Members of the Olympic Exploring Expedition make first recorded ascent of Mount Olympus on September 22, 1890.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 9/20/2005
  • Essay 7473
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On September 22, 1890, members of the Olympic Exploring Expedition, led by Lieutenant Joseph P. O'Neil (1862-1938), scale one of the peaks of Mount Olympus. Mount Olympus, located in Jefferson County, is the highest peak on the Olympic Peninsula. In 1909, it becomes the Mount Olympus National Monument within the Olympic National Forest. In 1938, it becomes part of the Olympic National Park.

Home of the Gods

On July 4, 1788, Captain John Mears, a British mariner searching for the Northwest Passage, named the highest peak on the peninsula, Mount Olympus (7,965 feet), after the mythical home of the Greek gods. In 1792, Captain George Vancouver (1758-1798) of the British Navy, who commanded an expedition into Puget Sound, followed precedent and wrote the name "Olympic Mountains" on his charts. Eventually, the "Olympic" designation was extended to the peninsula itself.

White settlers came to the north Olympic Peninsula in the mid-1800s, but the mountainous interior remained unexplored. There were unconfirmed accounts of an ascent of Mount Olympus by two white men and two Makah Indians from Cape Flattery in 1854.

Lieutenant O'Neil

The first documented exploration of the Olympics occurred in the summer of 1885. Lieutenant Joseph Patrick O'Neil, U.S. Army, led a small party of enlisted men from Vancouver Barracks and civilian engineers on a reconnaissance of the Olympic Mountains. O'Neil chose Port Angeles as his starting point because of its nearness to the mountains.

On July 17, 1885, the expedition headed south into the foothills and it took them about a month to climb to Hurricane Ridge. From there part of the group began to explore the Elwha River Valley, while O'Neil and the others headed southeast. O'Neil explored almost as far south as Mount Anderson before a courier reached him with orders to report to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the expedition was terminated.

After completing his tour of duty at Fort Leavenworth, Lieutenant O'Neil returned to Vancouver Barracks on August 8, 1887. In September 1887, William G. Steel and other mountain climbers formed the Oregon Alpine Club (OAC), electing O'Neil as club secretary. In 1888, the club began advocating a scientific expedition to the Olympic Mountains, giving O'Neil an opportunity to finish his explorations. Brigadier General John Gibbon, commanding the Department of the Columbia, approved the project and O'Neil and Steel were appointed to organized the Olympic Exploring Expedition. The Army provided O'Neil with 10 enlisted men and a civilian muleskinner and a mule train to pack the supplies, and the OAC provided four civilian scientists for the adventure.

The Expedition Sets Out

The Olympic Exploring Expedition arrived in Port Townsend on June 26, 1890, and departed for Hood Canal aboard the sternwheeler Louise on July 1, 1890. O'Neil had decided to begin the expedition into the interior of the Olympic Peninsula at Hoodsport, but the ship's captain landed them at Lilliwaup, some 10 miles north. Lilliwaup had no dock and shallow water forced the Louise to anchor 50 yards from the beach. The men and materials went ashore in small boats and the mules were forced jump overboard and swim. Once assembled, the expedition proceeded up a steep overgrown trail to Lake Cushman. The expedition cut a serviceable mule trail as it progressed inland and established a series of base camps from which small, separate parties were sent out to thoroughly explore the jagged peaks and valleys of the eastern and southern Olympics.

On September 12, 1890, O'Neil assembled the men and outlined what lay ahead. The expedition would be divided into three units. O'Neil would lead a party southward, exploring the valleys and rivers; Nelson E. Linsley (1842-1924), an OAC geologist, would lead six men to explore the northern part of the Olympic Range; and the remaining men would head the pack train toward Grays Harbor on the Pacific Coast. Linsley was given the most important assignment of the expedition; to climb Mount Olympus, plant the OAC flag at the summit and deposit a small copper OAC record box containing some small artifacts and a record book for subsequent climbers to sign.

It took a week for the Linsley party to reach the foot of Mount Olympus. After reconnoitering various approaches, the men decided the southwest side of the mountain looked the most suitable to climb. On September 21, 1890, the party established a temporary high camp at the head of Jeffers Glacier on the southeast side of Mount Olympus. They were now more than half way up the mountain and everything was made ready for the final ascent. Three men would make the climb, and the others would remain in camp to await their return.

