What’s in a Name?
Geographic place names are a frequent bone of contention. In North America, we have a push-pull between those who want to retain the names for mountains, rivers and the like that were given by the first white explorers, and those who want to use the native American names. It is really a slap in the face to native tribes that we don’t use the names of places they often regard as sacred. But there is a strong inertia at work as well. The U.S. Board of Geographic Names (BGN) is quite the staid, traditional organization. The issue can get people’s blood boiling in a hurry. And that’s not even counting all the racially-offensive place names, the Squaw Buttes of the world.
Mount Rainier in the past definitely illustrated this tension. As mentioned in Part 1 the mountain was named for a rear admiral, a friend of Captain Vancouver (who led the first forays of white explorers up the Columbia River). The name is typical of Cascade mountains. Many were named after the friends and backers of some of the first expeditions to explore the Pacific Northwest, others for presidents. The Puyallup, a local native tribe, called the mountain Talol, or Tahoma (Tacoma). This probably means “source of waters”, but also could be a general term for all snow-capped peaks. Herein lies the problem with native American names, one reason for the BGNs reluctance to change names. Often it is not at all clear what the meaning of a Native American name is. Also, different tribes often use different names for the same place.
During the late 1800s, the city of Tacoma lobbied hard to get the nearby mountain’s name changed to Tacoma. Seattle, then a rival, wanted to leave the name as it was. The debate reached fever pitch in the latter years of the 19th century when the mountain was being considered for National Park status. Tacoma’s civic leaders figured (correctly) that a name change would bring tourism, money and prestige to their small city. Even President William McKinley, who signed the park into existence, weighed in. Perhaps predictably, he favored keeping the name Rainier. A president’s opinion matters, so the park was named Mount Rainier and the mountain’s name stayed the same.
Flying Saucers of Mount Rainier
In the summer of 1947, a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold was flying near Mount Rainier. He had detoured during a business trip to look for the site of a recent crash of a military transport plane (there was a $5000 reward). Suddenly he sighted flashing lights, then discovered they were coming from several strange flying objects near the mountain. He saw some disk- or crescent-shaped objects that were flying en echelon, darting around mountains and into valleys at high speed.
He watched them for quite some time, flying in parallel but losing ground to them fast. He calculated their speed by timing their passage between Mounts Rainier and Adams and came up with 1700 mph (2700 km/h). This was more than three times faster than any known aircraft. Arnold told his story to the folks at the hangar in Yakima where he landed to refuel. The word spread quickly. When he was interviewed by journalists, and later by the Army, he came across as a very careful observer who was not exaggerating.
Arnold did not compare the flying objects’ shapes to saucers. He actually said they looked more like half-discs, or a pie plate cut in half, convex in the rear and longer than they were wide. He told people they flew like a saucer or disk skipping over water. But the term flying saucer was used in newspapers and the name stuck. This was the first documented sighting of a UFO in the modern era. There were many sightings over the next few weeks in the same region, many from very reliable observers.
Did Arnold see craft visiting from an advanced space-faring civilization? He didn’t think so, at least at first. He thought they were a new top secret aircraft being developed by the military. But he soon came to doubt that. For one thing, the speed of the turns as they dipped and weaved would not have allowed a human to survive inside. Although he noted the possibility of their being remote-controlled, he also had estimated their size as larger than a DC4 (a very large craft to be remote-controlled). Later investigation by the Army turned up several other witnesses (a fire lookout, a prospector) that saw similar objects in the same area at the same time.
This event affected Arnold’s life significantly. He loathed the publicity it brought. He was both labeled a loony and contacted by many people who believed in visitors from space. He could not understand, with the amount of concern and interest among the public, why the military would not have come clean if the objects were theirs. Ultimately he seriously entertained the possibility of them being extraterrestrial in origin.
This sighting was followed by hundreds of reports from around the world, 850 or so from that same year. Not long after the Arnold sighting, 9 UFOs in Idaho were spotted by a crew on a United Airlines jet, and this received much more media coverage than did Arnold’s. It was during that same summer of 1947 that the public learned of the Roswell incident, the most famous UFO incident in history.
Was Ken Arnold first to see the vanguard of an exploratory mission of some advanced extraterrestrial intelligence? Did he glimpse advanced military technology? Or did his sighting simply open the floodgates of the public’s imagination, a public primed for this? It was early in the Cold War and the technology revolution (especially in aerospace) was just then going into hyperdrive. The sound barrier had not been broken yet, and the speed of these objects were a big part of what captured the public’s attention. It’s interesting to think about. But one thing is clear: if those saucers were actually extraterrestrial, then Spielberg had it wrong in Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind. It was not Devil’s Tower that the aliens picked to visit first but Mount Rainier!