- Historic Sites
Mr. Harriman Requests The Pleasure Of Your Company
Was it science, sport, or the prospect of a round-the-world railroad that sent the tycoon off on his costly Alaskan excursion?
June/july 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 4
For the expedition’s photographer Merriam chose Edward S. Curtis of Seattle. Since Curtis was a virtual unknown whose specialty was wedding pictures, this seemed an unlikely choice. But in the summer of 1897 the Seattle photographer had rescued Merriam and a party of scientists on a dangerous ice field high atop Mount Rainier. After their descent Merriam and his colleagues had taken the time to scan hundreds of Curtis’s photographs of the mountain and its numerous glaciers; Merriam knew Curtis was the photographer he wanted. The Harriman Expedition would make Curtis famous in elite Eastern circles, but more important, his close contact aboard ship with the student of Indians, George Bird Grinnell, would persuade him to photograph all the tribes of North America, which he did for the next thirty years. The result was an American masterpiece, The North American Indian, some two thousand sepia photographs of eighty tribes (see AMERICAN HERITAGE, February, 1974).
When the final guest list had been drawn up, it included twenty-three of the country’s top scientists, representing twelve fields, plus three artists, two photographers, two physicians, two taxidermists, and one chaplain. Together this band of savants constituted what Harriman called “a floating university.”
An aura of secrecy and excitement hung over the departure of this illustrious company from Grand Central Station in New York on the rainy morning of May 23, 1899. Only the New York Herald had managed to get wind of Harriman’s projected “invasion” of Alaska before he was ready to release the news. In addition, the expedition members scarcely knew what to expect of Harriman and the cruise to dangerous Arctic waters. Even the experienced Dellenbaugh made out a will three days before the scheduled departure and gratefully accepted a vial of cocoa extract “to calm his nerves” from a fellow member of the Century Club just before he dashed the two blocks to the train station.
When they reached the station, the expeditionists were quickly admitted to a special trackside, where they all waited nervously until a stout, ordinary-looking man arrived and courteously bade them step aboard his train, the Utopia. This was Edward Harriman, who after seeing to the needs of his large family entourage, including his seven-year-old son Averell, drifted democratically through the cars shaking hands with every expeditionist and inquiring after his comfort. He might have been Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo there in the underground caverns of the station.
It was the beginning of a great adventure. The Utopia pulled out on time, heading into the vastness of America. John Burroughs grew homesick almost immediately for his little farm in Esopus, New York, and looking through the car window believed he saw his wife waving her white apron at him as the train sped by. Soon, however, he struck up a friendship with the woeful would-be bridegroom Charles Palache and the brilliant young bird illustrator Louis Agassiz Fuertes. Before long they were referring to him affectionately as “Uncle John.”
Once past Omaha the endless empty prairies of the West proved a revelation to the Easterners. The great West struck Burroughs as a “nightmare.” Gone was “the sheltering arm of the near horizon about us,” he remarked. Then, after a night’s run west of Omaha, the land became “youthful, like the face of a beardless boy.” Burroughs’s mood changed again when they reached the western Nebraska badlands where “the earth seems to have been flayed alive … the strata almost bleeding,” and then Wyoming, “raw, turbulent, forbidding, almost chaotic … the dumping ground of creation.”
The majority of expeditionists were not so sensitive. They took turns riding the wind in front of the engine aboard the cowcatcher. They delighted in a visit to Shoshone Falls in Idaho’s Snake River Canyon and they enjoyed the lavish hospitality of Boise’s welcoming parade, as well as a cruise aboard a stern-wheel steamer down the Snake River. They strained their eyes for the sight of Chief Joseph’s Indians as they crossed the Nez Perce Reservation, and even Burroughs reveled in Multnomah Falls, which he likened to a “nymph” who had “withdrawn into her bower, but had left the door open.” “How the siren mocked us,” he exclaimed, his wife’s white apron now all but forgotten.