Eliza Scidmore is best known, if at all, for her role as the earliest visionary of Washington’s cherry trees. She was also an intrepid traveler. And the National Geographic Society considers her its first female explorer.
The Geographic’s blog recently featured some of its pioneering women. I kicked off the series with a piece about Scidmore.
Scidmore was admitted as a member of National Geographic in 1890, two years after its founding. The Society’s leaders elected her corresponding secretary in 1892, making her the first female board member.
She won the scientists’ respect especially for her writings on Alaska, a place not yet known to most Americans.
The United States had owned Alaska only 16 years when Scidmore went there for the first time in the summer of 1883. Mail steamers, which made monthly circuits up and down the Inside Passage, offered the only means of getting to and from Alaska.
Scidmore traveled aboard the Idaho. Here’s a picture of the ship.
That voyage made history.
Scidmore, already a young newspaper correspondent for a number of years, reported on the month-long journey. The highlight came when the Idaho ventured off the known route and sailed into the upper reaches of Glacier Bay.
The captain, James Carroll, had heard stories of the bay’s magnificent glaciers from local Indians, who hunted in the area, and from John Muir, who had explored the area by canoe a few years earlier.
Curious, Carroll decided to push north through the icy, uncharted waters in hopes of seeing the glaciers. He guided the ship to about an eighth of a mile from the front of the massive glacier he later named for John Muir.
So Scidmore and her fellow passengers were Glacier Bay’s first tourists.
She repeated the journey the following summer, again writing about the trip. She expanded her newspaper dispatches into a book-length narrative of her travels, Alaska: Its Southern Coast and the Sitkan Archipelago.
Published in 1885, the book is now considered the first guidebook on Alaska. It became popular when an Alaska cruise industry sprang up at the end of the 19th century.
Scidmore returned to Alaska at least half a dozen times, reporting for several newspapers and magazines — including the fledgling National Geographic.
Here’s a home-made video I made describing her pioneering 1883 journey. (Some of the photos are representative only, and a sharp reader in Alaska pointed out I mistakenly used a different ship named the Idaho.)
Scidmore’s works also include a much more comprehensive version of her 1885 book, Appleton’s Guide-Book to Alaska.
Today, in recognition of her early expertise on the area, Scidmore has landmarks in Alaska named for her: Mount Ruhamah and Scidmore Glacier and Bay.
In a 25-year affiliation with the National Geographic Society, Scidmore published about a dozen articles in the magazine, as well as photographs. She was probably the first woman to have photos in National Geographic Magazine, and also helped the editor acquire images from other sources in the Far East.
My online article describes her article in the September 1896 issue reporting on a deadly “earthquake wave” that hit the northeast coast of Japan that June. It killed 20,000 people and wiped out entire fishing villages.
In her article, Scidmore introduced American readers to a Japanese word that we now use commonly in English: tsunami.