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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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For c. hart merriam, it all began one March day in 1899 when a brash fellow with a bushy mustache strode unannounced into his Washington, D.C. office. Merriam, a distinguished biologist and a founder of the National Geographic Society, was serving as the first chief of the Division of Biological Survey, the forerunner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His visitor identified himself as Edward Harriman. “He . . . told me in an unassuming, matter-offact way that he was planning a trip along the Alaskan coast,” Merriam later recalled, “and desired to take along a party of scientific men.” Harriman then asked Merriam to recruit those scientists for him—adding that he would, of course, pay everyone’s expenses.

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When Merriam found out that Edward Harriman was the E. H. Harriman who chaired the board of the Union Pacific Railroad and was reputed to be the most powerful man in America, he began firing off telegrams to his many acquaintances in the scientific world: “Mr. Harriman requests me to ask you to join . . . and I earnestly trust you will do so. The opportunity is one in a lifetime.”

He was right about that. Harriman was nothing if not ambitious: he wanted to catalog Alaska’s flora and fauna from the lush southern panhandle north to Prince William Sound, then west along the Aleutian Chain and all the way up to the Pribilof Islands. His exhilarated corps of “scientific men,” it turned out, discovered hundreds of new species, charted miles of little-visited territory and left such a vivid record of their findings that a century later a second expedition set out to assess the changes that have taken place along that same route. (On June 11, most PBS stations will broadcast a two-hour Florentine Films/Hott Productions documentary about both voyages.)

As it was in his own time, Harriman’s 9,000-mile odyssey is still being hailed as a scientific milestone. “It was the last of the great Western explorations that began with Lewis and Clark,” says William Cronon, professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin. A contemporary parallel, says historian Kay Sloan, author with William Goetzmann of Looking Far North: The Harriman Expedition to Alaska, 1899, “would be Bill Gates leading a scientific expedition to the moon.”

At least we can see the moon. Alaska at 19th century’s end was the ultimate back of beyond as far as most Americans were concerned. After President Andrew Johnson’s wily secretary of state William H. Seward—first appointed by Lincoln bought the territory in 1867 for $7.2 million, he was roundly thumped in the press. “Russia has sold us a sucked orange,” groused one New York newspaper. Some orange—more than half a million square miles, an area twice the size of Texas, encompassing 39 mountain ranges, 3,000 rivers and upwards of 2,000 islands. Three decades after “Seward’s Folly,” Alaska remained one of the largest unexplored wildernesses on the continent.

It took Merriam only a few weeks to sign up 23 of the most esteemed scientists in their fields, plus a cadre of artists, photographers, poets and authors. Among them were nature writers John Burroughs and John Muir; George Bird Grinnell, the crusading editor of Forest and Stream and a founder of the Audubon Society; a young painter of birds, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and an obscure society photographer named Edward Curtis. Not surprisingly, Merriam also decided to avail himself of Harriman’s hospitality.

All in all, it was probably the most high-powered group ever assembled in the history of American exploration. But would so many big thinkers be able to get along? “Scientific explorers are not easily managed, and in large mixed lots are rather inflammable and explosive,” Muir warned, “especially when compressed on a ship.”

But, oh, what a ship. Harriman, it was clear, did not intend to rough it. He had refitted the 250-foot-long iron steamer George W. Elder with a stateroom for each expedition member. The crew alone numbered 65—not counting the ten other members of Harriman’s family, their three maids, two stenographers, two doctors, a nurse, an excellent chef and a chaplain. “We take aboard eleven fat steers, a flock of sheep, chickens, and turkeys, a milch cow, and a span of horses,” John Burroughs crowed. Other essential items included cases of champagne and cigars, an organ and piano, a 500-volume library and even an early gramophone.

On May 31, 1899, a cheering crowd gathered at the Seattle dock to watch the Elder steam away in slanting rain, and the departure made front-page news all over the world. But for any passenger who believed he or she was heading for a pristine Eden, some rude surprises were in store.

Six days out of Seattle in Skagway, a quagmire of flimsy hotels and saloons and a jumping-off point for the Yukon goldfields, the Harriman party confronted the gritty reality of the spreading Klondike gold rush. During an outing on the new White Pass Railroad, built to carry miners up into the mountains, the scientists saw carcasses of horses frozen on the rugged trail. Later, near Orca, “Miners were coming out destitute and without one cent’s worth of gold,” Burroughs wrote. “Scurvy had broken out among them. . . . Alaska is full of such adventurers, ransacking the land.”

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