MIGHTY JOE MOROVITS-MOROVICH

 

 

You can do it with any map, but the game is most fascinating with a topographic map of a mountain area well known to you. The aim is to dig into dim bypaths of history to learn the stories of the persons immortalized in landmark names. Purists brush aside the Lovers' Leap and Artists' Point kind of thing-generally there never was a leaping lover or an artist anyway-and instead zero in on genuine people and actual happenings.

 

Maps of Mount Baker National Forest, an area that encloses the magnificent North Cascades in the northwest corner of the state of Washington, are ideal for this sport because the explanations are, tantalizingly, just beyond your grasp. Our history is so recent, so new, that forever I just miss the right "feller" to answer my questions. I don't know how many times I've been told: "Well, you just missed 'im. Used to be this old feller, up in his 90s he was and sharp as a tack, knew all about this country. Lived alI his life on the old fur trail up on Little Beaver Creek in the Primitive Area with this Injin woman. But he comes to die a short while back. . . ."

 

Still, I've bagged some dandies. I know that Dead MaWs Camp, at a little tarn above Hannegan Pass, was named for-a wealthy eastern hunter who disappeared while hunting wild goats up on Granite Mountain, and that his family offered large rewards but never turned up a trace of him. At the plea of his wife his camp was left just as he departed it, and so it remained until it moldered into the forest duff. I know that Damfino Ridge, the massive upheaval of rock extending from Church Mountain to Tomyhoi Peak, was so named because gold prospectors came upon an old coot hacking into a quartz vein and asked him, "Any gold in these mountains?" "Damfino," answered the miner, and Damfino is the ridge to this day.

 

On the other hand, who was Winnie of that horrendous ice wall named Winnie's Slide at the lower end of Mount Shuksan's Hanging Glacier? Did Winnie actually slip on that awful ice, across which climbers must cut steps? If you're one of us mapophiles, you know this kind of probing goes on forever. You can't win them all. The maddening thing is that Winnie and Damnation Peak and Mounts Terror, Fury, Triumph and Despair in the Picket Range of our North Cascades, and Three Fools Creek and Desolaton Peak and Cutthroat Peak and Nightmare Camp-any of which should be good for a tremendous yam-are ignored in the thin historical library of a young country.

 

The real teasers are the mountain men, a strange, silent breed who chose a lonely solitude without parallel in the settlement of the Pacific Northwest. Mount Baker National Forest is filled with their names, for the most part misspelled, but this adds a sporting handicap for the hunter. John McMillan, the squaw man who drove out his Indian wife and a passel of half-breed kids in a fit of rage, is there on his horse meadow, McMillian Park. Tommy Rowland, the trickster who talked a greenhorn into staking him to full diving gear for "exploration" of 18-inch-deep creeks in search of gold in the stream beds, is remembered at Rowland Point. Brave Anna Howard Price, the first woman to climb Mount Shuksan, is there, at Lake Ann; the great mountaineer, Hap Fisher, at the Fisher Chimney on Mount Shuksan; the baby daughter of a timber cruiser at Lake Doreen in the spectacular Bell Pass country; a railroad engineer of the Bellingham Bay and British Columbia logging train at Bagley Lakes; Frances Hayes, a lady mountain climber and nature lover who bathed nude among its ice chunks, at Hayes Lake in the Galena Chain of Lakes.

 

They left bits and pieces of themselves behind. Far up toward the summit of 7,868-foot Mount Larrabee, at the Canadian border, abandoned on a sliding shale slope to weather in the deep snows and terrible winds, there's a rusted wheelbarrow. Who pushed it there and why? I'm haunted by it and by the mystery of carloads of dry groceries brought in by mule train and packed deep into the bowels of Gargett Mine above High Pass on the same mountain. There are nameless log cabins lost in tangles of vine maple and bracken, smashed by the weight of tremendous snows, and rusted mining machinery twisted into the shapes of question marks, remnants of narrow-gauge wagons and coils of rotting cable left from the great gold excitement of the early 1890s. There are even mining camp stores abandoned in panic with full display, of rodent chewed dry goods on the shelves.

