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The Alaska-Ohio congressional throwdown: Mt. McKinley or Denali?

Why should the whim of an old gold prospector lock us into a mountain's name?

In 1896, as gold standard-embracing William McKinley was running for president of the United States, a visiting gold miner in Alaska began calling a local mountain McKinley. The name stuck.

Unfortunately, the mountain already had a name: Denali. A recent move in Congress launched by Alaska's two Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, would change the mountain's official name back to Denali , reflecting the national park (renamed in 1980) in which it rises 20,237 feet, and what it is called by many Alaskans and the indigenous tribes that first named it.

Well, it would rename the mountain if the measure can overcome opposition by Ohioans, who are rather proud of the link between their native son and the tallest peak in North America, even though McKinley never set foot in Alaska before his assassination in 1901. (The Obama administration said this week it wouldn't block the renaming effort; there's a good overview of the controversy's history here.)

In truth, Alaska and Ohio have been wrestling over this for years. There are a lot of reasons for making the change, not the least of which is respecting local culture and desires. But it's also not the kind of change that should be made lightly, or often -- imagine the confusion if mountains and rivers changed names based the shifting whims.

Ohio Rep. Bob Gibbs, a Republican like Murkowski and Sullivan (an Ohio native), has sponsored legislation that would bar the U.S. Board on Geographic Names from changing the name, potentially setting up a showdown with the Alaska delegation.

“Located in Alaska, Mt. McKinley is the highest point in North America and has held the name of our nation’s 25th president for over 100 years,” Gibbs said in a press release earlier this year. “This landmark is a testament to his countless years of service to our country.”

Except it wasn't named as a testament to McKinley's public service (which was significant). It was named to reflect his role in backing the gold standard, an issue of key interest in a place, Cook Inlet, undergoing a gold rush at the time. 

And that raises another question. California's Mt. Whitney, at 14,505 feet the highest peak in the 48 contiguous states, was named by underlings of Josiah Dwight Whitney, who oversaw the California State Geological Survey. And they did it when he wasn't around -- he had objected to earlier efforts to name another peak after him.

So why not rename that peak as well? An earlier effort to rename Mt. Whitney after Winston Churchill could have let us now say that Mt. Churchill is our finest tower. But a setup for a pun isn't sufficient to rename a mountain (unfortunately).

While Whitney at least had a connection to the mountain that bears his name, Churchill had no more connection to it than did McKinley to Denali. According to the Sequoia Parks Foundation, the local Native American name for Mt. Whitney was Too-man-i-goo-yah, or "guardian spirit." That doesn't have the same ring as Denali. But more significantly, hardly anyone knows Whitney by the indigenous name, so there's really no reason to resurrect it.

But in Alaska, Congress ought to defer to a strong local tradition, and the state's official position, and rename the mountain Denali. Then the folks in Ohio can start looking around for a local hill they can rename McKinley.

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.

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