Category Archives: Alaska

Eliza Scidmore, First National Geographic Woman Explorer

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.

The “Idaho,” anchored at Carroll’s Wharf in Juneau in 1887. (Source: Alaska State Library)

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.

Geographic Writer

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.

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Filed under Alaska, Eliza Scidmore, Historical Travel, Japan, National Geographic

LibriVox Features Eliza Scidmore, on Alaska

Eliza Scidmore has made her debut appearance on LibriVox.

I discoverNGcovered LibriVox a couple of years ago and am now a big fan. It’s a free online service of audio books recorded from titles in the public domain. The concept is especially wonderful because all the books are recorded by volunteers. The readers are people from around the world. A big, beautiful universe of book lovers.

LibriVox is great for easing my resistance to gym workouts on the treadmill. I’ve found it’s also a nice, soothing way to “read” in bed on a winter night before falling asleep.

I’ve been working my way through some of the classics I missed. So far: Middlemarch (tough to absorb in audio of mixed narrators, so I followed along in a paperback), several Edith Wharton novels and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (the reader was brilliant, quite theatrical in his reading). A recent listen was one of my all-time favorite books, Willa Cather’s My Antonia. Also have on my download list some works by John Muir and the British travel writer Isabella Bird. Continue reading

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Filed under Alaska, Biography, Books, Eliza Scidmore, Historical Travel, National Geographic, U.S. History, Women's History

Shut Out From the Library of Congress

My study desk in the Adams Building of the Library of Congress

Bruce and I are now a 100-percent furloughed household. He’s in a “non-essential” federal job and thus on unofficial R&R. And here’s what the government shutdown looks like from my little spot in the universe. It’s my tiny “study desk” room at the Library of Congress, on the fifth floor of the Adams Building.

I’ve spent tons of hours there, often working late into the evening doing research for my biography of Eliza Scidmore.

And now the library is shuttered. The books I’ve had on reserve are off limits for the time being. No online advance ordering of any more books, either, since the library’s website has also gone dark.

A lot of people today think you can do all the research you need to online. But I’ve found the resources of the Library of Congress  indispensable to my project. Continue reading

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Filed under Alaska, Biography, Eliza Scidmore, Historical Travel, Library of Congress, Research

Smithsonian Collection of Eliza Scidmore’s Photos

Chilkat women and girls in Alaska, by Eliza Scidmore (Source: National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution)

Remember back in the ’60s and ’70s when travel was such a big deal that everyone took hundreds of slides? And insisted on sharing them. As you sat for what seemed like hours watching poorly cropped and focused images projected on a white sheet hung across a wall in the living room. Today, with cellphones, digital cameras, TV shows and relatively cheap air fares, we’re all so jaded about the wonders of distant places.

In Eliza Scidmore‘s day, travel was still exotic. The Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives has a collection of photos and lantern slides she took during her travels. They’re held by the Smithsonian because it loaned Eliza some photographic equipment. Continue reading

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Filed under Alaska, Eliza Scidmore, Historical Travel, Japan, Photos, U.S. History

Video: Eliza Scidmore’s Historic 1883 Journey to Glacier Bay

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.

The steamer “Idaho” at wharf in Juneau in 1887, a few years after Eliza Scidmore’s historic journey aboard the ship when it carried tourists into Glacier Bay for the first time (Source: Alaska State Library)

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Filed under Alaska, Biography, Eliza Scidmore, Historical Travel, U.S. History