Final Battle of the Cairns

Living within sight of a famously tall mountain can engender a sense of local pride. So when someone questions the height of your mountain or raises the height of their mountain, sparks can fly. Or more practically and literally, cairns can go up. Such was the case in Colorado with Mount Massive and Mount Elbert. Elbert is officially taller, at 14,433, about twelve feet higher than Massive. Both are in the Sawatch Range.

For many years, however, fans of Mount Massive operated with the knowledge that their peak was actually the taller of the two. To make sure, they would go up on the summit and build a cairn, at least 13 feet high. Elbertophiles, who “knew” that their summit was higher, didn’t take to the Massive upstarts’ cairn-erections and they would hike up Massive and take down the cairn, which lead to the Massive people heading back for another cairn raising. And, so on and so on. Finally, at some point the feud fizzled.

But the height of Massive still troubled some locals. In the late 1930s, an official survey determined that Mount Massive was taller than Mount Rainier, pushing Rainier from down to the fourth highest peak in the lower 48. Washingtonians were apoplectic. Leo Weisfield, chair of the Washington State Progress Commission, was so incensed that he contacted the superintendent of Mount Rainier and asked if something couldn’t be done to return Rainier to its rightful place as the third highest peak. Weisfield proposed that the simplest way to deal with the issue was to erect a cairn on Rainier’s summit.

Even more irate was Col. Blethen, the publisher of the Seattle Times. In a front page editorial on August 25, 1939, he wrote “Mount Rainier is the tallest mountain in the United States.” He rested his argument on the how much the mountain rose above its base, not its actual height. Those three mountains (Whitney in California and Elbert and Massive in Colorado) that were said to be taller than Rainier didn’t deserve their status since their bases were so far above sea level.

“For some reason the public has supinely accepted official measurements of mountains from theoretical sea level as indicating their actual height…This is sheer nonsense,” huffed Blethen. “It is perfectly true that Mount Whitney and probably the two hitherto unknown Colorado mountains are more than 14,000 feet “high” in the sense that their tops are that much above sea level, but there actually is no mountain in the United States that is 14,000 feet tall excepting the one which rises straight and clear from the sea level to peak and that is Mount Rainier.”

[nggallery id=26]Despite Blethen’s logic and Weisfield’s plan, nothing changed. Then in 1948, four Seattleites, as part of a service club, proposed to build a cairn atop Rainier. It would be 24-foot-high cairn made of rock and snow. Again, the superintendent of Mount Rainier rejected the request. In response, citizens in Mount Vernon, a small town north of Seattle, countered that they would be happy for the four Seattle climbers to come and build a 10,501-foot-cairn on a hill near Mount Vernon, making it the third highest peak in the state.

As someone interested a wee bit in cairns, I have been delighted to track down these stories of cairns and how important they are to people. Sure they may say that what their doing is all about making their local peaks bigger but I think they all they really desired was to find ways to go out and build more cairns.


National Park stone: Mt. Rainier

I recently spent a very sunny weekend up at Mt. Rainier. We stayed at the Paradise Inn. Built during 1916 and 1917, the historic lodge is on the national register of historic places. It is an A-shaped building, a shape necessary to withstand the average of over 600 inches of snow per year. From a geologic point of view, the most impressive features are the three massive fireplaces, two in the main lobby and one in the kitchen.

Fireplace in Paradise Inn at Mt. Rainier

Each fireplace is made of various sized rough blocks of what appears to be granodiorite from the Tatoosh pluton. The pluton ranges in age between 26 and 14 million years old. I could not, however, find any information about which rock was used. The stones reportedly came from a local quarry.

One feature that stands out on several blocks is the row of drill holes. They show how the quarrymen made blocks by drilling a line of several-inch deep holes and dropping in two metal shims, each of which was bent at the top so the shims wouldn’t disappear into the cavity. He would then drop a wedge of steel between the shims and pound the row of plugs until the rock split on the perforation.

Close up of Mr. Tarbox’s plug and feather quarrying method

Quarrymen call this the plug and feather method. It has used by stone masons for thousands of years though it has an interesting story in the US. According to quarry historians, a man named Mr. Tarbox introduced the method in this country in 1803. His work was noticed by a member of the commission to build a new jail in the Boston area, who tracked down Tarbox, hired him on spot, and got him to teach the method to other builders in the region. That knowledge spread quickly and soon the price of cut stone dropped appreciably.

The plug and feather method is still in use though it has been modified significantly with hydraulic air drills and hydraulic expanders. In places such as the Indiana limestone building district, quarrymen no longer need to swing a hammer.

Down lower on Mt. Rainier, at Longmire, another building makes use of the local stone, too. The visitor center is built of large boulders that must have been collected from the nearby river. The boulders are andesite, granodiorite, welded tuff, and rhyolite. Builders even used the boulders to make the chimney.

Longmire visitor center at Mt. Rainier

These buildings are two of many wonderful national park structures that use local rock, most often with rough cut faces or as boulders. Does anyone have any other favorite national park buildings with local materials?