Category Archives: Historical Travel

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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Japan’s Koyasan, a Century After Eliza Scidmore Saw It

Shingon monks at Mount Koya (Source: Jim Harper, on Wikipedia)

Koyasan, a mountainous area of temples in southeastern Japan, is a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists. The New York Times ran an article about it in the Oct. 22 travel section. Eliza Scidmore wrote about the site in 1907 for National Geographic Magazine. It’s interesting to see the different takes on the same place a century apart.

A monk known as Kobo-Daishi chose the site 1,200 years ago to serve as the center of an esoteric Shingon sect of Buddhism. Buddhism supports various paths by which someone can reach the elevated state of being freed from suffering and its repetition through continuous rebirth. The Shingon sect emphasizes the practice of daily ritual as a means to reach that enlightenment.

In her article, Eliza Scidmore wrote, with the note of irreverence she includes in many of her travel writings:

“One meets memorials and traditions of Kobo Daishi in every part of Japan, but at Koyasan he is naturally all-pervading and extreme. That forceful person could have known no rest during his brief span of sixty years, for ten men could hardly have built all the temples and shrines, carved the statues, painted the pictures, planted the pine and camphor trees, climbed the mountains, lighted the lanterns, started the sacred flames, or performed all the miracles attributed to him.”

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‘Downton Abbey,’ An American Heiress and Eliza Scidmore

ElizMcGovern_LadyGrantham_TabletMag

Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Grantham in “Downton Abbey”

OK, fellow “Downtown Abbey” addicts, I managed to find a connection between the TV series and the subject of my biography in progress, the 19th-century American travel writer Eliza Scidmore. The line runs through Cora Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), the American-born mistress of Downton Abbey.

Julian Fellowes, the show’s writer, has said Cora was meant to represent the many rich American heiresses of the late 19th century who married into the British aristocracy. The press dubbed them “dollar princesses.”

The most famous of them was Mary Leiter, who led a glamorous life as Lady Curzon. Her father was a wealthy dry goods merchant from Chicago who made a fortune in partnership with the department store mogul Marshall Field.

Fellowes stressed that he didn’t model Cora specifically on Mary Leiter. But there are many parallels in their lives. Eliza Scidmore knew Mary Leiter as a young debutante in Washington.

LadyCurzon_MaryLeiter_MagPortrait

American heiress Mary Leiter, who became Lady Curzon

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Filed under Biography, D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Historical Travel, Women's History

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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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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Cherry Blossom Viewing at ‘Mukojima’ in Tokyo

On Saturday I literally walked in Eliza Scidmore’s footsteps when I went to Tokyo to see the cherry tree viewing (hanami) at Mukojima. The original mile-long stretch of cherry trees lining the Sumida River was the chief inspiration for Scidmore’s idea of planting Japanese cherry trees in Washington. She envisioned, she wrote many times, a “Mukojima on the Potomac.”

Picnicking and cherry tree viewing at Mukojima in Tokyo, an inspiration for Eliza Scidmore in the late 19th century (Photos: Diana Parsell)

It wasn’t just the blossoms that Scidmore wanted to import. She loved the celebrations when the Japanese turned out in droves to see the trees in peak bloom.

The most festive place was Mukojima. It was like the “people’s park,” where Japanese from all walks of life mingled in a carnival atmosphere. There were jugglers, acrobats, orators and vendors. And lots of saké drinking and picnicking.

The place is much changed today, of course. Most of the original trees were destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and had to be replanted. The Sumida River today is wider. Tall buildings tower above one side of the riverbank, and the other has a raised freeway running parallel to a stretch of cherry trees. But the display is still glorious, and the spirit of hanami remains the same.

It was a joy to be there and experience it. The trees bloomed about two weeks earlier than expected here in Japan, so my timing was perfect!

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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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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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