early Stehekin Valley prospectors.
Next year, the National Park Service will celebrate its centennial, beset by the reality that our nation’s most treasured vistas and parklands are not seen as inviting places for many. People of color comprise 37 percent of the nation’s population, but only 22 percent of park visitors. Seattleite Glenn Nelson described in The Times Opinion section the anxiety of leading outdoor trips for Seattle University students of color who feared hostile human interactions more than wild animals.
Park Service officials claim they are painfully aware of the lack of diversity and are working to make our parks more welcoming places. But by insisting on maintaining the “Coon Lake” name, federal officials are sending the wrong message to the public, particularly those whom they claim they want to welcome.
It’s high time for the federal government to catch up with Washington state, and honor the miner Wilson Howard.