- 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
Harriman’s next target was Juneau, a charming town where the houses, mostly on stilts, seemed to climb up the side of a green-forested mountain. Here was the massive Treadwell Mine that, by means of elaborate stamping machines, extracted the last ounces of gold from low-grade quartz. Walter Devereaux, the expedition’s mining engineer, lectured enthusiastically about the mine and the milling machine, but for most of the expeditionists the endless pounding of the stampers shattered everything that was pleasant about Juneau. Muir, Edward Curtis, and some others preferred to explore the nearly deserted Indian village of Taku, where in numerous “houses of the dead” they found carved wooden boxes full of cremated Indian remains. Only the shaman were not cremated; they, as Merriam indelicately put it, “were boxed up raw.”
The delights of Juneau, however, paled before those of Skagway, their next stop. Here was the true legendary city, gateway to White (sometimes called Dead Horse) Pass that led to the Yukon River and the gold fields of the Alaskan interior upon which so many miners had recently fastened their dreams. Despite the fact that the notorious Soapy Smith and his gang had been eliminated the year before, Skagway was still a wide-open town, the rowdy place at the end of the world.
As soon as the expeditionists reached the dock, a horde of scraggly miners swarmed over the ship like a savage band. They had mistaken it for the mail ship Rosalie. John Burroughs, however, was fascinated by the women who lounged on the fringes of the crowd clad in “bicycle suits” and other enticing garments and stared boldly at the strangers.
Few of the expeditionists sampled the town’s diversions. John Muir went to visit an old wilderness colleague, the missionary Hall Young, who had roamed the glaciers with him in 1897. The others took one stroll through the hurdy-gurdy town and returned to peaceful life aboard their floating hotel. Serious business was scheduled for the morrow. With the first light they set out for an excursion on the White Pass Railroad, a small line that led up and over Dead Horse Pass and on to the Yukon. They enjoyed an exhilarating ride to the summit, though the stiffened and rotting carcasses of dead horses that had fallen off the trail the previous year formed a reminder of the grim strueele of the gold seekers.
Suddenly the glacier wall collapsed. It seemed to fall directly on Curtis and Inverarity as those on shore watched in horror.
Harriman took a deep interest in the tiny White Pass Railroad; he would almost certainly have to acquire this short-line road to the wealth of the interior if he were to control Alaska. Without a trace of irony Dall termed Skagway and its strategic railroad a “town of the future.”
Indeed, in that strange, bustling, booster atmosphere, all turned their thoughts to future development. Dall and Gannett agreed that Alaska would be the focus of tourism, and Gannett, ignoring the littered, ramshackle condition at Skagway, declared, “Alaska’s grandeur is more valuable than the gold or the fish or the timber, for it will never be exhausted.” Frederick Colville thought the country ideal for shepherding, while the forester Fernow measured the surrounding forest in terms of board feet per acre.
Another Alaska appeared, however, when they reached “John Muir’s Country”—Glacier Bay. There they saw for the first time miles and miles of glaciers running down to the sea, their fluted façades glistening and sparkling, their surfaces billowing like a frozen ocean. “Mighty crystal rivers” as John Muir called them, and he proudly pointed out his “own” Muir Glacier, which stood majestically at the entrance to the bay. As the Elder moved closer, the expeditionists could see a tiny log hut on the gravelly beach in front of the glacier—Muir’s cabin. Somehow it embodied the doughty Muir himself as it stood defiantly against the lee of one of nature’s towering marvels.
Scientific work began in earnest as parties set off in all directions. Dellenbaugh and Swain Gifford painted, fascinated by the effects of the Arctic light. Curtis and Inverarity took photographs, working closely with Grove Karl Gilbert, the geologist, whose report from the expedition would be one of the classic treatises on the dynamics of glaciation.
Periodically, huge chunks of the glaciers would break off and crash into the sea with a roar. Watching in awe, Burroughs declared, “We saw the world-shaping forces at work.” Curtis and Inverarity had a still more intimate view of the process. Mounting their cameras in a canoe, they had moved up close to the massive glacial face. Suddenly the glacier wall collapsed with a tremendous sound. It seemed to fall directly upon them as those on shore watched in helpless horror. Then came the immense local tidal wave, smashing against the white cliffs. The photographers seemed doomed. But suddenly they reappeared, paddling expertly, their canoe bobbing like a cork. In the end they even managed to save their cameras.