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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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The artist Frederick Dellenbaugh described what happened next: “Agang started to take down some of the totems and as they were twenty to forty feet high, and three or more [feet] in diameter at the base, this was no light task. I heard a great deal of tugging and fuming. . . . When I got through my sketch I went over and helped. We found it pretty hard work to move the next one even with rollers and tackle fastened to the rocks seaward and twenty men pulling. It was very hot on shore. And I was thoroughly warmed through for the first time since leaving Seattle.”

John Muir was hot, too—about the totems. As far as most of the scientists were concerned, they were merely gathering artifacts; to Muir, it was pillaging plain and simple. Disgusted, he stomped off. When Edward Curtis took a celebratory photograph of the whole party, with their trophy totems in the background, the angry Scot refused to pose.

The day after the Elder reached home port at the end of July, with 100 trunks full of specimens, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer fairly beamed its approval. “All things favored Mr. Harriman in carrying out his plans for the greatest junket probably in the history of the nation. . . . The scientists . . . ransacked the water below, the lands about, and the heavens above for swimming, creeping, and flying things, named and nameless. When the Elder landed in Seattle yesterday morning, she resembled a floating curiosity shop.”

Not to be outdone, the Portland Oregonian chimed in: “No more able group of scientists has set sail on a voyage of this kind in recent years. Mr. Harriman has done his country and the cause of human learning a signal service.”

The expedition’s treasures were destined to become the basis of major collections at the Smithsonian and other leading institutions, including HarvardUniversity, the FieldMuseum in Chicago and the University of Washington. Harriman’s scientists described 13 new genera and nearly 600 new species, as well as many fossil species. The artists had made more than 5,000 photographs and paintings of plants and animals, natural wonders and native peoples. The coast of Alaska was a mystery no more.

The expedition’s importance “created a picture of a place that was still largely unknown to most Americans,” says Harriman’s biographer, Maury Klein. “Those who thought of Alaska as untouched wilderness, only slightly blemished by the gold rush and the cannery business, were surprised by the expedition’s evidence of how much it had already started to change.” Robert Peck, a fellow of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, believes “those scientists were among the first to struggle with how to balance the pristine nature of Alaska’s wilderness with the world’s demand for its resources. Together they created a baseline of information that is still used today.”

Jim Bodkin, an otter specialist who works for the U.S. Geological Survey in Glacier Bay, is one of the users. “Science is a process of building upon knowledge that has been gathered in the past,” he says. “And so it’s absolutely essential for us to have the information those prior scientists made available. What we do today is based on what they did a century ago.”

At journey’s end, John Burroughs happily resumed rusticating in his beloved Catskills, but for other expedition members there would be no return to the status quo. When Harriman decided to gather the expedition’s scientific findings into a book, he turned once again to Merriam and asked him to be the editor. The old biologist spent the next 12 years working on the “book,” which grew to an astounding 13 volumes before it was finished.

George Bird Grinnell went back to New York City and devoted much of his considerable energy to crusading in Forest and Stream for the conservation of Alaska’s wildlife. Edward Curtis devoted the rest of his life to photographing the vanishing tribes of North America. He took more than 40,000 images, reproducing many of them in his monumental 20-volume work, The North American Indian.

John Muir’s improbable friendship with Edward Harriman paid off in 1905, when the intrepid wilderness advocate was struggling to get part of Yosemite Valley protected as a national park. He asked Harriman for help, and the railroad man’s powerful lobbying in the U.S. Senate enabled the Yosemite bill to pass by a single vote. Harriman’s power continued to grow in the years after the Alaska expedition. He merged the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads, but then an antitrust suit pulled them apart. Although that suit helped turn public opinion against Harriman, Muir stuck by him. When Harriman died in 1909, it was Muir who wrote his eulogy. “In almost every way he was a man to admire,” he said. “I at last learned to love him.”

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