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The scientists are coming

The car chugged forward and then sputtered back. Carrying four passengers and 325-pound driver John Westerlund, there was no way it could climb to the rim of Crater Lake.

Westerlund, opened the door, stepped out, and turned the steering wheel over to a friend. With the wealthy orchard owner huffing, puffing, and pushing from behind, the car finally made it.

No one laughed at Westerlund who was already serving his second term as representative from Jackson County in the Oregon Assembly. While there, he had pushed hard enough to finally get state help to build the Crater Lake Highway. Although the road was narrow and rough in spots, it had turned a five-day wagon trip into a one-day automobile ride.

He was leading a caravan of nine cars carrying some of the world’s most prestigious botanists on a scientific excursion from Medford to the country’s deepest lake.

Known as the International Phytogeographic Excursion of 1913, it was a two-month journey around the United States with Medford its only stop in Oregon. Phytogeographic is the study of the geographical distribution of plants and while here, the scientists took detailed notes of everything they saw.

“The botanists come here to study our district,” said Professor P.J. O'Gara, local representative of the U. S. Department of Agriculture. “We have a chance to advertise the valley very widely at a very small cost.”

On Sept. 3, 1913, at 5:22 in the morning, the Shasta Limited arrived at Medford’s train depot. The scientists, only half awake, rushed to a welcoming breakfast at the hotel. At 8:30 a.m. they were off.

Because it had rained the night before, it wasn’t one of those typical hot and dusty summertime trips; however, after reaching the town of Trail, it rained again and the normally hard packed roads turned to mush. Chains attached to wheels helped the party slog slowly through the mud.

They reached Prospect at 1:00 in the afternoon and sat down to lunch in John Grieve’s Prospect Hotel. After the “splendid dinner,” they gathered a few specimens of plant life and then headed for the lake.

The caravan reached the park entrance in about three hours. The scientists registered at the guard station, while their drivers “cheerfully donated a $1 entrance fee to Uncle Sam.”

More rain and a thick low-hanging fog made driving difficult. The one car that broke down was abandoned 17 miles from the rim.

By 7:00 that evening everyone had finally reached the lodge and after “a bountiful supper” sat around the fireplace listening to Crater Lake Indian legends.

The next morning, the scientists set out in different directions to explore. Most trudged down the steep trail near the lodge into the caldera. A few took an electric launch to Wizard Island, “securing some very rare specimens.”

Then, sudden gale winds, fog, and driving rain forced the scientists back to the lodge. They huddled together, arranging specimens while sitting and “discussing the wonderful beauties and strange things about the lake.”

Back in Medford the next day, the scientists and their wives were treated to a grand banquet at the Hotel Medford. There, the leader of the Phytogeographic Excursion, Professor Henry Chandler Cowles, from the University of Chicago, offered his thanks and a toast.

“Nowhere else,” he said, “has the hospitality been so lavish and complete. The warmth of Medford hospitality will stay with us always.”

George Putnam, owner and editor of the Mail Tribune was proud. “A more enthusiastic and appreciative party of visitors were never before entertained in this valley,” he said, “and this valley never looked better for anyone.”

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.