One of Willamette University’s most famous alumni died 100 years ago this September. Although John Waldo, Class of 1863, served in the Oregon Legislature and as chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, he is best remembered for his visionary efforts — and success — in protecting the Cascade Mountain range. Waldo left a wilderness legacy that stretches 250 miles, from Mount Hood in the north through Mount Jefferson, Three Sisters and Crater Lake, and on to Sky Lakes and Mountain Lakes in southern Oregon.
Many Americans are familiar with John Muir, the founder of the modern wilderness preservation movement and the driving force behind the creation of Yosemite National Park. While Muir worked for wilderness protection in California, Waldo introduced legislation to protect Oregon’s Cascade Mountains and pled his case all the way to the White House.
Waldo was born to pioneer parents in 1844, east of Salem in what are now called the Waldo Hills. There were only seven faculty members — including Jason Lee’s daughter Lucy — when he attended “Wallamet University,” and classes were held in the Old Institute, a three-story wooden building with three classrooms. Waldo and other members of the Class of 1863 paid $15 in tuition and pored over Latin, Greek, Plato, Homer and “moral science” in addition to reading, writing and arithmetic. They used Webster’s dictionary as a classroom manual, a rain gauge donated from the Smithsonian Institute, and engravings of the human stomach meant to illustrate the “evils of drunkenness.” When studies got too serious, students rigged a bucket of water over the door to douse an unsuspecting entrant.
Waldo probably picked up the legal trade by apprenticing himself to a lawyer since Willamette’s law school wouldn’t be established for another 20 years. The capitol city of 4,500 would have been an excellent place to obtain a legal education, as it had more than its share of practicing lawyers. Along the way he married Clara Humason, whom he called “the sweetest of the earth.”
The Civil War had just ended, and Oregon’s Willamette Valley was still a remote place at the edge of the continent. Although the river valley was home to 40,000 settlers, 90 percent of the land had not yet seen a plow, and oak savannas and prairies stretched for miles. Reporter Samuel Bowles wrote in 1865, “Oregon is … a revelation. It has rarer natural beauties … than I had dreamed of.” Bowles called the Willamette Valley the “garden of Oregon.”
In spite of Waldo’s reserved nature, the attorney ran a successful campaign for the Oregon Supreme Court in 1880. He was elected chief justice in 1884 and served as a progressive Republican in the 1888 Oregon State Legislature. He was known for his gentleness and his charming conversation — likely the result of voracious reading — and was heavily influenced by Thoreau and Emerson and their vision of wilderness as refuge.
Indeed, the wilderness had become Waldo’s refuge, but in an unintended way. Sickly as a child, Waldo suffered bouts of asthma all his life. Doctors advised the frail patient to go up into the mountains. The cool, clear air, they said, would prove the tonic he needed.
And the wilderness did heal, but in a more profound way. Waldo developed an intense spiritual connection with the Cascades; they became the defining landscape of his life. Although he considered his farmstead “the fairest spot on the globe,” he acknowledged “in the woods I seem at home.”
Each summer, Waldo loaded packhorses with flour, cheese and butter, and disappeared for months. He and four or five companions would follow the crest of the sprawling mountain range, exploring from the Columbia River Gorge to California’s Mount Shasta. They fished the streams, caught antelope, cooked venison, jerked bear meat and gathered huckleberries. They cooked over campfires, slept in tents and listened to the howls of Oregon’s last wolves.
Waldo became intimately familiar with Oregon’s flora and fauna. He visited Crater Lake when it was virtually unknown and saw one of the last grizzly bears that roamed the area.
While the grizzly bears were moving out, the sheep were moving in. In the 1800s, the Cascades were seen as a place to run sheep and draw off timber, and restrictions were unheard of. Before too long, unlimited grazing had left mountain slopes denuded, riverways trampled and watersheds damaged — prodding the reticent judge to embark on a career as Oregon’s first conservationist. Waldo’s ideas were revolutionary in the late 1800s — and still are. His protectionist vision was not limited to one peak or to a select canyon, but to the entire Cascade range. When he first suggested the outlandish idea to a like-minded friend, the man assumed he was joking.
Waldo introduced state legislation to protect the Cascades, which passed in the House but failed in the Senate, done in by the sheep industry. Waldo then appealed to President Grover Cleveland, asking him to set aside a large remnant of the state as a forest preserve. The proposal seemed doomed. Oregon’s most powerful monied interests sent emissaries to Washington to bend the president’s ear in the opposite direction. Waldo responded with a public awareness campaign, urging Oregonians to protect their communal watersheds and pressing home the importance of “communion with untrammeled nature and the free air,” up where “the spirit is enlarged.”
“Blessed be the mountains and the free and untenanted wilderness. … The high wild hills about here, totally unfenced and uncultivated, are good for eyes that would not have the world altogether cut up into cabbage patches.”
— John B. Waldo, former Oregon chief justice
Letters poured forth from ordinary Oregonians across the state, but the single letter that likely persuaded President Cleveland came from the judge. Waldo’s letter reflected his intellect, his intimate knowledge of the Cascades, and his deeply held convictions; it remains one of the great masterpieces of conservationist literature, an eloquent sermon in defense of wilderness. He argued that spiritual interests should be balanced with material interests, and wrote, “A wise government will know that to raise men is much more important than to raise sheep.”
President Cleveland upheld Waldo’s vision, bequeathing to all Americans the soaring volcanic peaks, pristine lakes and tranquil forests of the Cascade Range Forest Reserve.
Waldo made his final trip to his beloved Cascades in August 1907. The 63-year-old rode his horse up the familiar trail toward Mount Jefferson and wrote his last journal entry: “Blessed be the mountains and the free and untenanted wilderness. … The high wild hills about here, totally unfenced and uncultivated, are good for eyes that would not have the world altogether cut up into cabbage patches.”
Waldo tried to join some of the younger members of the party on an ascent up Jefferson but faltered on a high ridge and turned back. The following day, his asthmatic lungs failing, he was evacuated by stretcher from his lakeside camp and met his dear Clara in the small mountain town of Detroit. He died 12 days later.
Salem’s Capitol Journal ran its headline in large block letters: Death Claims a Noble Man. “He grew up in touch with nature … a man such as nature’s teaching molds. To him the mountains with their purpling canyons and glittering snow peaks were a book to which there was no end.”
The name of this Willamette alumnus is imprinted across the landscape, including his namesake, Waldo Lake, which forms the headwaters of the Willamette River. Deep and almost perfectly clear, it is one of the purest bodies of water in the world.
The Cascade Range Forest Reserve, Waldo’s legacy, has evolved into 19 federally protected wilderness areas, and like Waldo, Oregonians have come to define themselves by the sweeping mountain range that forms the backbone of their landscape.
Judge John B. Waldo: Oregon’s John Muir was written by Salem naturalist Bobbie Snead. The book covers Waldo’s life and accomplishments, and includes historic photos, original journal entries and letters. It is available at the Willamette Store on campus.