Nature Notes

Volume XXXII-XXXIII - 2001/2002

Observation Station No. 1
By Steve Mark

Sinnott Memorial construction
Construction of the Sinnott Memorial, 1930. NPS photo.

Photographs and documentary evidence show that the site known as "Rim Village" has served as the park's main visitor use area since the late nineteenth century. It might appear to first time visitors as dominated by two parking lots located on opposite ends of a roadway, and where randomly placed buildings lack any overarching architectural theme. That impression may hold true until visitors use the walkway defining the northern edge of Rim Village. Bordered by a masonry wall on one side, the promenade was intended by its designers to furnish a safety feature and consistent foreground from which to behold the sublime "picture" of Crater Lake.

Just below the Kiser Studio (the structure utilized as a 'visitor center' during summer) is an overlook reached by walking down a short trail from the promenade. It is not readily discernible at first, since the trail was planned to yield only partial views of the lake and a structure sitting atop Victor Rock. Once inside the Sinnott Memorial, however, visitors find that its parapet provides a spectacular and unobstructed view of Crater Lake and surrounding peaks. Even though it is a confined space with a sheer drop of some 900 feet to the shoreline, this building combines two functions. The first provides a venue for interpreting what transpired to produce a lake of such magnificent beauty, while the other is aimed at enticing visitors to explore the park.

naturalist talk at Sinnott Memorial
Naturalist giving a talk on the Sinnott Memorial parapet, 1957. NPS photo by Raymond K. Rundell.

The Sinnott Memorial (opened in 1931) is designed to present Crater Lake in a naturalistic way. In this case, such a structure should fit into the surroundings as a sign of human subordination to the scale and grandeur of the scene. The designer (landscape architect Merel Sager) went so far as to spend hours in a rowboat on the lake, doing so in order to devise ways to make the building virtually invisible against the inner caldera wall. It started as a "rest" dedicated to its namesake, an Oregon congressman who chaired the House Appropriations Committee prior to his death in 1928, but quickly evolved into a more ambitious project. John C. Merriam, conservationist and a leading advocate for interpreting the national parks, envisioned a sheltered overlook whose porch or parapet might facilitate better visitor orientation to the park story.

Merriam and Bryant
Merriam and Bryant at the rim in 1934. NPS photo.

As a former professor of paleontology, Merriam recognized the educational value of a short talk about the origins of Crater Lake, but in a spot where visitors could both see and understand. A museum needed to be simple and not separate people from the park they came to experience. Toward this end Merriam and several other leading scientists had already established the precedent of combining a parapet with museum at Yavapai Station in the Grand Canyon. Unlike Yavapai, which is situated a mile east of where visitor services are centered in Grand Canyon Village, the Sinnott Memorial is part of Rim Village and therefore close to where most visitors congregate at one time or another. The building's location away from the promenade and roadway conversely provides isolation, a quality that reinforces visitor acceptance of the Sinnott Memorial as both viewpoint and classroom.

As part of capitalizing on the opportunity presented by this venue, Merriam orchestrated funding for volcanologist Howel Williams to produce what is still considered to be a classic work on the geology of Crater Lake National Park. With only slight revisions since its first publication in 1941, this study has served as the primary reference for naturalists giving talks in the Sinnott Memorial.1 Consequently, it may not be surprising that Merriam first considered utilizing the adjacent museum room to provide more in depth information on the park's geological story. He even went to Europe in 1931 and found film footage of volcanic eruptions, but changed his mind about a theme by the time this exhibit area finally opened seven years later.