 

They all haunt you after a while, these voiceless ones. But the most persistent of my personal ghosts is the mightiest of all the mountain men, Joe Morovits, the pioneer of mountaineering in the Mount Baker region, who set about living a legend in 1891 that still is pith and fire of much of the oldtimers' talk around winter hearths in the isolated country of the upper Skagit River. For 27 years Joe was the jolly Hermit of Baker Lake, a sort of Paul Bunyan of the Cascades, who made lone first ascents of glaciated 10,000-foot peaks with such casual regularity that he neglected to leave any cairn to mark his triumphs upon their summits.

 

Morovits-with his name misspelled-is on some topographic maps at Morovitz Creek and Morovitz Ranch. But I really found Joe Morovits, as I found many of the mountain men, in yellowed old records of early rangers of the Washington Forest Reserve, which in those days encompassed all the national forests of northwest Washington. Joe, reported an angry ranger, had been up to his old tricks. He'd touched off a massive forest fire behind him on a trip out for supplies over 32 miles of rough trail from his ranch to Birdsview, the old stop for stern-wheel riverboats on the Skagit. A good rousing forest fire was Joe's answer to burgeoning Douglas fir forests and windfall that threatened to push him off his mountain. When trees started to grow over miles of trail he had built and maintained in his kingdom between Mounts Baker and Shuksan, Joe retaliated with holocausts the like of which haven't been seen since in that wild country.

 

There is no mark of Morovits' chief gold mines, the Fourth of July Mines, on the maps, but I could guess at their location on a rock outcropping about halfway between Austin Pass and Baker Lake at the side of Swift Creek. It took a long summer day of struggle down that rough 18 mile trail, overgrown now and brushed in as Joe never would have tolerated, to reach the site of his diggings and one-man stamp mill at the junction of Fourth of July and Swift creeks, deep in wilderness as profound and untouched as that, known by lonely Joe. And there I came as close to knowing Joe Morovits as I'll ever manage.

 

I found his massive mortar (later I discovered that it weighs 2,300 pounds), apparently dropped out of the sky in the decaying mill, now spired with defiant young trees. No narrow-gauge wagon ever could have come up that trail. No team of horses or mules could have pulled together on that ore-crushing mortar. There sits that chunk of iron, as great a mystery as any in the Cascades, proof that Joe Morovits brought it in with nothing but his own brute strength and ingenuity. The old men of the river tell me that he windlassed it, hauling from tree to tree, all the way over his own crude trail from Baker City, now Concrete, on the Skagit River to Baker Lake and finally up Swift Creek to the Fourth of July Mines! The terrible haul took him two years. He worked at the task every day that he could spare from his ranch and his prospecting.

All other feats of all the other mighty men-even Dirty Dan Harris' incredible cattle drive up the Skagit Gorge to Hope, and up the Indian Trail on the Fraser to starving gold-rush hordes-fade into insignificance before that mute albatross of iron. I know when I am hooked. Ever since, every time I run across an early-day ranger, a gyppo logger or an ancient timber cruiser, a venerable prospector with gnarled and broken old hands, I ask him about Joe Morovits. Once I even went down to Seattle when an old trunk of Morovits was found in the basement of a hotel that was being demolished. Shoved way under a stair in a dank corner for more than 40 years, the trunk contained Joe's musty black Sunday suit-the clothing he wore when he made infrequent trips to Seattle to interest new capital in his mines. There were faded old photographs, too, showing Joe, a great skookum bull of a man, and early-day members of the Mountaineers, Seattle's climbers" club, standing on the summits of Joe's mountains. It's all right, Joe, I thought, 1ím your friend. A reporter from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer came around and looked at the contents of the trunk, too, but so lost is Morovits to the history books that the newspaper could do no more than run a feature story, Who was Joe Morovits?