The Final Ascent

On Monday, September 22, 1890, Nelson E. Linsley, Bernard J. Bretherton (1861-1903), and John Danton made the final assault on the peak, taking with them the copper OAC record box, the OAC flag, and a camera. After an "easy assent"  (sic) lasting almost three hours, the men reached the summit. They remained long enough to sketch the scene, take some pictures and plant the OAC flag. However, because the summit was too steep and too rocky, they were unable to safely cache the copper record box there. They found a secure location for the box a little farther down the southwest slope. 

Their mission accomplished, the climbers descended the peak and returned to the high camp.  Because their rations were running short and their boots were almost worn out, the Linsley party headed south toward the Queets River, running directly to the Pacific Ocean. 

The Olympic Exploring Expedition reunited at Hoquiam on October 2, 1890 and was honored with a splendid banquet. On October 6, 1890, the expedition disbanded and left Hoquiam by boat. The soldiers proceeded to Vancouver Barracks, and the civilians returned to their respective homes.

Mount Olympus

Not much was known about Mount Olympus before 1890. Subsequent expeditions and modern mapping techniques have shown that it is a large, sprawling mountain with four major and several minor pinnacles poking through the thick ice cap. The area above the timberline covers more than 30 square miles. Glaciers cover approximately 12 square miles, making it the third most glaciated mountain in the continental United States.

The copper OAC record box has never been found, but the evidence from the Linsley party's photos and sketches, strongly suggests that the men climbed one of the peaks of Athena, the "South Peak" of Mount Olympus. The East Peak was first climbed in August 1899 by Jack McGlone, a member of the U.S. Geological Survey team. The Middle Peak, the second highest pinnacle, was first climbed on July 17, 1907, by the Explorers Club of New York. And the West Peak (7,956 feet), the highest of all, was first climbed on August 13, 1907, by The Mountaineers of Seattle. Less than a year later, on July 7, 1908, four climbers from The Mountaineers of Bremerton scaled all three peaks in one day.

The Coming of Olympic National Park

In his report to Congress in 1896, O'Neil wrote: "In closing I would state that while the country on the outer slope of these mountains is valuable, the interior is useless for all practicable purposes. It would, however, serve admirably for a national park." In 1909, just before leaving office, President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) issued a proclamation creating Mount Olympus National Monument within the Olympic National Forest. In 1933, as part of a governmental reorganization by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), Mount Olympus National Monument was put under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. 

Joseph P. O'Neil went on to become a brigadier general and lived to see his wish come true. On June 29, 1938, four weeks before his death, Congress created the Olympic National Park and President Roosevelt, having visiting the Olympic Peninsula in the fall of 1937, enthusiastically signed the act.

The Olympic Exploring Expedition

U.S. Army, 14th Infantry, Vancouver Barracks:

  • Joseph Patrick O'Neil, Lieutenant/expedition leader
  • Frederick Haffner, Sergeant
  • William Marsh, Sergeant
  • Franklin W. Yates, Sergeant
  • John Bairens, Private
  • Jacob Kranichfeld, Private
  • John Hughes, Private
  • Emanuel Krause, Private
  • John E. Higgins, Private
  • Harry Fisher, Private
  • John Danton, Private
  • M. Price, civilian, mule skinner 

Oregon Alpine Club:

  • Louis E. Henderson, botanist
  • Nelson E. Linsley, geologist/mineralogist/mining engineer
  • Bernard Joseph Bretherton, naturalist
  • Oliver C. Yocum, photographer (dropped out of the expedition).

Sources: Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Exploring Washington's Past: A Road Guide to History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990): Edmond S. Meany, Origin of Washington Geographic Names (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1923); Robert L. Wood, "The O'Neil Expeditions," Columbia, The Magazine of Northwest History, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Summer 1990), pp. 40-45; Robert L. Wood, Men, Mules and Mountains; Lieutenants O'Neil's Olympic Expeditions (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1976); Robert L. Wood, The Land That Slept Late (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1995); "Discover Olympic: Euro-American History," National Park Service website accessed August 2005 (

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