- 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
The days spent in Glacier Bay were among the expedition’s best. The scenery was stunning; the majestic Fairweather Range towered over the endless miles of glistening ice, its contours changing color with the sun. And for Burroughs and Keeler, who climbed three thousand feet above the bay, the scene was awesome. Keeler was conscious of “a latent and terrible power underfoot” as he distinctly heard “the drip of melting ice” signifying the eternal processes of nature. For Burroughs the high vantage point suggested “a solitude as of interstellar space.”
Down below, Harriman was on the verge of discovery. Steering the steam launch with abandon, he cruised among the icebergs and the intricacies of the glacial walls until there before him and his companions appeared a newly formed glacier. They dubbed their find the Harriman Glacier. When Harriman proudly announced this to the assembled party on the Elder, a wave of collegiate enthusiasm washed over the Harriman Alaska Expedition. “Who are we? Who are we?” they cheered. “We are, we are, the H.A.E.!”
The Elder’s next stop was in marked contrast to the crystalline wilderness of Glacier Bay. After steaming down Peril Strait all night in pouring rain, they reached the old Russian port of Sitka.
First established by Siberian fur hunters on the site of an Indian village they had pillaged and robbed, Sitka had been colonized in the early nineteenth century by the Russian American Company. By 1899, however, it was a U.S. territory with a governor, amenities, and a sense of history. The retired naval lieutenant George Emmons, who had sailed with Captain Charles Wilkes on the voyage that discovered the Antarctic in 1841, lived there. It had such landmarks as an old onion-domed Russian church and Russian barracks. Its citizens were far removed from gold-rush fever and more inclined to look forward to tourists on the last leg of their Alaskan cruise. Indeed, during Harriman’s visit the Topeka arrived and disgorged a healthy complement of summer tourists. Meanwhile Harriman had managed to fascinate the local Aleut Indians by recording and playing back their songs on his Graphophone. So attached to the Harriman party did the Indians become that, as the Elder steamed away, an Indian band stood on the dock in the rain puffing and tootling away “Yankee Doodle” and “Three Cheers for the Red, White, and Blue.”
After stopping at Yakutat Bay, which the Spaniard Malaspina had mistaken for the Northwest Passage in the eighteenth century, Harriman’s expedition headed north across the Gulf of Alaska to the scene of Captain Cook’s similar disenchantment, Prince William Sound. They paused for a time at Orca to observe the ubiquitous salmon canneries and to talk to disappointed gold seekers looking for a way home.
Up in the northeast corner of Prince William Sound, Harriman and his party briefly believed they had found what the great captains Cook and Malaspina had failed to locate. At Port Wells, on Harriman’s orders, they recklessly sailed through a narrow channel around the edge of Barry Glacier and came upon a completely unknown fiord extending far into the interior. Harriman exclaimed, “We shall discover a new Northwest Passage!” It was, alas, no such thing, but a new fiord lined with hitherto unknown glaciers was excitement enough. All day they sailed through the wonderland of “Harriman” Fiord, gazing upon glaciers that they named “the Yale,” “the Harvard,” “the Princeton,” and even “the Bryn Mawr.” In the course of this dangerous excursion, one of the ship’s propeller shafts snapped, and Captain Doran had to back the Elder carefully through the Barry Glacier passage at night. During this delicate operation, Harriman coolly sat in the saloon playing his favorite game, Crokinole, a variation of tiddlywinks.
On Kodiak Island, Harriman finally bagged the coveted Kodiak bear. In fact he shot a female and her cub—or “mother and child” as Muir scornfully remarked. Frustrated in his earlier attempts to bag big game, Harriman had taken off across Kodiak’s barren hills guided by a Russian half-breed, Stephen Kandoroff, backed, as one scientist tartly noted in his diary, “with enough firepower to tear the bear to pieces.” Luckily Harriman bagged his bear on the first shot. Merriam was much relieved as he had taken personal responsibility for Harriman’s securing such a trophy.
In the early days of July the Elder steamed past the Shumagin Islands and paused at Unalaska far out in the Pacific near the end of the Aleutian archipelago. At this point a decidedly apprehensive John Burroughs decided to jump ship. He had met an attractive lady who, in offering him eggs for breakfast, had “won his heart.” Suitcase in hand he was headed down the gangplank when John Muir and Charles Keeler caught up with him. “Where are you going with the grip, Johnny?” demanded Muir. That was it for poor Burroughs. Back to his cabin he went, firmly escorted by the two. “Uncle John” moaned and tossed in violent seasickness during the entire stormy voyage across the Bering Sea, a trip so rough that even Dellenbaugh gave in and downed his cocoa extract to calm his stomach and then promptly headed for the ship’s rail “to pay his respects to the deep.” Burroughs forgot all about “fresh eggs for breakfast.”