As newlyweds in 1901 they were the first to climb the towering Montana peak, but when evidence of the feat surfaced after eighty-four years, nobody believed it
In July of 1901 my father and mother left St. Paul, Minnesota, on the second leg of their honeymoon for the Lewis and Clark Forest Reserve, which is known today as Glacier National Park. My father, Dr. Walter Bradford Cannon, was a young instructor in the Department of Physiology of the Harvard Medical School, and my mother, Cornelia James Cannon, a recent graduate of Radcliffe College with the class of 1899. They had been married some three weeks before and had with their usual energy and sense of adventure paddled a birch-bark canoe down the historic St. Croix River and then for sixty miles along the broad Mississippi between its impressive bluffs. As my father wrote in his autobiography, The Way of an Investigator, they were twice reported as Indians and occasionally regarded as harvest hands looking for jobs. Then, sunburned a dark brown and toughened by the hard work of propelling their heavily laden craft and making and breaking camp every day, they were ready for fresh adventure. So they set their faces west and boarded a train for Montana.
It was my mother’s first journey west, though my father had on various occasions taken the train from St. Paul to Kalispell, Montana, and back with his sisters on passes from their father, who worked for the Great Northern Railroad. They would sit up in the sooty day coaches and watch the great wheat plains of the Dakotas and Montana unfold before them, dotted with the remote huts of homesteaders.
In a letter back home my father reported my mother’s delight in all she saw, from these same oceans of Dakota wheat to the sweep of the rolling prairies of Montana, “but her enthusiasm knew no bounds when we clambered into the engine at Blackfoot and started up the slope to Summit. She could not suppress her cries of delight as new snow-capped peaks came into view.”
They got off the train at Belton, Montana, and spent the night under the pines by the shore of Lake McDonald. Next evening they took the boat for the upper end of the lake. It was piloted by Charlie Howe, described by my father as “a long, lank figure, with broad-brimmed hat and buckskin coat. He is a guide of the region but is of an easy going Rip Van Winkle variety, hunter by necessity, loafer by nature.
“As we were going up the lake,” my father continued, “Cornelia expressed a desire to climb all the mountains in sight.” Apparently Charlie Howe pointed out Goat Mountain, a massive peak standing at the head of the lake, and said it was “the worst” mountain in the region; no one had ever reached the top, and the first person reaching the summit had the right to put his name to it.
Howe’s tale must have fired my mother’s competitive instincts, for she persuaded her amiable bridegroom to consult a guide named Denis Comeau about trying the ascent of Goat Mountain. My father wrote, “Howe has told us that ‘time, water, and vitality’ were the essentials to climbing a mountain, and we thought if water could be provided, we could supply the others.” Although Comeau was slightly skeptical, not promising an ascent, he was willing to try. Neither my father nor my mother had ever climbed a mountain before, being natives of comparatively flat Minnesota.
On July 18, the night before the climb, they camped under the stars at the foot of Goat. They started their ascent at seven the next morning. At half past ten they reached the snow line and sat down to eat their morning snack. My father rather offhandedly remarked in a letter to his father that “the climbing had been hard, but, aside from a stone falling and grazing Cornelia’s face, had not been exciting.”
The excitement was not long in coming. After eating, the three started up again and had reached a height of five thousand feet when they were confronted by a perpendicular wall of rock, nearly a hundred feet high and stretching all around the mountain as far as they could see. Needless to say, they had none of the equipment of modern climbers like ropes, slings, wedges, and so forth, just boots and bare hands. They tried crawling up a narrow crevice; my mother went through, and so did Comeau, who was small and wiry. But my father was “too thick,” as he reported. “I was wedged in that narrow crack, unable to go up or down, and with a slide of smooth mountainside running almost directly below me for hundreds of feet. I finally felt my footing and got down.”
Comeau decided that the rock face was too perilous for them, and after scouting, he found what seemed to him to be a better place to climb the wall, a place from which the summit could be seen two thousand feet above. The climb from then on sounds excruciating. They passed along a mountain-goat trail only a foot wide on the side of a slide about a thousand feet long, and at last they reached a ridge, along which they scrambled toward a ledge in the side of a precipitous wall of rock. Walking along the ledge, at one point they had to negotiate a corner where the jutting rock was only six inches wide over a yawning void. At last they topped what they thought was the final ridge, and “suddenly there burst upon us the most wonderful and awful sight we ever hope to see,” my father wrote. “Stretching to the north for more than a hundred miles was the grandest profusion of snow capped peaks and jagged walls of rock, reaching into the sky, that the imagination could possibly picture.” They sat gazing at this glorious vision until Comeau called attention to the fact that what they thought was the top was not within five hundred feet of the summit. The top looked dubious to them, but they went on, picking out a stairway in the rock as they went.
