North to Alaska

In 1899, railroad magnate Edward Harriman invited some of the most preeminent scientists in America to join him on a working cruise to Alaska, then largely unexplored. More than a century later, the nation still has reasons to be grateful.

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But Alaska was full of astonishments too. When the Elder steamed into Glacier Bay, west of Juneau, on June 8, Burroughs was amazed. “Enormous [ice]bergs . . . rise slowly and majestically, like huge monsters of the deep . . . , ” he marveled. “Nothing . . . had prepared us for the color of the ice . . . its deep, almost indigo blue.” Burroughs, then America’s favorite nature writer, was a small, mild man who had spent most of his life in New York’s benign Catskill Mountains. Alaska scared him: “[I]t was as appalling to look up as to look down; chaos and death below us, impending avalanches of hanging rocks above us.”

The trip’s other Johnny was right at home in Alaska. Born in Scotland, John Muir had grown up on an isolated Wisconsin farm, then adventured for years in the rugged wilds of California’s Yosemite Valley. There he began writing about the natural world and started the Sierra Club. He was the country’s foremost champion of wilderness and had visited Alaska no less than five times, including months in Glacier Bay. “In John Muir we had an authority on glaciers,” Burroughs said, “and a thorough one—so thorough that he would not allow the rest of the party to have an opinion on the subject.”

It was no surprise two men so different in temperament and background did not always see eye to eye, particularly when it came to Edward Harriman. Burroughs liked him, but Muir was “rather repelled” by the seemingly coldhearted businessman, perhaps not least because Harriman cherished a sport Muir detested: hunting. In fact, the railroad man’s dream was to shoot and mount a giant Alaskan brown bear, and to that end he had brought along a complement of 11 hunters, packers and camp hands, plus two taxidermists.

In a sense, the restless tycoon had been hunting all his life—for success. The son of a minister in New York, Harriman had grown up in a family that had seen better days. He quit school at 14 to become a Wall Street errand boy. His rise from that humble station was meteoric. At 22, he became amember of the New York Stock Exchange. At 33, he acquired his first rail line. He seized control of the huge but ailing Union Pacific Railroad at 50, then spent months inspecting every mile of track, every station, flatcar and engine. He got his railroad running smoothly, but in the process he drove himself to exhaustion. When his doctor told him to get some rest, Harriman, then 51, decided to “vacation” in Alaska.

His reasons for sponsoring the expedition have long been debated. Harriman himself painted a rosy picture: “What I most enjoy is the power of creation, getting into partnership with Nature in doing good . . . making everybody and everything a little better.” Some of his contemporaries believed he had more complicated motives. “He was looked at askance [by New York’s social elite],” one acquaintance observed. “His ways and manners jarred somewhat . . . and he was considered by some as not quite belonging.” The trip could help. Then, too, this was an age of magnificent engineering breakthroughs like the Suez Canal, the EiffelTower and the BrooklynBridge. Kay Sloan and William Goetzmann believe Harriman wanted to accomplish a similar feat. His aim, they contend, was to scout out and buy up a huge swath of Alaska and build a railroad to Siberia and on around the world.

Whatever his ultimate ambition, there was no doubting Harriman’s commitment to scientific exploration. The ship “put us ashore wherever we liked,” Muir reported, “bays, coves, the mouths of streams, etc.—to suit [our] convenience.” At Glacier Bay, zoologist Trevor Kincaid pried open icy crevices and found “glacier worms,” a type of rare tube worm. Ornithologists Albert Fisher and Robert Ridgway, with artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes, collected 45 mammals and 25 birds at Point Gustavus. Another scientist found a nesting ptarmigan so tame it could be picked up and held.

In mid-June, the Elder steamed across the Gulf of Alaska to YakutatBay near the western border of Canada. Kincaid and his fellow zoologists discovered 31 new insects and captured 22 different kinds of mice.

The steamer anchored near an encampment of seal-hunting Indians on the south side of the bay. Rank-smelling carcasses lay in rows on the pebbly beach. George Bird Grinnell watched with fascination as women and children skinned the animals, cut out the blubber and roasted seal meat over an open fire. “From the [tent] poles hang . . . strips of blubber and braided seal intestines,” Grinnell noted. “All these things are eaten . . . the flippers appear to be regarded as especially choice.”

Though most of the scientists had come to study glaciers and mountains or wildlife and plants, Grinnell, an expert on the Indians of the American West, was more interested in documenting the lives of northern peoples. It didn’t take him long to discover that he had an able assistant in the young photographer Edward Curtis.

Curtis had made a modest living in Seattle photographing wealthy socialites at their weddings and balls. Now, under Grinnell’s influence, Curtis started focusing on Alaska’s natives. “The . . . Indian women frowned upon our photographers,” Burroughs said. “It took a good deal of watching and waiting and maneuvering to get a good shot.” But Curtis was patient. Although he could not have known it at the time, he had found his life’s vocation.


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