On January 26, 1904, H. C. Rizer, chief clerk of the United States Geological Survey, confirms in a letter to Tacoma artist Abby Williams Hill that a previously unnamed peak in the North Cascades will be known as Mount Booker. Hill had painted the mountain while working on a commission from the Great Northern Railway in 1903 and suggested the name. Rizer informs Hill that her letter had been received and that "the name Mount Booker will be added to the peak indicated." She has suggested the name to honor Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), and the name will stick despite local controversy.
A Northwest Artist Tours the South
Born in Grinnell, Iowa in 1861, Abby Rhoda Williams Hill (1861-1943) developed an interest and aptitude for art at a young age. As a young woman, she studied under one of the founders of Chicago’s Art Institute and then William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) at the Art Students League of New York. In later years, she continued her education in Germany and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. In 1888, she married Dr. Frank Riley Hill (1857-1938), moved to Tacoma in 1889, and had their son Romayne (1889-1970) in November. He had significant physical limitations, and she spent much of the early 1890s caring for him and serving civic and social causes. In 1895, she went on extended camping trips to Mount Rainier and Hood Canal to draw and paint, and, after a two-year tour of Europe, established a presence on Vashon Island. There, she worked and educated her son and three girls, Eulalie (1891-1978), Ione, and Ina (1889-1987), that they adopted after returning from Europe.
In October 1901, Frank, Abby, Ione, and Romayne set out on a tour of the United States. After two months of travel and sightseeing, Frank returned to Tacoma while Abby and the children continued on to the South. Shortly after they left, she sent a letter to Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) and apparently asked about touring the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama. In a letter dated October 21, 1901, he assured her that he would be "very glad to extend the hospitality of the school ... at any time" it would be convenient for her and promised she would "have the opportunity of seeing all the different departments of the school in operation" (Booker T. Washington to Mrs. Frank R. Hill).
She was greatly disturbed by segregation as she passed through the South and "entered into a lively discussion" on the subject "with some handsomely dressed Southern women." She asked why they had separate waiting areas and was told, "Oh we never mingle with them!" She responded, "I thought you did, I understood you had them in your home, that they took full charge of your children!" She was unimpressed when they answered, "that’s different," and finally responded, "I do not understand. You say they do your cooking, care for your little ones, wait on your tables. If I considered anyone so much beneath me, I should not let them associate with my children." Once on the train, she accidentally sat in the Jim Crow car and observed "people there ... as white as I" (United States Tour Journal, 184-188). Seemingly, that comment was intended to point out the absurdity that she saw in all of it.
Once at Tuskegee, she spent several days touring the school and spending time with both Booker T. Washington and his wife Margaret Murray (1865-1925). Despite her opposition to segregation, she viewed the African American community in the South with a mix of paternalistic suspicion and concern, stating that, after the transition from enslavement to freedom, they should not have been "left in ignorance" but should have been "educated and trained. What one sees here proves that they can be lifted and if they can they must be if the country is to be safe" (United States Tour Journal, 192). Accordingly, she praised Washington’s work to educate "noble, useful, industrious, well-informed men and women" and asked rhetorically, "May we be forgiven that more do not come to his school" (United States Tour Journal, 200). She contended that after one had "seen the homes from which these students come they are amazed that such results can be obtained in one or two, three or four years" and suggested that if "the whole race had like advantages it would be but a few years till an intelligent, thrifty, industrious race would take the place of the present" (United States Tour Journal, 200-201).
Naming Mount Booker
In 1903, Hill obtained a commission from the Great Northern Railway to paint the North Cascades. For the company, it was a chance to advertise the region at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904 and increase traffic on the line. For Hill, it was a chance to paint, spend significant time camping with her children, and build her name as an artist. She painted 21 pieces over the course of the summer but ran into a challenge when preparing them for the company. One of the mountains had no name other than "The Mountain." She inquired with the U.S. Geological Survey and was informed that "strangely enough that mountain has never had a name and we would like to give you the honor of naming it" (Mountain In State of Washington Named). She settled on Mount Booker, and that was the name used when the Great Northern displayed the piece at the fair and printed 30,000 copies of a brochure featuring her art.
The reaction to her decision was, not surprisingly, mixed. When pressed on the matter, the USGS, according to Tacoma’s The Daily Ledger, asserted "that, so far as it is concerned, the name has no reference at all to Booker T. Washington" (Mount Booker Named). Other writers employed crude jokes and racial slurs, proposed alternate names, or suggested she "wsurreptitiously" named it (The Seattle Republican). Noted poet and writer Ella Higginson (1862?-1940), in what was meant to be a satirical column for the The Seattle Sunday Times, poked fun at the name but ended with the seemingly more serious barb, "If we must have our mountains named for people, let us pray for some more beautiful and regal names, like Rainier and Roosevelt!" (Clover Leaves). For her part, Hill held fast, insisted it was named for Booker T. Washington, and described him as "one of the most truly great men of our times ... When we look at Mount Booker let us be thankful for Booker T. Washington’s life" and for "what he did to solve seemingly impossible problems" (Mountain In State of Washington Named). A letter to the editor of her hometown’s The Grinnell Herald praised her decision and simply dismissed criticism of her "graceful recognition of merit" as a manifestation of "groveling hate" (Honoring Booker T. Washington).
Despite any controversy, the name Mount Booker or Booker Mountain” as it is sometimes called, endured, and Hill went on to receive three commissions for additional landscapes from the Northern Pacific Railway. In addition, she spent significant time among the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation painting portraits and, in the 1920s, toured through and painted many national parks in the West. After her death in 1943, her daughter, Ina, donated much of her work, including her depiction of Mount Booker, to the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.