- 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 dash for Siberia took them north across the Bering Sea, where the Elder ran aground in the fog. Upon freeing her, Captain Doran headed for Bogoslof, an active volcanic island, which they found steaming and exploding. The explorers bravely clambered about the island, observing thousands of birds and hundreds of seals. Then they were on their way, past the lonely seal sanctuary in the Pribilofs, past St. Paul Island, named for Vitus Bering’s ship, past Hall’s Island, until they reached Plover Bay on the coast of Russian Siberia. It proved to be an anticlimactic moment. The settlement consisted of some twenty-five poverty-stricken, syphilitic, shaven-head Chukchis camped on a sandspit at the base of the mountain. Harriman and his party tried to converse with the natives for about three hours. Curtis’s photographs of the historic moment show surreal scenes of rows of skin tents with harpoons pointing skyward out of them like ancient missiles and whalebone hearths that looked like primitive monsters inching across the land. There are also somewhat ludicrous scenes of the uniformed Captain Doran acting as official emissary to the chief of a foreign state. The Chukchis themselves seemed only to want food and trade goods from America—wherever that was. The Harriman party left for Alaska at sundown. Apparently the railroad baron had lost all enthusiasm for his Siberian railroad connection. Certainly the explorers did no systematic surveying and sounding as they headed directly east to the Alaskan whaling station at Port Clarence, fewer than thirty nautical miles away.
By now the floating university had reached the far northern extension of its journey. In less than two weeks the expedition would be back in Seattle. Harriman himself had grown restless, and no amount of frantic, almost fevered frivolity on the return trip could shake him from this mood. He longed for Wall Street now, and as they passed the magnificent Fairweather Range, he responded to calls for his presence at the rail by saying, “I don’t give a damn if I never see any more scenery.” The only thing that captured his attention was an opportunity to plunder a deserted Indian village in the Fox Islands on the way home. There he joined enthusiastically in dismantling houses, collecting dead boxes, masks, carved statues, and even totem poles. Proudly he had the whole party pose for its group photo before the village with the loot piled up on the beach.
In Seattle the party disbanded, but its members kept in touch. For the rest of his life Harriman remained a friend of Muir and aided his conservation causes. Merriam undertook to supervise the publishing of thirteen large volumes on the expedition, scholarly reports that constitute a benchmark in the scientific investigation of Alaska. Gilbert’ work in particular was outstanding in its description of glacial dynamics and its reconstruction of the geologic history of Alaska.
When the first two narrative volumes of the Harriman reports were published in 1901, they received lavish praise. Not the least of their attractions were the beautiful chromolithographs adapted from the paintings of Dellenbaugh and Gifford, the charming bird pictures of young Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and the haunting photographs of Edward S. Curtis—a part of the great photographer’s work that remains virtually unknown.
As for Harriman himself, the trip seemed to lead nowhere. He did not pursue either railroading or entrepreneurial ventures in Alaska. Perhaps bagging his Kodiak bear had indeed been gratification enough.