How Ohioans Are Reacting To Mt. McKinley Name Change

Aug 31, 2015

President Obama’s announcement that Mount McKinley in Alaska will now be called Denali piqued a lot of interest in Ohio – the home state of the president for whom the summit was named nearly a century ago.

The highest peak in North America has been known as Mount McKinley since 1896, when a prospector named it after an Ohioan from Niles (near Youngstown) who was running for president. “He was a supporter of McKinley, and the name kind of stuck, and then I believe around 1917 it was officially given the name Mount McKinley,” explains Kim Kenney, the curator of the William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum in Canton. That’s the city McKinley called home and where he is buried after he was assassinated in 1901, 16 years before the mountain was officially named for him.

And many Ohio politicians are registering their disappointment in the decision and the timing of White House announcement of the change back to Denali, what the mountain is commonly called in Alaska - right before President Obama’s visit to that state. Most of those lawmakers are Republicans, including US House Speaker John Boehner, US Senator Rob Portman, and Congressman Bob Gibbs of Ashland, who calls the renaming “a political stunt.”

“I think it’s disrespectful to the legacy of American hero President McKinley," said Gibbs. "And also the separation of powers issue – this president acted unilaterally to change the name. Only Congress can change the name.” Also weighing in from Ohio is presidential candidate John Kasich. The Governor said on Twitter that President Obama – quoting here – “once again oversteps his bounds.”

The response from state elected officials is somewhat less overtly political. John Fortney speaks for Republican Senate president Keith Faber of Celina. Fortney said a lot of Ohioans are proud of the state’s legacy as the birthplace of eight presidents, including McKinley. “They’re understandably annoyed here because you have to remember, he was assassinated. And he didn’t just die at that moment into his second term – he died days later. So it’s really understandable why a lot of people are very annoyed by this.”

Republican state Rep. Anthony Devitis lives in Uniontown, not far from Canton. He said he was surprised at the suddenness of the decision. “It’s just kind of surprising. I just think about the committee process and maybe unintended consequences that occur from actions like that,” Devitis said. “For instance, what about all the textbooks that will have to be changed, and you’re talking about geography, maps, history books – some of those things that’ll have to be changed. I think that’s why due process is helpful. It’s an important change in naming something with such significance, I think.”

Meanwhile, at the McKinley Museum, Kim Kenney says she has mixed feelings. “We were proud to have the president’s name on the tallest mountain in North America,” she said. “But we also understand why the Alaskans have been trying to get the name changed back to Denali for almost forty years now. It’s a little bit sad to think that the mountain will no longer be called McKinley, but we’re excited too that our president is part of a national conversation right now because that doesn’t happen very often. He’s been gone for over a hundred years. We’re thrilled that he’s on people’s minds today.”

Federal legislation to change the mountain’s name had been introduced by Alaska’s two US Senators, but it had been blocked by Ohio lawmakers. But not all Ohio natives are opposed to the change. One of those two Alaska Senators, Republican Daniel Sullivan, was born in a suburb of Cleveland. He says in a statement that Denali “belongs to Alaska and its citizens,” and that he’s gratified President Obama respected this.