"Are you aware that the Col. Bob Wilderness area on the Olympic Peninsula of the State of Washington is named after our Great Agnostic? Also Ingersoll Peak?"
So queried a recent email to our office from T. R. (Tom) Weston, of Washington State.
And no--we were not aware, were you?
Mr. Weston kindly sent documentation and some of the history of this "mini-wilderness" area and how it came to be named after Col. Robert G. ("Col. Bob") Ingersoll.
Wrote Mr. Weston:
"I live very close to the Olympic peninusla and have spent a good part of my time hiking the trails and climbing the mountains of both the Park and the Forest. I work two days a week as a volunteer trail worker for the Forest Service.
"Having been in the Col. Bob Wilderness Area and known about it for 50 years, I was astonished to find out it was named for one of my heroes. Incidentally, this information was given to me by a Forest Ranger with 20 people present and only I had ever heard of Robert Ingersoll!"
The 12,120-acre area surrounding Colonel Bob Peak near Lake Quinault was designated a wilderness in the late 1970s or early '80s.
Ingersoll was America's most feted 19th century freethinker, a wildly admired orator, national figure, and celebrated family man who commanded huge audiences and speaking fees, as well as affectionate praise from the leading reformers of his day, such as Mark Twain, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and another "Fighting Bob," Robert LaFollette. An influential political figure and attorney, Ingersoll was friend to four presidents. It was traditionally believed among his wide audience of fans that Ingersoll only missed being nominated to run as Illinois governor, then as probable president, due to his unstinting dedication to freeing minds from superstition.
As the Chicago Tribune wrote after his death in 1899:
"Splendidly endowed as he was he could have won great distinction in the field of politics had he so chosen. But he was determined to enlighten the world concerning the 'Mistakes of Moses.' That threw him out the race."
One of Ingersoll's many admirers was John N. Locke. On July 23, 1893, he and his son Robert and another Quinault Valley resident, Clarke Peeler, began ascending "Old Baldy," believed to be the highest of a series of peaks in the area. The party ascended Mount Baldy, according to a Daily World [Aberdeen, WA] newspaper recap, only to discover another peak rose 400 or 500 feet higher about half a mile away.
When they reached the summit of the highest peak, they beheld a "grand panorama--the great Grays Harbor county, the Juan de Fuca straits and Vancouver Island all in view," according to the Aug. 17, 1893, edition of The Washingtonian.
This report said the men "christened" the 4,500-foot peak Mount Ingersoll.
Robert Locke himself wrote the federal Board of Geographic Names a slightly differing account:
"My father remarked the tall, rugged mountain standing out above its fellows reminded him of Colonel Ingersoll and he believed he would name it Colonel Bob after him."
The compliment was brought to the attention of Ingersoll, according to the Washingtonian article, who "graciously accepted it" and sent a copy of one of his books to the climbers.
By 1932, the Board of Geographic Names had made "Colonel Bob" official.
The Forest Service crew didn't inspect the area until 1900. Some residents traditionally climbed the peak on the Fourth of July to get snow to make ice cream. Colonel Bob was chosen as a fire lookout in 1932 because of its high elevation, although the lookout was abandoned in 1946, was partially destroyed by weathering in 1966, and was burned in 1967 because it was considered a safety hazard.
An article by Jim Miller appearing in Signpost (Jan. 1990) recounting a trek up the peak describes Ingersoll as "a reverse Jerry Falwell of sorts." Since the trail from Lake Quinault is 7.2 miles, Miller and companions took a shorter four-mile trek from Pete's Creek trail near the Humptulips River at 1,000 feet elevation, starting from the campground in the Campbell Tree Grove. Miller wrote that after a steep ascent up a trail built for management, not recreation, the "tiny mountain top could barely hold a dozen people who were good friends."
A trip to this namesake might be one "pilgrimage" that would gain Col. Bob's approval!
Annie Laurie Gaylor is editor of Freethought Today.