How a Presidential Election Turned Mt. Denali Into Mt. McKinley

1900 Campaign Image of William McKinley backing the gold standard. (Wikimedia: Public Domain)

1900 Campaign Image of William McKinley backing the gold standard. (Wikimedia: Public Domain)

Over history, Mt. Denali has been known by three names: Denali by the Athabascan Indians, briefly as Densmore after Frank Densmore the first European to reach its base, and then in 1896 when New Hampshire gold prospector William Dickey tagged it as McKinley.

Now that the Obama administration has heeded to the wishes of Alaskans, who requested in 1975 that it be called Denali, the simple name for North America’s tallest mountain has become a political hot potato. While this is likely to blow over relatively quickly, there is an interesting story on how it ever got to be known as McKinley in the first place.

First, it is relevant to hear House Speaker John Boehner’s indignation that his fellow Ohioan, William McKinley, has been placed one step closer to obscurity.

“There is a reason President McKinley’s name has served atop the highest peak in North America for more than 100 years, and that is because it is a testament to his great legacy. McKinley served our country with distinction during the Civil War as a member of the Army. He made a difference for his constituents and his state as a member of the House of Representatives and as Governor of the great state of Ohio. And he led this nation to prosperity and victory in the Spanish-American War as the 25th President of the United States. I’m deeply disappointed in this decision.”

Boehner believes that McKinley did many great things for Ohio, but outside of a few high schools, statues and the McKinley museum, there aren’t many things named for the 25th President. That another state is supposed to honor McKinley when his own doesn’t want to doesn’t make for a compelling argument.

That is not to say that McKinley was not a notable President. His election generally settled the silver and gold dispute on which metal to base the U.S. currency. McKinley, despite trying to ride both sides of the issue, came out in favor of gold. He also oversaw the Spanish-American War, which propelled the United States onto the world scene and began the American empire. McKinley also picked Theodore Roosevelt as his Vice-President, one of the nation’s most successful Presidents. Back in those days, Presidents played less a role in selecting their running mates. Political bosses played a big role in selecting Roosevelt because they wanted him out of New York, where he was Governor and uncontrollable.

None of that hardly justifies naming the country’s highest peak after McKinley when there is Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and others to choose. This is particularly the case since McKinley never traveled to Alaska or contributed significantly to it.

Furthermore, how Mt. Denali or Mt. Densmore became Mt. McKinley had nothing to do with McKinley’s presidency, his time as an Ohio Congressman and Governor, or service in the Civil War.

Dickey emerged from the wilderness in 1896 to learn that McKinley had been nominated as President. Gold-standard supporting McKinley was an easy choice for gold-prospecting Dickey to use to rename the crown jewel of Alaska as Mt. McKinley. Dickey even wrote an article about it which received some attention. When McKinley, a popular President, was slain in 1901, the name sounded like an appropriate tribute so it stayed.

If McKinley had lost the Presidency to William Jennings Bryan, a silver advocate, then the name wouldn’t even have had the name of a President on it, but that of a Presidential loser. Of course, the name might not have stuck in that case. It might be Mt. Densmore that is being changed today to Mt. Denali.

Since 1975, the Ohio Congressional delegation has blocked the name change. Now that the change is official, they have boisterously expressed their disapproval. Surprisingly, the rest of the country has taken up some of the dispute too. While more pressing matters have to be addressed, it is silly that this is an issue at all. However, it is not sillier than how Denali or Densmore got to be known as McKinley in the first place. Basically, it was a campaign stunt that became a tribute to an assassinated President.

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