It’s official… The highest peak in North America has been renamed Denali. Here are some facts about the mountain, how it came to be known as Mount McKinley and the US President whose name association with the peak is now at an end.


Denali – The Mountain

  • Denali in Alaska is the highest peak in North America. The native Athabascan people call the mountain Denali, meaning “The Great One”. 
  • A gold prospector, William Dickey, named the mountain Mount McKinley in 1896, after William McKinley. Dickey was among a large group of prospectors who were part of the Cook Inlet gold rush. When asked why he chose to name the mountain after then-presidential nominee McKinley, he cited McKinley’s support of the gold standard. McKinley, who was from Ohio, never visited his namesake mountain or any part of Alaska.
  • The mountain was officially renamed Denali by the Obama administration in August 2015. “With our own sense of reverence for this place, we are officially renaming the mountain Denali in recognition of the traditions of Alaska Natives and the strong support of the people of Alaska,” US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement announcing the change.
  • Until recent years, the mountain’s official height was 20,320 feet (6,194 meters) above sea level, which had been established in 1952. However, a survey conducted in 2010 and made public in September 2013, pegged Denali’s elevation as 20,237 feet (6,168 meters), shrinking it by 83 feet (26 meters). That survey was done by an airborne radar measurement collected using an Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar sensor. Ifsar is an extremely effective tool for collecting map data in challenging areas such as Alaska, but it does not provide precise spot or point elevations, especially in very steep terrain. A more accurate measurement by USGS was revealed in September 2015 which declared the official height at 20,310 feet, just 10 feet less than the 1952 elevation of 20,320 feet. (I climbed it in 2010, hence my tattoo to now incorrect, so nice work USCS!!!)
  • Denali is the third highest of the Seven Summits, following Mount Everest in Nepal and Aconcagua in Argentina.
  • The park in which Denali resides was established as Mt McKinley National Park in 1917 & renamed Denali National Park & Preserve in 1980.
  • There is a distinction between measuring “highest” and “tallest.” The highest mountain is determined by measuring a mountain’s highest point above sea level. The tallest mountain is measured from base to summit. Using that measurement, Denali is taller than Everest (above sea-level). Denali rises about 18,000 feet (5,500 meters) from its base, which is a greater vertical rise than Mount Everest’s 12,000-foot rise (3,700 meters) from its base at 17,000 feet (5,200 meters). Stats aside, Everest remains a more significant challenge due mainly to the physiological demands of extreme high altitude.
  • Climbers often find it hard to acclimate on Denali. Because of its far northern latitude of 63 degrees, the mountain has lower barometric pressure than the world’s other high mountains which reduces the available oxygen concentration and makes it feel like you are climbing a peak closer to 24,000ft.
  • In a typical year, about 1,300 people try to climb Denali; about half of them succeed. Every year around a dozen people need to be rescued from the mountain. It is a formidable climb and one of the great expedition experiences.

McKinley – The President

  • William McKinley was born in Ohio and was the last US President to have fought in the American Civil War (he fought on the Union side).
  • He is best known for being President when the United States acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.
  • During his tenure, Cuba was battling for independence from Spain. The Spanish had used aggressive means including concentration camps to subdue the revolt. McKinley was reluctant to engage in war having experienced bloodshed in the Civil War. In Feb 1898 the USS Maine mysteriously exploded killing 267 servicemen. The public outcry made war with Spain inevitable and war was declared in April 1898. The US won easily and went on to take control of Guam and the Philippines. Later it was concluded that an engine room explosion rather than a Spanish mine most likely blew up the USS Maine.
  • The acquisition of the Philippines led to three years of brutal fighting. The mismatch of U.S. battleships against Filipinos lined up in trenches caused a British reporter to call it “massacre and murderous butchery.” Still, the people of the Philippines held on. General Arthur MacArthur, commander of the Philippines War, marvelled at the “complete unity of action of the entire native population.”
  • McKinley also set a new precedent in foreign intervention by bypassing Congress to send 5,000 troops to China to defeat anti-imperialist rebels in the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. Some historians consider this the origin of modern presidential war power against established governments.
  • While McKinley was reasonably popular at the start of his second term, he was intensely disliked by the immigrant working class who did not believe that they were sharing in any of the prosperity McKinley talked about in his speeches.
  • In September 1901, just 6 months into his second term, President McKinley was shot by an unemployed immigrant and self-declared anarchist Leon Czolgosz while attending an event in Buffalo, New York. He was the third US President to be assassinated in 36 years.
  • McKinley was hit in the abdomen and chest and rushed to a Buffalo hospital. He initially received a hopeful prognosis, but the doctors had initially struggled to locate the bullets on account of the Presidents obesity, and gangrene set in around his wounds leading to his death eight days later. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt succeeded William McKinley as US President.
  • Leon Czolgosz was executed after a short (8-hour) trial. He claimed to have killed the President because “he was an enemy of the working people”.
  • McKinley made an appearance on the $500 bill (yep they used to exist) back in 1928.

There are conflicting views on the legacy of the McKinley presidency which has undergone significant revision in recent years. The Miller Centre at the University of Virginia sums it up in a way which perhaps best captures his tenure…

“McKinley was not a charismatic leader, and he did not inject drama into presidential affairs like his successors, especially the two Roosevelts and Wilson. Nor did he try to use his office as a bully pulpit to rally Americans to his policies and programs—initiatives which, in themselves, were small in scale compared to those put forward by his successors. Rather, William McKinley was an affable man and an astute and patient politician whose political skills and confidence enabled him to make firm decisions even when they were not popular ones. He did not reinvent the presidency, but he did work very successfully within the prevailing limitations and conception of the office.”

Information Sources:

  • National Museum of American History
  • Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. “William McKinley: Impact and Legacy.”
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