On the trail to Mount Reagan, forgetting the feats of Clay

Mount Clay, the low peak with snow patches (right of center), and Mount Jefferson, the higher peak beyond it, were visible as backpackers Andrew Moody (left) and Matt Mount Clay, the low peak with snow patches (right of center), and Mount Jefferson, the higher peak beyond it, were visible as backpackers Andrew Moody (left) and Matt (Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe)
By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / May 22, 2010

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When admirers of Ronald Reagan went casting about in New Hampshire for a monument to the former president, they seized upon a peak in the White Mountains.

Mount Clay, they said, begged for a new name.

Situated in the Presidential Range, where neighboring summits are named for presidents including Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Pierce, and Monroe, Clay seemed an outlier. It was named after a mere senator — a titanic figure of the 19th century, to be sure, but no president. Reagan was the better fit among the presidential company. Local towns supported the change and in 2003, the Legislature approved it.

But the effort abruptly ran aground this month when a federal agency that had final authority because the mountain sits on federal land vetoed the name change. Now, Republicans are vowing appeals, new legislation, and branding the veto a trampling of states’ rights.

“There was a state decision made through elected representatives expressing the will of their constituents and now it’s being overruled by a distant federal body,’’ said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the state Republican Party. “This just reinforces the point that Reagan was known for — that states should have more power in decision making than the federal government.’’

The clash underscores the fractious politics of names, particularly in a treasured stretch of the White Mountains where many feel kinship, even intimacy, with their ridges and spurs, ledges and ravines. These are mountains whose repeat hikers keep careful notes of their ascents, hiking the trails again and again, at different times of day and in different seasons.

“When you talk about the names of these mountains, it’s not just the names,’’ said Larry Garland, cartographer for the Appalachian Mountain Club. The club took no official position on Mount Clay but offered a litany of reasons for why changing the name was a bad idea, including the possibility of navigational confusion. “It’s people’s associations, their identities.’’

Even with such reverence for the mountains’ names, there is a long history of challenging them. In 1860 — about 80 years after Mount Washington got its name and some 20 years after other presidents acquired theirs — the influential Unitarian minister Reverend Thomas Starr King decried the names as a “wretched jumble.’’

“What a pity that the hills could not have kept the names which the Indian tribes gave them,’’ he wrote, according to the Mount Washington Observatory.

Some mountains have been renamed over the years, but the changes don’t always fully take hold. In 1913, Mount Clinton, named for DeWitt Clinton, governor of New York, was renamed Mount Pierce to honor President Franklin Pierce, a native son of New Hampshire. But today, hikers are as apt to call it by the old name as the new one. The road along its western foot is still called Mount Clinton Road, and a path off its eastern flank is called Mount Clinton Trail. Amid such conflicting signals, the Legislature felt the need in 2003 to pass a law that “reaffirmed’’ the Pierce name.

The obsession over mountain names extends well beyond the peaks themselves, into the profusion of overlooks, notches, and gulches that have acquired monikers. For years, mountaineers debated the origins of Lowe’s Bald Spot, the name of a promontory on the west side of Pinkham Notch. Many believed it was named for a well-known family in the Whites.

But a vocal minority insisted the name was a reference to a bald spot on a man with the last name of Low. Research unearthed a newspaper article that confirmed the name owed to Low, a frequent White Mountain hiker who led guests from the grand hotels on day hikes, often taking them to the ledge. Low had a hairless pate.

It was into this historically steeped, tradition-bound culture of mountain nomenclature that Reagan admirers stepped in 2003. Nationally, the Reagan Legacy Project, an effort to name something for the former president in every state, was underway. With its backing, New Hampshire Republicans began a full-court press to have Mount Clay renamed.

In his day, Clay had been a towering figure in American politics, known as the “Great Compromiser’’ for brokering deals credited with holding the country together and delaying the Civil War. In 1957, a panel of historians and Senate leaders named him one of the nation’s five greatest senators. But he is largely unknown today. And support for changing the mountain’s name surged. Towns near Mount Clay offered encouragement, and in 2003, the Legislature approved the measure. One step remained — approval by the United States Board on Geographic Names, composed of 16 appointed members from federal agencies and departments, such as Commerce and the Postal Service. Its mandate is to maintain uniform geographic names in the federal government.

The board waited until 2009 to begin its review, citing rules requiring that commemorative names be considered only after five years have passed since the person’s death. (Reagan died in 2004.) Last week, the board rendered its verdict, saying that it was reluctant to change an historical name. It noted that the vote opposing the name change was not a reflection on Reagan; one board member said that removing the name of Clay could be viewed as a dishonor to the Kentucky statesman.

Lou Yost, the board’s executive secretary, said that the board had received nearly 200 e-mails. The majority opposed to the change, with some noting that Reagan was not well known for his environmental initiatives.

He added: “In the past eight to nine years, the board has been more reluctant to change existing names. They never liked it and were always slow to do so, but it seems like in the past few years, they have approved very few.’’

New Hampshire Republicans disagree.

“It’s an insult to one of our greatest presidents,’’ said Representative Ken Weyler, a leading backer of the move.

Others say that naming principles should rule the decision, not politics.

“People who study names don’t like commemorative names because you end up with atrocious names,’’ said Robert Julyan, author of the “Place Names of the White Mountains.’’ “In 200 years, maybe no one will know who Reagan was, just as today, most people don’t know diddly about Henry Clay.’’

State officials say they will follow the federal dictum and maintain the name Mount Clay on state maps and signs. Some Republicans say they plan small acts of defiance.

“I will certainly call it Mount Reagan,’’ said state Senator Jack Barnes, a cosponsor of the 2003 legislation who said he plans to urge the state’s congressional delegation to sponsor overriding legislation in Washington. “And I will certainly call the Yankees the evil empire. But what I call things doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.’’


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