Mr. Harriman Requests The Pleasure Of Your Company

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The railroad tycoon Edward Harriman was a man of large vision and mysterious ways. When, on a day in March of 1899, he strode into the Washington office of Dr. C. Hart Merriam, chief of the U.S. Biological Survey, and proposed sponsoring a grand scientific exploring expedition to Alaska, Merriam thought he was just another lunatic. He put his strange visitor off until the next day while he checked him out. To his surprise Merriam found the man to be exactly what he said he was—president of the Union Pacific Railroad. The Washington bureaucrat was more attentive at their next meeting. Harriman proposed to charter and refit a steamship for a cruise out of Seattle north along Alaska’s coast and across the Bering Strait to Siberia, and he wanted to recruit the nation’s leading scientists to make a systematic and thorough examination of Alaska. He would bear all the expenses of the ambitious trip and would place Merriam in complete charge of assembling the scientific corps.

The real purpose of Harriman’s plan was to explore the possibility of constructing a railroad around the world via Alaska and the Bering Strait. Completely familiar with the role of the railroad in dominating the economy of a region, as had happened with the Union Pacific, Harriman seems to have relished the idea of having Alaska all to himself, this province more than twice the size of Texas. And who in the age of the Panama Canal, the Eiffel Tower, Brooklyn’s great suspension bridge, and the impossibly difficult Trans-Siberian Railroad could say his scheme was preposterous?

Harriman said nothing of these greater plans to Merriam, however. Personally, he told the scientist, he merely had high hopes of bagging a giant Kodiak bear.

After Merriam recovered from his amazement, he accepted the proposition with enthusiasm, little realizing that it would occupy the next twelve years of his life. The following day he contacted two of his colleagues who were prominent in the Washington scientific network: William Healey DaIl, whose numerous expeditions to Alaska had made him the country’s top expert on the region, and Grove Karl Gilbert, America’s leading geologist. Together they spoke with Harriman in a series of meetings over the next few days. Their excitement rose when, on the last day of March, a telegram arrived at Merriam’s office inviting him to bring DaIl to New York in Harriman’s private railroad car for yet another discussion. Over dinner at the Metropolitan Club, Harriman officially placed full planning responsibility in Merriam’s hands. As the two scientists sped back through the night to Washington, they began drawing up the list of who should be invited on the Alaskan adventure.

Their sponsor, E. H. Harriman, then fifty-one years old, was a typical self-made man of the Gilded Age. At fourteen he had quit school to become a quotations boy on Wall Street. With an excellent memory and a nose for money, he had risen rapidly in the financial district as a broker. In the 1880’s he had turned to frontier railroading and, as the financial manager of the Illinois Central, he had steadily developed that line. In 1897 he made a bold move to control the Union Pacific, did so through covert political manipulations, and solidified his power as chairman of the board. Still, not having attended Yale, Harvard, or even Princeton, he was not quite socially acceptable in the world of high finance. As one of his contemporaries wrote, “He was looked at askance .. . [as] an intruder. His ways and manners jarred somewhat upon several of his new colleagues, and he was considered by some as not quite belonging in their class. …“In short, Harriman was regarded as an “industrial pirate,” or at least an “upstart” by the more conservative financiers. Among its other purposes, his Alaskan expedition was undoubtedly intended to improve his social status and polish his public image.

Merriam, Dall, and Gilbert recruited a first-rate team of scientists in an astonishingly short time: Henry Gannett, chief geographer of the U.S. Geological Survey; Frederick V. Colville of the Department of Agriculture; Dr. Bernhard Fernow of Cornell, the nation’s leading forester; Albert Fisher and Robert Ridgway, two outstanding ornithologists; Professor William Brewer of Yale, a long-ago veteran of the California Geological Survey; the Amherst geologist Benjamin K. Emerson and his brilliant young protégé Charles Palache, a pioneer seismologist who had recently discovered dangerous earthquake fault lines near San Francisco Bay, to which few in 1899 paid much attention. Palache, with no little reluctance, postponed his wedding date to be part of Harriman’s expedition.

In some ways Merriam’s greatest success was in recruiting important public figures who stood on the fringes of science. He signed up George Bird Grinnell, editor of Forest and Stream and founder of the Audubon Society; John Burroughs, the widely popular nature writer; the painter Frederick Dellenbaugh, who had accompanied John Wesley Powell on his second voyage down the Colorado River in 1871-82; and the New York landscapist Robert Swain Gifford, who had illustrated some of Theodore Roosevelt’s books. Merriam also overcame the initial reluctance of the dour Scotsman John Muir by persuading him that he would see glaciers far beyond those he knew so well from his many previous adventures in Alaska. By this time Muir was already famous as “old man Yosemite,” the nation’s leading conservationist and founder of the Sierra Club. His name on the roster did not hurt Harriman’s image.