Death on Mount Rainier: Edgar McClure Was A Climber and Chemist

Edgar McClure trio

Samuel Edgar McClure was the son of Eugene pioneers, handsome and mustachioed, a man of science and a man of adventure.

He was the first chair of the UO chemistry department and a member of Portland’s Mazamas mountaineering organization, scaling Cascade volcanos with heavy scientific gear on his back to take the measure of the mountains.

His death near midnight on July 27, 1897, high on the icy slopes of Mount Rainier, at the too-young age of 34, made national news.

His was the first recorded climbing death on the iconic Washington volcano, and a rocky outcropping at 7,385 feet near Paradise Glacier is named for him.

There once was a McClure Hall on campus, but it was demolished in 1953 to make way for Allen Hall. Today, a wing in the Earl housing complex bears his name.

Born in Eugene on New Year’s Eve, 1862, to Andrew Samuel McClure and Sarah Jane (nee Dillard) McClure, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the UO in 1883 and a master’s in 1886. In the interim, he spent a year studying at Harvard.

McClure became one of the most expert mountaineers in the Northwest, according to a July 31, 1897, story in the Eugene Guard, headlined “Eugene Mourns Her Favorite Son.”

He brought a scientific bent to his expeditions, carrying on his back an unwieldy mercurial barometer to the summits of Mount Adams, Middle Sister, and Diamond Peak.

On that fateful summer day, McClure was a member of a huge Mazamas party that had climbed the flanks of Rainier. Fifty-eight of the group’s members summited the mountain, then the largest number to have accomplished that feat in a single day.

After using his barometer to measure Rainier’s elevation in the afternoon, McClure was part of a small party that elected to descend the mountain after dark. Trying to find his way down, McClure ventured to a rocky outcrop and quickly realized his mistake.

Standing on a ledge, his large instrument strapped to his back, he yelled his final words to companions higher up the slope: “Don’t come down here; it’s too steep.” Moments later, he lost his balance and tumbled down the icy, rock-strewn pitch.

The headline in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer grimly summed up McClure’s demise:

HIS LAST ASCENT

Edgar McClure perishes on Mt. Rainier

Falls Over A Precipice

His Bruised and Mangled Body Found Among the Rocks

McClure’s death was not in vain. The measurement he took of Mount Rainier that day, 14,528 feet, was used until 1914 when the US Geological Survey took a new measurement and pronounced Rainier to be 14,408 feet high.

Writing later that year in the P-I, Herbert Bruce said McClure was regarded by his friends and students “as a born high priest of nature, whose chief mission in the world was to reveal her secrets to mankind.

“He offered up his life virtually a sacrifice to the cause of popular and practical science, and in as lofty a sense as ever dignified a Roman arena, he was a martyr of the cause of truth.”

Tim Christie is a staff writer for University Communications.

Climbers photo: VM1993.016 1897 Rainier Outing, Mazama Library and Historical Collections

McClure photo: 1900 Mazama Annual, p. 43