Last month’s decision to rename Mt. McKinley to Denali — the mountain’s native name that the state of Alaska has used for 40 years — has revived hopes that a lake with a name that also is a racial slur also will be changed to honor a black pioneer.
Coon Lake is how the National Parks Service refers to a 15-acre lake in the middle of North Cascades National Park. The name is on official maps, on Google Maps, in brochures and on signs on the trails leading up to the lake and the adjoining creek. “Coon” is also an epithet against black people that was in common use during the 19th and 20th century.
However, the state refers to the lake as Howard Lake, named after a 19th century prospector Wilson Howard, who name change supporters say was one of the few African American prospectors to lay claims in the area.
Failure to rename the park is “erasing the memory and the life of an African American man in our state who did an extraordinary thing. It’s courageous to come out here and lay a claim in the hopes that you will be the lucky one to strike it rich,” said Jonathan Rosenblum, who started the campaign to change the lake’s name eight years ago.
Rosenblum said he was struck by the oddness of the lake’s official name the first time he visited.
“It seemed to me strange because there are no raccoons there,” he said.
Rosenblum’s research showed that the locals started calling the body of water “Coon Lake” after Wilson Howard staked a mining claim in the Chelan area. Howard, one of the few African American prospectors in the area, didn’t stay, but the name was in wide use by 1902.
Rosenblum says it’s unlikely that the name was a coincidence.
While Rosenblum successfully petitioned the state to rename the lake and a connected creek after Howard in 2007 and 2008, the efforts stalled with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in 2009.
The board rejected the name after the National Parks Service objected, citing “common usage” of the name “Coon Lake” in the North Cascades National Park. According to the minutes of the meeting, the National Parks Service said there was insufficient evidence that the use of the word referred to Howard, and the word was used in a 1904 newspaper article as a term for “apparently a way to cross a stream (water) by walking on a log like a raccoon walks across logs.”
National Parks Service also argued that if the name is changed, the lake and the creek should be named after William McComb, a late 19th century settler whose cabin in North Cascades Park is under the National Register of Historical Places — but under the name of its second (and current) owners, the Courtney family.
(Interestingly, there’s another national Coon Lake in Mason County, which is generally agreed to have been named after the local raccoons. However, in 1972, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names sent instructions to a librarian at the Tacoma Public Library on how to petition for a name change in response to a letter that objected to the name of Mason County’s Coon Lake because of the word’s offensive meaning.)
Of the 13 votes on the naming board, 11 opposed the name change to Howard Lake, and the two board members who believed that Coon Lake is an offensive name supported the name McComb Lake, according to the board minutes.
That’s where the story would have ended — if not for President Obama’s announcement last month that the Department of the Interior changed the name of Mt. McKinley to Denali.
For more than 40 years, Denali has been the state of Alaska’s official name for the nation’s highest peak. The name Denali comes from the Athabascan people, Alaska natives who believe the mountain is sacred. Alaska’s petition to change the name was blocked for 38 years by lawmakers from the state of Ohio, President William McKinley’s home state. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell made the change through her office.
Now, there’s a Move On Petition asking Obama, Washington Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, and the U.S. Department of the Interior to recognize the name Howard Lake, the name that Washington state already uses.
Washington state lawmakers also have weighed in, with a bi-partisan letter signed by 50 state legislators urging federal lawmakers to take action.
Rosenblum said the appeal is directly to Obama who “could do it with a stroke of a pen.”
While it’s been overdue, he said, now is a good time.
“We’ve got greater support now… when we’re constantly having to face the issue of Black Lives Matter,” he said.
Rosenblum also pointed out that the National Parks Service has attempted to boost the diversity of people who use the parks. A 2008 National Parks Service survey showed that parks visitors were less diverse than the U.S. population as a whole.
What better way to show that the parks service cares about diversity, he says, than to erase a slur from the United States’ official maps?