 

Well, I could have told them who Joe Morovits was, but I still do not know why he gave all the years of his superb strength and marvelous will to a search that he knew was futile. Joe came down out of the mountains, after 27 years of labor the like of which only rarely can have been equaled, with exactly $175. The $175 was the value of a small poke of gold flakes and bits that he used time and again to salt his mines-as much for his own encouragement as to fool possible investors. He left behind, stuck with a knife to the table of one of his masterly cabins, a promissory note written to himself for the sum of $100,000 for a half interest in a surface prospect on Rainbow Creek, which he called the Saint Joe Mine. Now why did Joe do that? Was he thumbing his nose at mountains that had withheld their treasure from him? I don't think so, for he loved and knew the mountains with a passion felt by few men. I believe the note was a cry of wry pain for the dreams of his lost youth.

 

Morovits was a different man to each old-timer who knew him. To one, Joe was a French Canadian voyageur who drifted to British Columbia and thence to his†††† multiple mining claims and homesteid at the foot of Mount Baker. To another he was a Russian, come down to Cascade country from the colony in Sitka, Alaska. Still another is sure of just one thing: "Morovits was born in the Alps" he insists to me; while a fourth swears that Joe talked-to packhorses in the Croatian tongue. Like many a man who never tells a story twice in the same way-and likes a little mystery about his origins-Morovits dealt with fact only when he took unfamiliar pencil in his calloused, work-hardened hands. Joe wrote to his mountain-climbing friend, the late Charles Finley Easton, historian of Bellingham, that he was born. near the town of Eastman, Crawford County, Wisconsin on April 25, 1866. His parents Bohemian immigrants, separated, the mother being left with seven children and small funds. Neighbors took Joe on aas a farm hand at 9 years of age for a wage of $2 a month. He never went to school, learning to read and write during his early manhood from a bunkmate in the coal mines.

 

He came west, working coal mines in Colorado, Idaho, California, Vancouver Island in British Columbia and finally Blue Canyon Mine on Lake Whatcom near Bellingham, Washington. There Joe lifted his eyes to the mountains and found the adventure he had been seeking. He left the coal mine and found his way to the unknown wilderness of the Baker Lake country, south and east of Mount Baker. Locations and relocations of mines by the score, up the slopes of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan, are listed in Morovits' name in old Whatcom County records.

 

He wrote: "I located here two miles west of Baker Lake On the 13th day of October 1891, built a cabin fit to move into five days later. I lived alone for 27 years. The closest settler finally come in 12 miles down the river. There were no trails before me, not even blazes. I wanted to prospect the mountains for precious metals and settled to stay until I could clean up a few hundred thousand dollars. Single handed I drove over 1,000 feet of tunnel and shaft work, have washed down thousands of yards of gravel for placer and have built over 40 miles of trail and kept it open all these years. I have been alone nearly all the time, a hermit, but a busy one. I am a jack of all trades. I do iron work and wood work and run my own stamp mill. I put in my own tram, harnessed the water power, took in my own machinery and set it up."

 

Morovits customarily carried a pack of 100 pounds on his back on the 32-mile trek from the general store at Birdsview on the Skagit River to his homestead. He'd weigh up his bacon, flour, beans, ammunition and dynamite and make up whatever weight was short in whisky. Settlers on the Skagit swear they remember him forging up the trail with an iron cook stove strapped to his back, the oven of which he'd packed tight with supplies, a sack of flour topping the whole, necks of whisky bottles protruding from his pants pockets. He needed a full mile of continuous cable to transport ore for crushing from one of his mines to the completed stamp mill. While the river people bet one another that Joe had been defeated at last by a task beyond even his gorilla strength, Joe hitched a long line of 22 horses, placed them 10 yards apart, double-looped the great cable in sections from horse to horse and began the drive with a helper. When at last he brought the cable to his claims, he had nothing but his own mighty manpower with which to lift the heavy coils into position in the trees. It took a full year, but he did it and had the pleasure of sending his buckets of ore whizzing down the mountainside on that cable.