As they neared the summit, my mother went ahead, and when the two men reached the highest point, she was there to welcome them with the cry, “This is Cannon Mountain.” My father had a bottle with him, and he wrote on a piece of paper a certificate of their being there and the name of the mountain, then placed the paper in the bottle, sealed it, and covered it with a pile of rocks.
They started their descent in midafternoon and made it down with just one incident, according to my father: An enormous boulder passed them, bounding through the air on a long jump of more than two hundred feet over the rock wall that had almost stymied their upward ascent.
They reached camp at nine o’clock and at noon the next day were back in the hotel at the foot of the lake, “astonishing the natives.” The mountain had been tried many times; members of the U.S. Geological Survey had attempted it only a week before and found it impossible.
My mother was apparently praised on all sides, Comeau swearing that she was as gritty a climber as he had ever seen, “including men.” Charlie Howe said to my father, “That’s a great woman, your wife,” to which my father modestly responded that she did have grit. “Grit!” Howe exclaimed. “She’s American clean through!”
“I never saw or heard of such wonders,” my mother commented, “and I am even resigned to looking like an ex-prizefighter just breaking out in smallpox for the sake of the glories that have been. We slept two nights before and after the ascent out under the pines as the poets advise us to do, but it is not at all what the poets say. The horrible No-see-ums, the invisible fly of the pines, bit from sunset to sunrise, and as they poison me frightfully, I am a sight for Gods and men. Then the mountain rock left the side of my face not what it once had been. But what of that, we are immortal! So long as the eternal mountains stand, Cannon Mountain will stand too.”
Cannon Mountain it was indeed named when the members of the Geological Survey who were mapping the region heard the story of the climb and reported it back to their Washington headquarters. And there it stood, for decades, the stunning peak at the head of Lake McDonald, the provenance of its name long forgotten except by a few members of the family, the story of its ascent recorded only in family letters, in a brief mention in my father’s autobiography, and in an article he wrote.
In late July of 1985, almost eighty-four years later to the day, two young Montanans, James Best of Kalispell and Ted Steiner of Whitefish, both experienced mountain climbers, scaled Cannon Mountain. At the top they found, partially concealed under a cairn, an old four-to-six-ounce clear glass bottle that had once contained a brand of malted milk bottled in Racine, Wisconsin. Inside, well preserved, was a folded note in pencil that read: “This is to certify that on Friday, July 19, 1901 Dr. and Mrs. W. B. Cannon climbed this mountain. Cornelia James Cannon was first to reach the top and named the mountain Cannon Peak. Denis Comeau was the guide.”
They left their find in place when they descended the mountain, but, having consulted with park officials, they returned the next day, retrieved the artifact, and substituted a plastic bottle with a new and identically worded message “for the benefit of future explorers.” They turned the original over to the Park Service.
There the response was more suspicious than enthusiastic. The chief of Glacier Park’s Interpretation Section told a newspaper reporter: “It appears there’s some inconsistency. The metal screw lid wasn’t used until the 1940s, and that type of bottle with pressed seams doesn’t seem to have appeared until 1920. And the writing looks like it could have been done yesterday.” There were dark hints of a hoax.
Even after it turned out that this type of screw-top bottle did exist in the early 1900s, park officials remained skeptical about the note, arguing that because it had survived in such good condition “after all those years,” another climber could have copied the Cannons’ note and inserted it in the bottle. Had these doubters simply looked in their own files, they would have found an account of the climb written by my father and published in the October—December 1955 issue of National Parks Magazine.
However, James Best, showing more initiative and curiosity than the suspicious park officials, set to work on his own to discover the identities of Dr. W. B. Cannon and Cornelia James Cannon. Microfilm records of 1901 newspapers and hotel records revealed nothing; but he did eventually find my parents listed in an old Who’s Who, which led him to my father’s autobiography, with its chapter describing the episode of the bottle.
The Park Service was undecided, apparently still fearing fraud. It was only after their historian contacted Professor Clifford Barger of the Harvard Medical School that the note was authenticated to the Park Service’s satisfaction. Barger, who was working on the first volume of my father’s biography, wrote: “There is no question that the handwriting is that of Dr. Cannon. As I read the note myself, I could not get over the fact that his handwriting as such a young man was so typical of his handwriting for the rest of his life.”
Some weeks after the excitement had subsided, James Best wrote to Professor Barger, “I feel this bit of history significant to Pre-Park history. A classic in Glacier’s romantic magic; honeymoon couple bags toughest peak in Valley! Nobody else has climbed it since.” In the end the park superintendent did give Certificates of Honor to Best and Steiner for their achievements.
The bottle and the note are now safely ensconced in the Apgar Information Center in Glacier National Park, where they are on display from time to time. To be sure, a few years ago, when a niece of mine was there and asked to see the artifact, it apparently had to be dusted off and brought out from some dark recess in which it reposed. Let us hope that it is not about to be lost for another eighty-four years.