Ella Higginson in Alaska

Author of "Alaska, The Great Country"

A great Russian moved under inspiration when he sent Vitus Behring out to discover and explore the continent lying to the eastward; two great Americans—Seward and Sumner—were inspired when, nearly a century and a half later, they saved for us, in the face of the bitterest opposition, scorn, and ridicule, the country that Behring discovered and which is now coming to be recognized as the most glorious possession of any people; but, first of all, were the gentle, dark-eyed Aleuts inspired when they bestowed upon this same country—with the simplicity and dignified repression for which their character is noted—the beautiful and poetic name which means "the great country.”    ~from the foreword

Ella Rhoads Higginson (1862-1940) was one of America’s most celebrated early 20th century writers, the recipient of several national awards for her short fiction and the first Poet Laureate of Washington State, in 1931. In 1863, when Ella was a baby, her family traveled the Oregon Trail, and she was raised near present-day Portland. At 23 she married Russell Higginson, a druggist, and they moved to Bellingham, Washington in 1888, spending the rest of their lives there. Starting in 1904, Ella traveled to Alaska for four summers as part of the research for her book on Alaska.

Alaska The Great Country, an annotated history of Alaska and an absorbing travelogue of Higginson's adventures there, was published in 1908, went through several editions, and was quoted by leading authorities of the day. Her observations of territorial Alaska are online to read free at the Project Gutenberg website. A few excerpts from her book are shared here:

Alaska The Great Country, by Ella Higginson(1908)

Every year, from June to September, thousands of people "go to Alaska." This means that they take passage at Seattle on the most luxurious steamers that run up the famed "inside passage" to Juneau, Sitka, Wrangell, and Skaguay. Formerly this voyage included a visit to Muir Glacier; but because of the ruin wrought by a recent earthquake, this once beautiful and marvellous thing is no longer included in the tourist trip.

This ten-day voyage is unquestionably a delightful one; every imaginable comfort is provided, and the excursion rate is reasonable. However, the person who contents himself with this will know as little about Alaska as a foreigner who landed in New York, went straight to Niagara Falls and returned at once to his own country, would know about America.

Enchanting though this brief cruise may be when the weather is favorable, the real splendor, the marvellous beauty, the poetic and haunting charm of Alaska, lie west of Sitka. "To Westward" is called this dream-voyage past a thousand miles of snow-mountains rising straight from the purple sea and wrapped in coloring that makes it seem as though all the roses, lilies, and violets of heaven had been pounded to a fine dust and sifted over them; past green islands and safe harbors; past the Malaspina and the Columbia glaciers; past Yakutat, Kyak, Cordova, Valdez, Seward, and Cook Inlet; and then, still on "to Westward"—past Kodiak Island, where the Russians made their first permanent settlement in America in 1784 and whose sylvan and idyllic charm won the heart of the great naturalist, John Burroughs; past the Aliaska Peninsula, with its smoking Mount Pavloff; past Unimak Island, one of whose active volcanoes, Shishaldin, is the most perfect and symmetrical cone on the Pacific Coast, not even excepting Hood—and on and in among the divinely pale green Aleutian Islands to Unalaska, where enchantment broods in a mist of rose and lavender and where one may scarcely step without crushing violets and bluebells.

The spell of Alaska falls upon every lover of beauty who has voyaged along those far northern snow-pearled shores with the violet waves of the North Pacific Ocean breaking splendidly upon them; or who has drifted down the mighty rivers of the interior which flow, bell-toned and lonely, to the sea. 

I know not how the spell is wrought; nor have I ever met one who could put the miracle of its working into words. No writer has ever described Alaska; no one writer ever will; but each must do his share, according to the spell that the country casts upon him.

He that would fall under the spell of Alaska, will sail on "to Westward," on to Unalaska; or he will go Northward and drift down the Yukon—that splendid, lonely river that has its birth within a few miles of the sea, yet flows twenty-three hundred miles to find it.

Alaskan steamers usually sail between eight o'clock in the evening and midnight, and throngs of people congregate upon the piers of Seattle to watch their departure. The rosy purples and violets of sunset mix with the mists and settle upon the city, climbing white over its hills; as hours go by, its lights sparkle brilliantly through them, yet still the crowds sway upon the piers and wait for the first still motion of the ship as it slides into the night and heads for the far, enchanted land—whose sweet, insistent calling never ceases for one who has once heard it.

The first eleven chapters tell of traveling up the Inside Passage, in great and riveting detail, and with lengthy asides to explain the history of the land. Chapter twelve opens with arrival in Sitka:

Since Sitka first dawned upon my sight on a June day, in her setting of vivid green and glistening white, she has been one of my dearest memories. Four times in all have the green islands drifted apart to let her rise from the blue sea before my enchanted eyes; and with each visit she has grown more dear, and her memory more tormenting.

