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Obama To Rename North America's Tallest Mountain In Alaska


The tallest mountain in North America sits in the Alaska Range. It's been called many things - the crown jewel of the North, the great one, big mountain. Officially, though, it has been known as Mount McKinley since 1917, the legacy to America's 25th President, William McKinley of Ohio. But in an executive order announced yesterday, President Obama is renaming the mountain. It will now be known according to its more traditional name, Denali. Frank Noris is a historian with the National Park Service - he wrote "The Crown Jewel Of The North: Administrative History Of Denali National Park And Preserve" - joins us now. And first, Frank Norris, tell us how was it that a mountain in Alaska was named after President McKinley who never set foot in Alaska?

FRANK NORRIS: Well, in 1896, a prospector named William Dickey, after spending several months in the wilderness, came out and heard about the nomination of William McKinley, a devout gold proponent, and wrote a letter to the New York Sun, extolling the mountain Mount McKinley. In fact, he called it that in the New York Sun article. So that was picked up, and within a year or two, it was part of the official geographical lexicon.

SIEGEL: Wow. Now, what about the name Denali? Where does that come from?

NORRIS: Well, various Athabascan groups, for hundreds of years, have lived around the mountain in all directions. And they typically call it Denali or the great one.

SIEGEL: Does anybody, though, call it Mount McKinley, or has it just been Denali to Alaskans?

NORRIS: Among Alaskans, Denali has been preferred. And in fact, this whole controversy began in 1975 shortly after Jay Hammond was elected governor. He wanted to see the name changed, and he was able to work with the Alaska legislature to have an official resolution passed to have the name changed to Denali. That went on over to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names. And for the next five years or so, there was a real maelstrom that took place in Alaska between the Board of Geographic Names and the U.S. Senate and House that various factions wanted to see those names changed.

SIEGEL: But the name wasn't changed, so there must have been some support for keeping it Mount McKinley.

NORRIS: Well, what came out of the final Alaska lands bill that passed in 1980 was a compromise in which the new enlarged national park would be called Denali National Park and Preserve, whereas the mountain itself would be called Mount McKinley. A large reason why the mountain's name stuck was because of the Ohio congressional delegation, specifically Ralph Regula, who came from Canton, Ohio, which was President McKinley's hometown. So they saw to it that the name did not change.

SIEGEL: And managed to bottle this up for quite a while.

NORRIS: And in fact, once the Alaska lands bill passed Congress, there was a provision that said the name could not be changed any time there was an active bill in Congress in which the name would not change. And sure enough, Ralph Regula, who served in Congress until 2009, submitted a bill once every two years saying this name will stay Mount McKinley.

SIEGEL: Well, now that the name is to be changed to the traditional name, Denali, now what do you think?

NORRIS: I think Alaskans have long had a preference for Denali, and in fact, the only people fighting this change have been specifically the Ohio congressional delegation. And I think they're - Alaskans in particular recognize that McKinley's name was entirely specious because not only did he not have any particular recognition of this. He had never been to Alaska. He'd never seen the mountain, and he, you know, he had no personal stake in how this naming took place.

SIEGEL: Frank Norris is a historian with the National Park Service, and we've been talking about the coming name change of Mount McKinley in Alaska to Denali. Thanks for talking with us.

NORRIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.