- 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
Eventually the Utopia rolled into Portland and a rendezvous with the West Coast party, including John Muir and Charles Keeler of the California Academy of Sciences, then on to Seattle, where Edward Curtis and his assistant D. J. Inverarity awaited them, as did a host of reporters and a large welcoming committee. If Harriman was going to look at Alaska, something important was afoot, and so a large crowd huddled in slickers on the Seattle wharf in a drizzling fog on May 31, 1899, as Harriman supervised the final loading of the steam yacht George W. Elder. The crowd strained to watch cows, turkeys, chickens, and horses file into the ship’s hold while up another gangplank rolled luggage, camera equipment, boxes of scientific instruments, cases of champagne, lantern-slide projectors, guns and ammunition boxes, even a piano and a newfangled Graphophone that both played and recorded music. Mrs. Harriman arrived with five children, her brother, and the family physician. A cheer went up as they boarded and continued as, two by two, the “scientifics” entered their ark. In the early evening, the cables were slipped at last and the George W. Elder chugged away through the fog, bound for the far north.
All along the shore they could see the mountains passing, in Muir’s words, like “the leaves of a grand picture book.”
Even before the Elder reached its first port of call, the committees that the efficient Harriman had organized among the expedition members during the trip west began to meet. John Muir, to his surprise, found himself on no fewer than four: the executive committee, geology, geography and geographic names, and literature and art. In addition to those upon which Muir sat there were committees on routes and plans, zoology, botany, mining, big game, lectures, library, and music and entertainment. On the first night out the veteran Alaskan explorer William Healey DaIl captivated his small audience with a lecture on the history of Alaska. Such talks were scheduled each week. Characteristically the scientists made reports on their findings, though sometimes the lectures were engulfed in elaborate high jinks, or there were long recitals of romantic poems about Alaska composed especially for the occasion. There were political discussions, too, and reflections on Alaska’s economic potential interspersed with the zoologist Trevor Kincaid’s unintentionally comic rendition of birdcalls and warbles. One learned colleague duplicated the mating dance of the bumblebee. And from the first day there was music as Fernow rippled through Beethoven’s sonatas in brilliant fashion. Later on, the Graphophone supplied everything from Sousa marches to Indian chants and calls.
A major problem became evident, however, after the Elder left Victoria, passed beyond the dangerous Seymour Narrows between Vancouver Island and the mainland, and headed out into the open Pacific. There it justified its famous nickname “The George W. Roller,” and the expeditionists stayed in their cabins for several days fighting seasickness. None suffered more than John Burroughs, whose bouts lasted the whole trip.
The first lengthy stop was at Annette Island, where a maverick dictatorial fundamentalist preacher, James Duncan, had established the New Metlakatla Christian Utopian Colony dedicated to civilizing the “savage” Haida. Most of the expeditionists marveled at his success, though his methods did seem a bit tyrannical. John Muir, ever the soul of freedom and devotee of the wild, was not impressed.
Beyond Annette Island, the party inspected a salmon cannery, one of many they would have occasion to see and smell. Some members were amazed at the efficiency of the operation while others, like George Bird Grinnell, saw it as an example of the gross exploitation of Indian and Chinese coolie labor, as well as the unrestrained pillaging of Alaska’s resources.
From Annette Island they charted a course from Wrangell, originally an old Russian fur-trade outpost but more recently an entrep’f4t for gold seekers in Alaska’s recent mineral rush of the nineties. By 1899, however, the miners had moved northward and Wrangell seemed practically deserted, a place of decaying saloons and stores, and acres of abandoned “city lots” dotted with sawed-off tree stumps. Charles Keeler, the expedition’s poet, declared Wrangell a “dirty miserable” town and was glad when the recall whistle sounded from the Elder.
Cruising up the Wrangell Narrows, however, was another matter. The day was bright, and all along the shore they could see the mountains passing, in Muir’s words, like “the leaves of a grand picture book.” Then Patterson Glacier burst upon them, glistening and white. The expeditionists were dazzled. Muir, however, told them much better glaciers lay ahead, including his own Muir Glacier. To some the Scotsman’s know-it-all expertise had already begun to wear a bit thin.