 

If ever he found his few hundred thousands, it was his plan to "move to town, build me a palace, drive an auto and marry me a wife." It wasn't long before he knew the whole thing was a dream-Joe was a smart man-but by then he had come upon a way of life that pleasured him so that he was loth to leave it. Potatoes raised on his ranch, wild berries, Baker River's trout and homing sockeye salmon comprised his main food supplies. Deer, black bear and mountain goats were steady fare on the Morovits menu. Hunting goats was a chore made arduous by the fact that Joe had to come on them from below, alerting them and sending them scrabbling for the heights. Irked at the unfairness of the situation, Morovits deliberately shot minute toe and fingerholds for himself up a steep rock cliff, blasting away at a route by which he could sneak up above the animals and take them by surprise. Thereafter he brought home goat meat as surely as the housewife brings hamburger from the supermarket.

 

Morovits' renown as a mountaineer began to spread through the Northwest after July of 1908, when Seattle's Mountaineers, bent on ascent of Mount Baker via a new route pioneered between Park and Boulder glaciers by Joe, camped 54 strong near Baker Lake on the long pack-in from the terminus of a logging train then reaching through to Concrete. "He strode into camp with a 100-pound pack on his back like the mountain itself in human form," wrote one of the club members. "A Bohemian, he wore the mustache of a French Canadian. He wasn't more than 5 feet 9 inches in height, weight around 170 pounds, but he was of a close-knit, muscular build with remarkable girth of chest, belling out immediately under his chin and tapering to a small waist. His great arms hung near his knees. An impressive man of swarthy, wild appearance, he had a look of will power and determination about him to match his physical prowess. Without equipment of any kind except for a long pike of fir tipped with. a self-made contrivance of steel shaped like -the bowl of a large spoon, he had made all the major climbs of the area, seeking out the most violent routes up the mountains as a 'pastime' compared to the hardships of running a one-man mine and stamp mill."

 

Morovits often required that the men give him a hand at laying in his hay so he could spare time to guide the mountaineers up his Morovits Route. He led one group; L. A. Nelson, a climber with considerable reputation in the area, led another; and Joe finally stood, with club members, for his seventh time on the summit of 10,778-foot Mount Baker. The mountaineers returned to Seattle with many stories of Joe's gallantry to bloomered lady climbers, of his enormous good spirits and of his place discoveries and guiding ability. Thereafter the Morovits Ranch became a kind of headquarters for mountain climbers seeking guidance, among them an ill-matched couple of an eager young wife, enamored of the mountains, and a husband many years her senior. With Joe, they made camp near the stout of Boulder Glacier. Partway up the mountain the next morning, the husband called a halt, declaring that he could go no farther. He was left with the pack in a protected spot while Joe and the girl continued. Some hours later the husband looked up, horrified at wild whoops of, "Get up! Get up and get aboard!" apparently coming out of the sky.

 

Followed by a 15-foot rooster tail of snow geysering out from Joe's heels, the couple was glissading down Boulder Glacier tandem-seated at a pace that seemed to the timid husband -30 miles an hour." Heeling in, Joe brought the tandem to a graceful, swirling stop just below the man, lifted the lady from his lap to her feet, casually sauntered up, bade the husband the time of day and shouldered his pack for the return down the mountain. Thereafter all Joe"s descents of Mount Baker, some of them on a coal scuttle, were seated glissades, wild slaloms around yawning crevasses accomplished in as little as an hour and 12 minutes from the summit of Mount Baker to snow line. Morovits didn't believe in wasting time.

 

Joe made his first climb of Mount Baker on August 7, 1892, choosing by mere chance and ignorance the most difficult of all routes, that up the precipitous ice wall of the northeast face, the first and only ascent of that horrendous overhanging cornice until it was climbed by trained members, of Portland's Mazamas in 1906. Joe set off up Rainbow Glacier with a group of young men from La Conner on Puget Sound. At the Cockscomb, below the summit, the men came to a halt, declaring that no man possibly could climb the terrible ice wall looming over them. That was all the prod Morovits needed. He later wrote: "Four of the party fagged theirselves and myself out, but two more went on. After a while the other two stopped so I had to go alone. So I did it, finding it a thousand times worse than figured on." Without even the pike he carried on later climbs, Morovits "cut foot notches in the ice with my rifle." Descent was even more harrowing, as Joe found it necessary to creep down backwards, feeling blindly below with his toes for tiny indentations he'd made in the rock hard, shadowed ice of the north side.

