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Mr. Harriman Requests The Pleasure Of Your Company

July 2024
17min read

Was it science, sport, or the prospect of a round-the-world railroad that sent the tycoon off on his costly Alaskan excursion?

The railroad tycoon Edward Harriman was a man of large vision and mysterious ways. When, on a day in March of 1899, he strode into the Washington office of Dr. C. Hart Merriam, chief of the U.S. Biological Survey, and proposed sponsoring a grand scientific exploring expedition to Alaska, Merriam thought he was just another lunatic. He put his strange visitor off until the next day while he checked him out. To his surprise Merriam found the man to be exactly what he said he was—president of the Union Pacific Railroad. The Washington bureaucrat was more attentive at their next meeting. Harriman proposed to charter and refit a steamship for a cruise out of Seattle north along Alaska’s coast and across the Bering Strait to Siberia, and he wanted to recruit the nation’s leading scientists to make a systematic and thorough examination of Alaska. He would bear all the expenses of the ambitious trip and would place Merriam in complete charge of assembling the scientific corps.

The real purpose of Harriman’s plan was to explore the possibility of constructing a railroad around the world via Alaska and the Bering Strait. Completely familiar with the role of the railroad in dominating the economy of a region, as had happened with the Union Pacific, Harriman seems to have relished the idea of having Alaska all to himself, this province more than twice the size of Texas. And who in the age of the Panama Canal, the Eiffel Tower, Brooklyn’s great suspension bridge, and the impossibly difficult Trans-Siberian Railroad could say his scheme was preposterous?

Harriman said nothing of these greater plans to Merriam, however. Personally, he told the scientist, he merely had high hopes of bagging a giant Kodiak bear.

After Merriam recovered from his amazement, he accepted the proposition with enthusiasm, little realizing that it would occupy the next twelve years of his life. The following day he contacted two of his colleagues who were prominent in the Washington scientific network: William Healey DaIl, whose numerous expeditions to Alaska had made him the country’s top expert on the region, and Grove Karl Gilbert, America’s leading geologist. Together they spoke with Harriman in a series of meetings over the next few days. Their excitement rose when, on the last day of March, a telegram arrived at Merriam’s office inviting him to bring DaIl to New York in Harriman’s private railroad car for yet another discussion. Over dinner at the Metropolitan Club, Harriman officially placed full planning responsibility in Merriam’s hands. As the two scientists sped back through the night to Washington, they began drawing up the list of who should be invited on the Alaskan adventure.

Their sponsor, E. H. Harriman, then fifty-one years old, was a typical self-made man of the Gilded Age. At fourteen he had quit school to become a quotations boy on Wall Street. With an excellent memory and a nose for money, he had risen rapidly in the financial district as a broker. In the 1880’s he had turned to frontier railroading and, as the financial manager of the Illinois Central, he had steadily developed that line. In 1897 he made a bold move to control the Union Pacific, did so through covert political manipulations, and solidified his power as chairman of the board. Still, not having attended Yale, Harvard, or even Princeton, he was not quite socially acceptable in the world of high finance. As one of his contemporaries wrote, “He was looked at askance .. . [as] an intruder. His ways and manners jarred somewhat upon several of his new colleagues, and he was considered by some as not quite belonging in their class. …“In short, Harriman was regarded as an “industrial pirate,” or at least an “upstart” by the more conservative financiers. Among its other purposes, his Alaskan expedition was undoubtedly intended to improve his social status and polish his public image.

Merriam, Dall, and Gilbert recruited a first-rate team of scientists in an astonishingly short time: Henry Gannett, chief geographer of the U.S. Geological Survey; Frederick V. Colville of the Department of Agriculture; Dr. Bernhard Fernow of Cornell, the nation’s leading forester; Albert Fisher and Robert Ridgway, two outstanding ornithologists; Professor William Brewer of Yale, a long-ago veteran of the California Geological Survey; the Amherst geologist Benjamin K. Emerson and his brilliant young protégé Charles Palache, a pioneer seismologist who had recently discovered dangerous earthquake fault lines near San Francisco Bay, to which few in 1899 paid much attention. Palache, with no little reluctance, postponed his wedding date to be part of Harriman’s expedition.

In some ways Merriam’s greatest success was in recruiting important public figures who stood on the fringes of science. He signed up George Bird Grinnell, editor of Forest and Stream and founder of the Audubon Society; John Burroughs, the widely popular nature writer; the painter Frederick Dellenbaugh, who had accompanied John Wesley Powell on his second voyage down the Colorado River in 1871-82; and the New York landscapist Robert Swain Gifford, who had illustrated some of Theodore Roosevelt’s books. Merriam also overcame the initial reluctance of the dour Scotsman John Muir by persuading him that he would see glaciers far beyond those he knew so well from his many previous adventures in Alaska. By this time Muir was already famous as “old man Yosemite,” the nation’s leading conservationist and founder of the Sierra Club. His name on the roster did not hurt Harriman’s image.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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