1899 Harriman Alaska Expedition

A Stellar Voyage to a Great Land, Amongst Artists and Scientists

Historians question why Harriman wanted to go to Alaska. Some think he was considering developing Alaskan resources. Some think he was considering building a railroad to the Alaskan territory. Some people at the time openly wondered if he was going to buy Alaska, or build a railroad bridge from Alaska to Siberia for a railroad around the world. Nothing seemed impossible for Edward H. Harriman.

In early 1899 Edward Henry Harriman of New York was one of the most powerful men in America, a wealthy railroad magnate with control of several railroads. His work had left him literally exhausted, and his doctor decreed that he needed a long vacation. Never a man to do anything in a small way, Harriman decided to go to Alaska to hunt Kodiak bears, but rather than go alone, he conceived the idea of taking with him an elite community of scientists, artists, photographers, and naturalists to explore and document the Alaskan coastline. And so, in cooperation with the Washington Academy of Sciences but entirely at his own expense, he organized an expedition to Alaska. He invited as his guests three artists and twenty-five men of science, representing various branches of research and including well-known professors in universities in both sides of the continent, and leaders in several branches of Government scientific work.

Those ultimately selected for the voyage included Arctic experts such as the naturalist John Muir, who had explored Glacier Bay in 1879 and the Inside Passage in 1880; and William Healy Dall, a paleontologist and geographer and author of the 1870 book, Alaska and Its Resources. The official trip photographer was Edward Curtis, and Louis Agassiz Fuertes, a bird artist, joined two other nature artists. To record the trip in writing became the responsibility of John Burroughs, a popular nature writer, and George Bird Grinnell, the editor of Forest and Stream magazine and an expert on Native American culture. The scientists and artists joined Harriman’s family and their servants, along with a medical team, a chaplain, and Harriman’s hunters, packers, guides, and taxidermists. Altogether, with the ship’s crew, 126 people were aboard.

Harriman had the 250-foot steamship SS George W. Elder luxuriously refitted for the expedition. The remodeled ship featured lecture rooms, a library with over 500 volumes on Alaska, a stable for animals, taxidermy studios, and well-appointed rooms for the passengers. By the end of May, the ship's guests and passengers had all arrived in Seattle, and the Elder left Seattle on May 31, 1899. Large cheering crowds saw them off at the docks and newspapers around the world ran front-page stories about the unprecedentedly glamorous trip to Alaska. 

C. Hart Merriam described their voyage in Vol. 1 of the 14-volume Harriman Alaska Series published by Doubleday in 1901: “From Puget Sound to Juneau and Lynn Canal the vessel threaded her way northward among the forested islands and fiords of the 'inside passages'; a side trip was made from Skagway, at the head of Lynn Canal, to the summit of White Pass, by way of the newly contructed White Pass and Yukon railroad, whose officials courteously placed a special train at our disposal. At Sitka she entered the open ocean and took a northwesterly course in front of the stupendous glaciers and snow-capped peaks of the Fairweather and St. Elias ranges; at Cook Inlet she changed her course from northwest to southwest and skirted the Alaska peninsula and Aleutian Islands, touching the emerald shores of Kadiak and the Shumagins; at Unalaska she again turned her prow northward, entered the troubled waters and treacherous fogs of Bering Sea, called at Bogoslof Volcano, the Pribilof or Fur-Seal Islands, and the islands of Hall, St. Matthew, and St. Lawrence; and finally, after visiting Eskimo settlements on both the Asiatic and American coasts, and peering poleward through Bering Strait -- the gateway to the Arctic -- she put about and began the homeward voyage.”

Merriam continued, “During the two months' cruise a distance of nine thousand miles was traversed. Frequent landings were made, and, no matter how brief, were utilized by the artists, geographers, geologists, botanists, zoologistsm, and students of glaciers. From time to time longer stops were made and camping parties were put ashore that more thorough work might be done. Thus one or more camping parties operated at Glacier Bay, Yakutat Bay, Prince Willima Sound, Kadiak Island, the Alaska Peninsula, and the Shumagin Islands. Large and important collections were made, including series of the small mammals and birds of the coast region, enormous numbers of marine animals and seaweeds, and by far the largest collection of insects and land plants ever brought from Alaska.”

By June 25th the Elder had reached Prince William Sound, and Merriam noted, “In Prince William Sound a new fiord fifteen miles in length and abounding in glaciers was discovered, photographed, and mapped. Its entrance, hidden by the huge projecting from of Barry Glacier, was disclosed by accident while we were attempting to photograph the land attachments of the glacier. In honor of the expedition it was named Harriman Fiord.”

Merriam continued, “Native settlements were visited at various places -- of Indians along the southwest coast form British Columbia to Yakutat Bay, of Eskimo and Aleuts from Prince William Sound northward and westward. The shortness of the stops precluded serious ethnological studies; still numerous articles of interest were secured, and a series of photographs of permanent value was obtained.”

While the scientists had some control over where they stopped to explore, Harriman retained the final decision-making. He was anxious to hunt a bear, and he decided to head toward Kodiak Island when he heard there were bears there. Merriam wrote: “Mr. Harriman had the good fortune to kill a Kadiak bear, the only one secured by the Expedition and the first ever measured and photographed in the flesh…"

On 7 July, they reached Popof Island in the Shumagin Islands. Harriman’s wife wanted to put her feet on Siberian soil, so the Elder continued northward, but four of the scientists, accompanied by a guide, decided to camp on Popof Island while the rest of the scientists continued on to Siberia. This allowed the four scientists to make much more detailed notes about the area, rather than quick notes on frequent stops along the way. 

By July 11th, the ship had put into Plover Bay in Siberia, but by this time Harriman was impatient and ready to get back to work, so the Elder steamed southward, picking up the party on Popof Island. On July 26th, the Elder made one last stop, at an abandoned Tlingit village at Cape Fox, and four days later, on July 30th, the ship pulled into the dock at Seattle. 

In many ways, the expedition was an intersection of 19th-century and 20th-century science, often representing the best of the new century’s science, but also showing how scientists thought in the previous century. They discussed the potential loss of the wilderness and the indigenous peoples. They saw the remnants of the Yukon gold rush, and how self-serving treasure hunters were plundering the countryside and the dignity and viability of the indigenous cultures.

The greatest benefit of the expedition turned out to be the fourteen-volume Harriman Alaska Series, financed by Harriman and published by Doubleday beginning in 1901; it remains a landmark of Arctic exploration. The scientific reports included maps and charts showing the over 9,000 mile expedition route and geographical features of the coast. They charted the geographic distribution of many species, and claimed to have discovered some 600 species that were new to science, including 38 new fossils. They discovered an unmapped fiord and named several glaciers, and the work on glaciers represented new thinking in the field.

On the voyage the naturalist John Muir became friends with Harriman, and several years later, Muir recruited Harriman to help with governmental lobbying on National Park legislation. 

It was John Muir who gave the eulogy at Harriman’s funeral in 1909. ~•~

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