Honoring Ada

It’s June in Colorado’s Front Range! Per normal schedule, I’ve started putting ice cubes in my coffee. Lawn sprinklers are fired up with the intention of using them as little as possible. Butter dish has gone into the fridge. Also, I’ve been having a fabulous time following the melting snow higher and higher into the mountains on my weekly rambles.

Allenspark Trail
Allenspark Trail to Finch Lake, June 1st
Photo by Pete KJ

A good place to go right now is Finch Lake, in Wild Basin, at the southern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. A dirt road from the hamlet of Allenspark takes you to its no-entrance-fee trailhead, which few people use. This trailhead is important and will become even more so when the park increases its admission price. Day fees as high as $75 per car in peak summer have been floated. That’s a lot of money for me to hike in my backyard!

From the Allenspark Trailhead it’s about 4 miles to subalpine Finch Lake, a tranquil place ringed with trees. One of its best features is the mirror-image view of two mountains shown above. The jagged and more distant peak on the left is Ogalalla, named after a Sioux tribe. The imposing mound on the right is 13,176-foot Mount Copeland, supposedly named after a homesteader.

St. Mary's Glacier
June hikers at Saint Mary’s Glacier, near the town of Alice, Colorado
Photo by Pete KJ

Before 1911, Mount Copeland was named Mount Clarence King, in honor of the first director of the United States Geological Survey. King resigned from the USGS in 1881 to pursue a career in mining consulting, no big surprise, but he also did something curious. In the late 1880s, in New York City, when he was nearly 50 years old, he entered into a common law marriage with an African American woman named Ada.

Miscegenation was highly unacceptable if not illegal, and King passed himself off as a light-skinned black railroad porter named James Todd. He kept up this charade for the remainder of his life: black railroad porter when home with Ada, with whom he had five children, and esteemed white geologist Clarence King while on the road, where he maintained an arts-filled and active social life and was good friends with the likes of Secretary of State John Hay.

Just before he died of tuberculosis while traveling in Arizona in 1901, King wrote to Ada and revealed his identity. Ada then spent 30 years unsuccessfully trying to claim a trust fund he had promised her. Ada lived until 1964, in a house provided by John Hay and his descendants, who also gave her a stipend.

Here’s the clincher: Ada’s last name was Copeland. So you can decide for yourself who this mountain was really named after, in 1911, ten years after Clarence King died. USGS surveyors needed a new name since by then King had peaks named after him in Utah and California (and now there’s one in Antarctica). It seems possible that the homesteader’s name was really a front to honor someone else, back when it was a lot tougher to name things after black people.

Depending on the status of the snow melt, you don’t have to stop at Finch Lake. Two more miles and 700 more vertical feet get you to Pear Lake, an adorable alpine loch named for its shape. There you will have even closer views of Ogalalla Peak and Ada Copeland Mountain.

Pete KJ

Pete KJ

Pete KJ began explorations at age three in the wooded ravine that was his backyard in Seattle. He also began a lifelong writing habit. Backyard expanded as Pete stomped all over the Cascades and Olympics as a youth, and headed onward to the Pyrenees, Alps, Himalayas, and Andes. Peace Corps service in Africa cemented his deep desire to always be out in the world, and when he finally sat in a cubicle as a chemical engineer, it was in places like Puerto Rico and India. Long absent from cubicle, he moved on to raise kids, travel the world with them, and write about it (and also write three novels). Career brought Pete to Colorado in the 1990s, its gravity and beauty pulled him back. Pete's "Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes in Colorado's Front Range" will be published in April, 2019 by Imbrifex Books.

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