Park Service comes around: Racist name must go

Crosscut archive image.

The state calls this Howard Lake, but the feds still call it Coon, likely a racial slur.

The National Park Service, responding to pressure to rectify an historical wrong, announced Thursday that it is recommending that the federal government finally follow the state of Washington’s lead in changing the racially offensive name of a Chelan County lake and creek.

The Park Service now wants to change "Coon Lake" and "Coon Creek" to "Howard Lake" and "Howard Creek."

The Park Service is acting in the wake of a series of articles (here and here) on Crosscut this fall, and public pressure to make the change.

The name “Coon” is most likely a racial reference to a black prospector who worked in the area in the late 19th-century named Wilson Howard. But, in 2009 the Park Service blocked the name change with the U.S. Board of Geographic Names. The lake and creek are in the Chelan National Recreation Area, overseen by the Park Service’s North Cascades office.

In a press release, Karen Taylor-Goodrich, current superintendent of North Cascades National Park Complex, admitted that the Park Service’s earlier objection to the change was flawed. “We recognize that our previous decision on this issue overlooked relevant information, and would like to offer our thanks to the citizens who researched and pursued this issue. It is our opinion now that recognizing Mr. Howard for his role in the development of the Stehekin Valley by renaming the lake and creek in his honor is entirely appropriate.”

The key citizen who first brought the entire matter to public attention nearly a decade ago is south Seattle activist Jonathan Rosenblum who has family ties to the Stehekin Valley area where the lake and creek are located. He heard oral histories connecting the name Coon with prospector Howard, and after diligent work persuaded the Washington State’s Board of Geographic Names to agree — unanimously — to re-designate the lake and creek. The feds, which own the land, refused to go along. A Park Service report said there was no proof the name was intended to be offensive, even if named in reference to Howard’s race, and that Howard’s connection to the area was not firmly established.

Crosscut archive image.
A hiker stops by Howard Lake.

Rosenblum had, however, found mining claims that showed Howard had indeed been working at the lake at the time the name was locally adopted. Given renewed pressure to change the name in the wake of recent publicity, the Park Service reviewed its earlier research and obtained new documentation of Howard’s connection to the area from the Washington State Bureau of Mines.

The Park Service’s press release states, “In our current review of the historic record, we realized that our previous research had used a secondary source of documentation for the area’s mining claims, which the newly uncovered records indicate were incomplete and too vague to show the connection Mr. Howard had to the lake.” With that connection firmly established, they have reversed their previous position.

Critical to the push to make the change was political pressure brought to bear by state officials. After the first Crosscut story appeared in September, Seattle state Sen. Pramila Jayapal, and some 50 colleagues of both parties and both houses of the state Legislature, signed a letter to Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell requesting that they act in the matter.

Rosenblum had been planning to gear up to get the Park Service to reconsider based on the fact that 2016 was the service’s centennial. He organized a citizen’s petition to push for the change. In a Facebook post, Jayapal pronounced herself “thrilled” with the Park Services change of heart and pointed to Patty Murray’s office and members of Washington’s Congressional delegation for making it happen. “I am so proud to have helped champion this issue in the State Senate,” she wrote.

Rosenblum, in an email, said, “I’m looking forward to seeing those Howard Lake trail signs!” The hiking trail signs and maps listing Coon Lake, a popular hiking destination, are, he has said previously, an embarrassment. Contrary to many people’s assumption, the area is not known for raccoons.

“It’s a fitting and overdue tribute to the pioneer Wilson Howard," Rosenblum said. "I applaud the National Park Service leadership and staff for responding to the outpouring of support for the name change.

“We need to recognize that the Park Service changed its position only because hundreds of people came forward to say ‘No’ to racism and ‘Yes’ to honoring and recognizing Mr. Howard and his contribution to our past. Congratulations to the hundreds of people who wrote letters, signed petitions, made phone calls, and presented testimony over the years.”

The issue came to the fore in light of the Interior Department’s recent action to rename Mount McKinley in Alaska to Denali, a name change desired by Alaskans but long blocked in Congress.

For the Coon-to-Howard name change to become final at the federal level, it will have to be approved by the U.S. naming board. No word yet on how long that might take, but normally change applications take about a year.

But political pressure is being applied there. On Oct. 23, Sen. Murray sent a letter to Lou Yost, executive secretary of the U.S. names board, acknowledging that in other cases the board and Interior Department have "worked to promptly correct a number of egregious and historically inaccurate geographic names." She urged that the board act now to change the name to "correct this historical wrong."

There are and have been efforts, many led by the feds themselves, to change names regarded as ethnic slurs. Previously, another Chelan County creek, originally named “Nigger Creek” was changed to “Negro Creek,” then again to Etienne Creek in 2009 to honor a freed slave who reportedly made a fortune in gold there. There is also an effective backlog of current name change applications before the national board seeking to change places named “Squaw” in Oregon.

The Park Service says it will make its new recommendation to the U.S Board “in the near future.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.