Meet the mother of the Pacific Crest Trail: Catherine Montgomery

An excerpt from The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America’s Wilderness Trail by Mark Larabee and Barney Scout Mann

Single women were spinsters and newspapers might identify a woman as Mrs. John Doe, not by her given name, Josephine. That’s how it was in 1899, when 32-year-old Catherine Montgomery came to Bellingham, Washington. She’d accepted a top-end position, $70 a month, as one of the founding faculty members of what would become Western Washington University. Montgomery was tall, with her dark hair tied in a frizzy bun. Her accent declared her parents’ heritage as Scotch. And she was single.

The noun spinster has disappeared from the lexicon, and so too the verb for Montgomery’s great love, tramping. On days she wasn’t training the state’s future elementary school teachers, Montgomery could be seen tramping in the surrounding forests, hills, and mountains. She was a dauntless outdoorswoman, no matter the de rigueur ankle-length bloomers women were expected to wear into the wilderness.

Montgomery found a fellow tramper in Ida Baker, another of the founding faculty. Baker was Montgomery’s best friend, and one of the very few who ever called the stern Montgomery “Kate.” When Baker died in 1921, Montgomery wrote a eulogy for the paper titled “Tramping Together.” “Memories of financial struggle, of trans-continental trips, of farming together, come to me as I recall the locking of Ida Baker’s life with mine, but above all comes the memory of tramping together,” she wrote.

Four years before that, Baker published an article in American Forestry, a national monthly journal. It described her 10-day tramp around Mount Baker with another unnamed woman. And after Baker died, Montgomery kept on reading the journal. In April 1924, a three-page feature article caught her attention: “The Appalachian Trail: From Maine to Georgia by Foot Trail—A Little Hike of 2,000 Miles—Along the Skyline of the Appalachian Ranges.”

Joseph Hazard made a record of the “birth” of the Pacific Crest Trail just as if he’d had a video camera. Hazard was a famed Seattle mountaineer. The night of January 13, 1926, he was the featured speaker at Bellingham’s Mount Baker Club. But Hazard’s day job was selling textbooks, and so in the morning he met with Supervising Teacher Catherine Montgomery. Hazard described it in his 1946 book Pacific Crest Trails from Alaska to Cape Horn:

The first official action toward the promotion of a Pacific Crest Trail was taken in the year 1926. The suggestion came from Miss Catherine Montgomery at the close of a business interview of an hour’s duration:

“Do you know what I’ve been thinking about, Mr. Hazard, for the last twenty minutes?”

“I had hoped you were considering the merits of my presentation of certain English texts for adoption!”

“Oh that! Before your call I had considered them the best—I still do! But why do not you Mountaineers do something big for Western America?”

“Just what have you in mind, Miss Montgomery?”

“A high winding trail down the heights of our western mountains with mile markers and shelter huts—like these pictures I’ll show you of the ‘Long Trail of the Appalachians’—from the Canadian Border to the Mexican Boundary Line!”

Hazard continued: “That very evening I carried the plan to the Mount Baker Club of Bellingham. Favorable action was taken. The rest of the mountain clubs of the Pacific Northwest promptly contacted all other outdoor organizations. All adopted the project with enthusiasm and organized to promote it.”

Montgomery was born on Prince Edward Island. Her parents sailed from Scotland on a masted schooner in the same 1840s transatlantic wave that brought John Muir across the pond to Wisconsin. When she was three, her family moved to tiny Schuyler, Nebraska, and at 20 she moved west to Chehalis, Washington, where she began her teaching career.

Montgomery lived 90 years, from 1867 to 1957. The Civil War and Sputnik bracketed her life. Her obituary noted she was a “militant crusader.” But to her student teachers she must have shown a gentler side, for in 1908 the college newspaper summed her up in one line: “Miss Montgomery—To know her is to love her, so we say, for just and true and kind of heart is she.” The obituary described accomplishments—suffragette, founding faculty, 1920 Democratic candidate for state superintendent, founder of women’s clubs, and more. But there was no mention of the Pacific Crest Trail.

When she retired in 1926, her annual salary was $3,200, but when she died she left an estate of $1 million in today’s dollars. She gave it all to a Washington State Forest preserve and with it they built the Catherine Montgomery Nature Interpretive Center. Thousands of schoolchildren in buses visit each year. Not long ago, a center ranger was asked if he knew of a connection between Montgomery and the PCT. His answer was, “No.” That has been rectified. And though no mountain bears her name, on March 21, 2010, Catherine Montgomery was inducted into the Northwest Women’s Hall of Fame. In a packed hall in Bellingham, attendees heard about her life and then the induction citation was read verbatim. This is the final paragraph:

“Of her many legacies, perhaps the most enduring is her vision of a hiking trail along the ridges of the Pacific Coast that she began to champion starting in 1926. Others took up the cause and, today, that 2,650-mile-long trail that runs from Canada to Mexico attracts thousands of hikers. She is justly called “the Mother of the Pacific Crest Trail.”

Photo by: Nathaniel Middleton