In the summer of 1883, Eliza Scidmore went to Alaska for the first time. She was 26.
Tourists and others bound for Alaska in the late 19th century went by way of the mail steamers. The ships followed the thousand-mile-long sea channel — known as the Inside Passage — that stretches from British Vancouver to the Alaskan panhandle. That summer, the Pacific Coast Steamship Company had assigned the Idaho to make the July run.
Eliza boarded the ship when it docked at Port Townsend, Washington, which was then a major customs port. The round-trip journey north to Alaska and back took about three weeks. When the captain, James Carroll, made the bold decision to veer off course, the Idaho made history as the first ship to venture into the upper reaches of Glacier Bay. Eliza Scidmore was on hand to record it.
In the last decades of the 19th century cruises to Alaska and Glacier Bay became all the rage among well-to-do Americans. It was the start of what became today’s multimillion-dollar Alaska cruise ship industry.
Eliza’s newspaper dispatches from that first trip and a return visit the following summer formed the basis of a book that’s considered the first complete travelogue on Alaska. A later edition of it, much more detailed, lived on for decades as a definitive guidebook to the region.
During the Idaho’s slow and cautious passage into Glacier Bay, Captain Carroll named a small green island for Eliza, entering the name “Scidmore Island” on the ship’s long. The name was later changed, but Eliza still has a glacier and a mountain in Alaska named for her: Scidmore Glacier, near Mount Fairweather, and Mount Ruhamah.
During the journey home, two unusual “guests” roamed among the passengers aboard the Idaho. Here, you can listen to a recording of the incident told in Eliza’s own words:
The video below provides an overview of what Glacier Bay looks like today. The scenery from a bird’s-eye view is amazing.