Something gives Sitka a different look and atmosphere from any other town. It may be her whiteness, glistening against the rich green background of forest and hill, with the whiteness of the mountains shining in the higher lights; or it may be the severely white and plain Greek church, rising in the centre of the main street, not more than a block from the water, that gives Sitka her chaste and immaculate appearance.

Upon landing at Sitka, one is confronted by the old log storehouse of the Russians. This is an immense building, barricading the wharf from the town. A narrow, dark, gloomy passage-way, or alley, leads through the centre of this building. It seems as long as an ordinary city square to the bewildered stranger groping through its shadows.

In front of this building, and inside both ends of the passage as far as the light reaches, squat squaws, young and old, pretty and hideous, starry-eyed and no-eyed, saucy and kind, arrogant and humble, taciturn and voluble, vivacious and weary-faced. Surely no known variety of squaw may be asked for and not found in this long line that reaches from the wharf to the green-roofed church. There is no night so wild and tempestuous, and no hour of any night so late, or of any morning so early, that the passenger hastening ashore is not greeted by this long line of dark-faced women. They sit like so many patient, noiseless statues, with their tempting wares clustered around the flat, "toed-in" feet of each.

Not only is this true of Sitka, but of every landing-place on the whole coast where dwells an Indian or an Aleut that has something to sell. Long before the boat lands, their gay shawls by day, or their dusky outlines by night, are discovered from the deck of the steamer.

How they manage it, no ship's officer can tell; for the whistle is frequently not blown until the boat is within a few yards of the shore. Yet there they are, waiting! Sometimes, at night, they appear simultaneously, fluttering down into their places, swiftly and noiselessly, like a flock of birds settling down to rest for a moment in their flight. Their wares consist chiefly of baskets; but there are also immense spoons carved artistically out of the horns of mountain sheep; richly beaded moccasins of many different materials; carved and gayly painted canoes and paddles of the fragrant Alaska cedar or Sitka pine; totem-poles carved out of dark gray slate stone; lamps, carved out of wood and inlaid with a fine pearl-like shell. These are formed like animals, with the backs hollowed to hold oil. There are silver spoons, rings, bracelets, and chains, all delicately traced with totemic designs; knives, virgin charms, Chilkaht blankets, and now and then a genuine old spear, or bow and arrow, that proves the dearest treasure of all.

Ella Higginson didn’t miss much in her exclamations over the many charms of Alaska. Nor did she refrain from disparaging remarks when anything assaulted her refined sensibilities. Her denegrations no doubt brought a knowing nod of approval from her peers of the day, but they can grate on today’s enlightened readers. Still, her reporting is valued for the details of life in turn-of-the-century Alaska, as in her comments about agriculture in the territory.

The main station of Government Agricultural Experimental work in Alaska is located at Sitka. Professor C. C. Georgeson is the special agent in charge of the work, which has been very successful. It has accomplished more than anything else in the way of dispelling the erroneous impressions which people have received of Alaska by reading the descriptions of early explorers who fancied that every drift of snow was a glacier and every feather the war bonnet of a savage.

In 1906, at Coldfoot, sixty miles north of the Arctic Circle, were grown cucumbers eight inches long, nineteen-inch rhubarb, potatoes four inches long, cabbages whose matured heads weighed eight pounds, and turnips weighing sixteen pounds—all of excellent quality.

At Bear Lake, near Seward and Cook Inlet, were grown good potatoes, radishes, lettuce, carrots, beets, rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries, Logan berries, blackberries; also, roses, lilacs, and English ivy. In this locality cows and chickens thrive and are profitable investments for those who are not too indolent to take care of them. Alaskan lettuce must be eaten to be appreciated. During the hot days and the long, light hours of the nights it grows so rapidly that its crispness and delicacy of flavor cannot be imagined.

In southeastern Alaska and along the coast to Kodiak, at Fairbanks and Copper Centre, at White Horse, Dawson, Rampart, Tanana, Council City, Eagle, and other places on the Yukon, almost all kinds of vegetables, berries, and flowers grow luxuriantly and bloom and bear in abundance. One turnip, of fine flavor, has been found sufficient for several people.

In the vicinity of the various hot springs, even corn, tomatoes, and muskmelons were successful to the highest degree. On the Yukon cabbages form fine white, solid heads; cauliflower is unusually fine and white; beets grow to a good size, are tender, sweet, and of a bright red; peas are excellent; rhubarb, parsley, and celery were in many places successful. Onions seem to prove a failure in nearly all sections of the country; and potatoes, turnips, and lettuce are the prize vegetables. Rampart is the loveliest settlement on the Yukon, with the exception of Tanana. Across the river from Rampart, the green fields of the Experimental Station slope down to the water. The experiments carried on here by Superintendent Rader, under the general supervision of Professor Georgeson—who visits the stations yearly—have been very satisfactory. ~•~ 

Selected Writings of Ella Higginson: Inventing Pacific Northwest Literature is a book about    Ella Higginson’s life and writing, by Laura Laffrado, a professor of English at Western  Washington University, published in 2015 by the Whatcom County Historical Society.