By 1900 Joe had a number of original routes to his credit and a tidy record of first ascents, though he attached so little importance to the bagging of mountain heights that he made no effort to leave a mark of his passage on summits. Today, while climbers grant that unlettered Joe doubtless did all to which he laid claim, his interest springing from prospecting far up the Sulphide Creek approach to Mount Shuksan, his name is gone from his "front-door mountain." Nobody disputes his firsts on Mount Baker: first ascent of the dangerous northeast ice face in 1892, establishment of the Morovits Route via the ridge between Park and Boulder glaciers in 1894, first ascent of Sherman Peak, the secondary summit of Mount Baker, in 1907.

 

Climbers marveled at his model ranch and fine buildings. Wrote one, "There is no sawed board in any of his buildings. With adze and axe he fashioned hand-rived timbers of cedar as finely met as milled lumber." At his mine cabins, miles beyond reach of the most surefooted packhorse, Joe had such niceties as sets of china dishes, packed up upon the broad Morovits back. He believed in "eating civilized" even if his fare was primitive. He had an astonishing collection of books, some of them fine editions. Unlike most men who live alone, he kept everything neat as a pin. He bathed every time he passed in the vicinity of the steaming, sulphurous waters of Baker Hot Springs, 21/2 miles from his ranch. Here he helped timber cruiser Vic Galbraith dig a hole and line it with logs as a rude bathtub just long enough and deep enough for a good soak. Morovits was something of a volcanologist, leaving many notes on his observations. He believed there had been three great eruptions of Mount Baker from the Summit Crater, the most recent 100 years before his time, and exulted in the fact that Baker has not "'blown her top all to hell and gone" but remains a beauteous cone. He traced old paths of fluctuating glaciers by morainal ridges left in their wake, estimating dates of periods of advancement and recession. He followed the path of a massive avalanche for seven miles down Rainbow Creek, wondering at "rocks sticking in the sides of trees along the edge of its path as high as 30 feet from the roots, as big as a man's two fists and much bigger." From Morovits' account, the name Avalanche Gorge was given to the half-mile-wide devastated area.

 

In 1907 Joe and six Bellingham men set the first speed record on the mountain, reaching the summit dome in 5 1/2 hours from snow line. They spent four hours in balmy weather on the top taking elaborate measurements, concluding that the eggshaped summit is "about 70 acres, more or less." Mount Baker National Forest records of 1916 note that Morovits sold his claims on Sulphide Creek on the southeaiterly side of Mount Shuksan, where "ore samples taken out (sic) show values up to more than $2,000 per ton." In 1917 Joe was forced to sell his homestead and the Fourth of July Mines to a group of men who held a lien on the mill. The men never worked the mines, but used the ranch as a base camp for hunting and logging.

 

Joe paid up his debts and disappeared from his mountains, the river pioneers tell me, in 1918. Some oldtimers, claim he went back to coal mining as a powder monkey, a trade for which his experience would have suited him. They say he earned $25 a day, more money than he'd seen in his life before, but that he was grievously injured and crippled only a short time later when he was struck on the head and shoulders by an enormous chunk of coal. They say that the wonderful love of life burned low in him, that only once did he come back to see his mountains. Shrunken and wasted he was, with a rigid brace about his neck, though his years were not advanced. He died a charity patient in some city hospital or nursing home, according to these chroniclers.

 

This fate for Joe is rejected by others who knew him.

 

"Joe never went back to coal mining," they scoff. "Man like that couldna worked for any other man. Went into the wilderness mountains of Idaho, Joe did, with no more stake than his 100-pound pack and his rifle. There's some Saint Joe Mountains in the Bitterroots mighta been named for him. No, I think he was clawed by a bear, somewheres, all alone, and his bones lie a-bleaching in the sun and the snows to this day. Joe was mean to bears, he was."

 

I'd just as soon never learn where Joe is buried, for to me he lives, in a way, on his Mount Baker in a hundred stories of derring-do, in a one-ton mortar rusting in the vine maples-Morovits, the mighty man of the mountains.

 

Connelly, Dolly

Sports Illustrated

January 7, 1963