Of all I’ve learned about Eliza Scidmore so far, nothing has excited my imagination so much as her first trip to Alaska, in 1883, on a pioneering voyage to Glacier Bay. She was 26.
Eliza was working at the time as a newspaper correspondent — a “lady writer,” as the press called female society reporters in Washington. She already had several years of experience in journalism, after breaking into the field by covering the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876, now regarded as America’s first world’s fair.
To Eliza, always in search of the next big story, Alaska had the smell of opportunity.
The region had been part of the United States only 16 years. To most Americans it was still a foreign land.
Traveling with a friend, she crossed the continent by train that summer and boarded a steamer in Port Townsend, Wash., for the journey north to Alaska.
Mail steamers offered the only means of transport to the wilderness area. The ships made monthly circuits up and down the Inside Passage, with stops at frontier settlements in southeastern Alaska.
During Eliza’s month-long voyage, the captain of her ship, the Idaho, grew intrigued by reports of magnificent glaciers that had been reported by John Muir, who explored the area by canoe a few years earlier with a group of local Indians.
On a clear day in mid-July, Captain James Carroll sailed off the known course and guided the ship into the upper reaches of the icy waters that had not as yet been charted.
Eliza and her fellow passengers became the first tourists to visit Glacier Bay. She wrote about the experience for newspapers, and after repeating the journey the following summer she turned her dispatches into her first book, Alaska: Its Southern Coast and the Sitkan Archipelago (1885).
Other ships soon took up the route as well, laying the seeds of an Alaska cruise industry over the next decade.
I’ve tried to capture the wonder of that historic voyage in the video above, which I made in a recent Technology Tools for Writers class at Johns Hopkins, offered by the M.A. in writing program (from which I’m a graduate). I’m grateful to instructor and multimedia maven Rae Bryant for her assistance.