Ohio congressman climbs back into McKinley name change battle

FAIRBANKS -- Republican U.S. Rep. Bob Gibbs of Ohio rose to the defense of the late William McKinley Wednesday with the latest in a long series of Buckeye State bills aimed at ending the Denali discussion and preventing a name change for the highest mountain in North America.

"Located in Alaska, Mount 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. "This landmark is a testament to his countless years of service to our country."

McKinley, who hailed from Ohio, has schools, a bridge, a town, a park and other features named after him in his home state. He is buried in Canton, Ohio, home to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the McKinley National Memorial, located on McKinley Monument Drive. A gold prospector named the Alaska mountain after the president in 1896 and McKinley's assassination in 1901 silenced serious debate about the choice until the 1970s.

In 1975, the state adopted the Koyukon Athabascan name Denali, a decision it confirmed in 2001. But the federal naming authorities always balked at a change, in part because of the opposition from Ohio, where there is more interest in the man than in the mountain.

Denali roughly translates as "the high one," according to linguists specializing in Alaska Native languages.

The 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act changed the name of the national park the peak is located in from McKinley to Denali but kept the mountain in McKinley's name. That's how it remains today, with Ohio blocking any move by Alaska to boost Denali.

Introducing the bill to keep the mountain's current name is enough to prevent the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which deals with names and places, from taking any action to consider Denali. The federal board, formed in 1890 in part to deal with the confusion arising from the many Alaska names added to the vocabulary of U.S. geography, has a longstanding policy to defer to Congress.


"The U.S. Board on Geographic Names will not render a decision on a name or its application if the matter is also being considered by the Congress of the United States," says a board policy that existed long before it became an official written rule in 1981.

The existence of Gibbs' bill, like those introduced every two years for decades, shows the board that a matter is under consideration by Congress. No hearings are necessary and approval of the bill is not required, according to the board. The late Sen. Ted Stevens once tried to put a time limit on this tactic but failed. So members of the Alaska delegation introduce competing bills to change the name to Denali but the stalemate continues.

In Alaska, some people use the names interchangeably but Denali appears to have gained a lot of ground over the years. Away from the peak, there is a Denali bank, credit union, borough, street, hotel, hardware store, brewing company, towing company, massage parlor and more, not to mention an SUV, a state park and a national park. While the late president's name is not on quite so many signs in Alaska, a bank and an animal hospital are named McKinley, as are a capital management company, streets, apartments and other institutions.

For many years, Ohio Rep. Ralph Regula blocked the Denali debate in Congress by including a rider on legislation. Starting in 1991, he introduced a one-sentence bill every two years to accomplish the same end: "Notwithstanding any other authority of law, the mountain located 63 degrees 04 minutes 12 seconds north, by 151 degrees 00 minutes 18 seconds west shall continue to be named and referred to for all purposes as Mount McKinley."

After his retirement six years ago, other members of the Ohio delegation began to carry the McKinley banner. As long as someone from McKinley country remembers to file a bill every two years and the U.S. Board on Geographic Names keeps its current policy, the official federal name will remain McKinley, unless the Denali forces can get a bill through Congress -- which may be as difficult as Lonnie Dupre's winter solo ascent of the mountain this month.

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.