Controversy over McKinley/Denali is similar to Mount Rainier’s own story

Aug 31, 2015, 8:53 AM | Updated: 11:54 am
The name of Alaska’s Mount McKinley is returning to its original title, Denali. The battle fo...
The name of Alaska's Mount McKinley is returning to its original title, Denali. The battle for the name is strikingly similar to that of Mount Rainier. (AP)

There’s no longer a Mount McKinley.

North America’s tallest mountain is still there in Alaska, but it has a new name. And that name is its old name: Denali.

The White House made the announcement ahead of President Obama’s trip to Alaska on Monday.

Related: Kerry, Obama to raise global warming issues in Alaska

With this move, the president wades into a sensitive and decades-old conflict between residents of Alaska and Ohio. Alaskans have called the mountain “Denali” for years, but the federal government recognizes its name as McKinley – after William McKinley, the 25th president who was born in Ohio and assassinated early in his second term.

The mountain was first recognized as McKinley in 1896, when a prospector was exploring mountains in central Alaska, according to the White House. Upon hearing the news that McKinley, a Republican, had received his party’s nomination to be president, the prospector named it in his honor. The title was ultimately recognized by the federal government.

Monday’s change returns the mountain’s name to its original native Alaskan title of Denali, which means “The High One.”

Related: The battle to name Mount Rainier

The controversy over Denali is strikingly similar to that of Washington’s own dispute in naming Mount Rainier. Despite its firmly-held title today &#8212 which inspired town names in Washington and Oregon, as well as a beer &#8212 it hasn’t always been called “Rainier.”

“In 1792, Captain Vancouver names the mountain after his friend, Peter Rainier … so that’s the name that is used for a while. But in the 1850s, a book is published by a guy who calls it Mount Tacoma,” Historian Feliks Banel told KIRO Radio’s Seattle’s Morning News.

Similar to how Denali is a native word with a literal meaning &#8212 the high one &#8212, the native word “tacoma” means “mountain.” Banel explains that “tacoma” was commonly used to refer to the mountain that stuck out of the Cascade range; it was the mountain people saw for miles around.

“Then in the 1880s, those evil people with the Northern Pacific [Railroad] chose Tacoma as its terminus [instead of Seattle] … they started calling it Mount Tacoma to promote Tacoma because railroads made money off of real estate,” Banel said.

Tacoma kept that fight up for decades. Additional competition came in 1915, with a movement to call it Mount Lincoln, as part of an effort to name all Cascade mountains after U.S. presidents. Civil War veterans backed that idea.

In 1939, the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce gave up the battle and named the mountain “Rainier.”

“When Tacoma gave up, it was front page news,” Banel said.

MyNorthwest’s Richard Oxley contributed to this report.

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Controversy over McKinley/Denali is similar to Mount Rainier’s own story