Merriam's approach to the museum centered on the lake's beauty being so exceptional that it provided a way to see the underlying unity in nature. Most images presented in the museum were photographs, but he also donated several paintings such as the one depicted on page 2 of this Nature Notes volume. Harold Bryant, one of Merriam's proteges who was chief of research and education in the National Park Service at that time, articulated the rationale behind this effort:

The dispensing of knowledge about park features was a goal, important and useful, but it was hoped that the park visitor could be taught to think great thoughts, could be sent home actually inspired. Based on what was seen and heard a visitor could be aroused to contemplate the origin and evaluation of the world we live in, the laws which control it and the interrelations of its parts. If Crater Lake represents an outstandingly beautiful landscape, how can the visitor be helped to appreciate it?2

Although it was intended to play a key role, aiding the appreciation of nature went well beyond the confines of the Sinnott Memorial. One of the aims, for example, behind reconstruction of the road around Crater Lake starting in 1931 involved better presentation of what Merriam and others felt were the top points of interest. Specially chosen pullouts or "stations" were designated along the new "Rim Drive" to highlight geological and scenic focal points seen from the road, with walls and other features such as planting beds taking their cue from precedents established in Rim Village. Merriam's convention of calling the Sinnott Memorial "Observation Station No. 1" was adopted for a time since the overlook and museum represented a logical starting place for visitors traveling a circuit 33 miles in length.

Rim Drive continues to hold its place among the nation's most notable scenic roads, one regularly rated among the top ten by the American Automobile Association. It even served as the showpiece for the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway (a route running well beyond park boundaries) being named as one of the few All-American Roads in 1998. The stations and substations designed as part of the Rim Drive still exist, though several have since suffered unflattering "improvements."3 Few of the pullouts are signed as such and none are presently linked with the Sinnott Memorial in wayside exhibits or the park brochure.

Visitors can still hear regularly scheduled talks during the summer season at the Sinnott Memorial. These presentations emphasize geological and limnological aspects of the park story, just as they always have. Non-personal interpretation in the museum and for the parapet exhibits has taken several different courses over the years, generally overlooking Merriam's observation that:

Just as all who see the lake come under the spell of its beauty, so there are few for whom the story of its coming to be does not take on increasing importance as acquaintance grows. The sublimity power, and orderly operation expressed in this process of creation develop in us a sense of appreciation corresponding to influence of reactions produced by other elements which we recognize as beauty and harmony.4

Reflection Point
Reflection Point, a substation on the east Rim Drive. NPS photo by Francis G. Lange.

cover of leaflet
Leaflet written by Merriam and distributed at the Sinnott Memorial.

The foregoing statement is worth considering in light of the average visit consuming less than four hours, as well as the high likelihood that a large number of these visits will not be repeated. If there is little or no formal linkage between the beauty which initially draws people to Crater Lake and interpreting the origins of park features, then how can visitors ever find them meaningful when they return home?

Whether Merriam was successful or not with his approach to helping visitors appreciate nature can be debated, especially since it hinged so much on his concept of unity. On one level there is visual unity, of the kind where landscape architecture harmonizes with an awe-inspiring spectacle such as Crater Lake. This goal may lead to what is best about experiencing Rim Drive, but is secondary to a unity best characterized as conviction. The latter does not detach art from science, since each has a role in grasping larger meanings in nature that are the stuff of inspiration. Merriam once described the value of this kind of unity in an article about the Grand Canyon:

Through such visualization of nature seen as a whole we come often to the realization that, even when enlarged by the lens of knowledge, the picture indicates the presence of something beyond that vision does not fully reach. So, in various other ways, artist and writer have presented the idea that, in looking upon these great examples of unity in nature, what we see may only be the shadowy expression of things greater still, which neither eye nor mind has yet been able to define.5


1Williams, Crater Lake: The Story of its Origin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1941). His full study is The Geology of Crater Lake National Park (Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1942).

2Harold C. Bryant, "The Beginning of Yosemite's Educational Program," Yosemite Nature Notes 39:7 (July 1960), p. 165.

3The greatest distinction between stations and substations was that stations were visited as part of a naturalist-led Rim Caravan, a service discontinued by the early 1950s.

4Merriam, "Crater Lake: A Study in the Appreciation of Nature," The American Magazine of Art 26:8 (August 1933), p. 361.

5Merriam, "The Unity of Nature as Illustrated by the Grand Canyon," Scientific Monthly 33 (September 1931), p. 234.

Steve Mark is a National Park Service historian who serves Crater Lake National Park and Oregon Caves National Monument.

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