The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
North To Alaska
An intern of mine recently digitized the entirety of a scrapbook from the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899. Shortly thereafter, I went on a cruise to Alaska, and while I was there, I realized that my vacation had a lot in common with that of American railroad executive, Edward Harriman. In 1899, after working tirelessly on a new rail project for two years, Harriman was in need of a vacation, and what better place to go than the Alaskan coast? So, he called on his friend Clinton Hart Merriam, and asked him to gather together scientists, photographers, artists, and writers to join him on what would become known as the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899. William H. Dall, an expert on invertabrates and fish, who had traveled to Alaska many times on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution, was among the group chosen to go. One of the souvenirs that Harriman gave to all of the members of his expedition was the scrapbook that contained over 200 images of Alaskan wildlife and scenery taken while on the trip.
Since Harriman and I were both cruising the Alaskan coast, we were bound to land in some of the same ports, and I thought it would be interesting to do a photographic then and now comparison. In this photograph, the picture that Edward Curtis, one of the well-known photographers on Harriman’s expedition, took of Juneau in 1899 is placed above a photograph I took of Juneau last month. You can see from the photograph that Juneau has transformed from a group of houses, to a bustling port complete with high rises and cruise ships.
Harriman and I both visited the port of Skagway, as well, which has not changed quite as much in 113 years. When the Harriman Alaska Expedition landed in Skagway in June of 1899, the affects of the Klondike Gold Rush were obvious to them immediately. The Klondike Gold Rush started in 1897 once news of the discovery of gold in the Klondike reached Seattle and San Francisco. The gold rush helped boost the economy in Skagway because the tiny coastal town was one of two ports through which the prospectors could enter the area. By the time Harriman and his group arrived in Skagway in 1899, most of the prospectors had left the area to search for gold in Nome, Alaska. However, many of the individuals who had come to the area with the goal of providing miners with necessary supplies chose to set up permanent businesses there. Today, the town of Skagway has less than 1,000 permanent residents, but the population nearly doubles in the summer in order to deal with the large number of tourists coming in on cruise ships. They even offer tours where you can pan for gold yourself, which I happily tried out!
One of the reasons that Harriman decided to cruise the Alaskan coast was because he wanted to hunt Kodiak bears. He even had his ship, the George W. Elder, outfitted with a stable and taxidermy studio just for the trip. While on the expedition, he encountered seals, sea lions, birds, and he even got his Kodiak bear from Kodiak Island. I, too, was looking forward to seeing wildlife while visiting Alaska, but I chose to capture them with my camera instead. During my visit to Glacier Bay National Wildlife Park, I saw mountain goats, sea lions, sea otters, Orcas, and yes, a Kodiak bear.
While Edward Harriman and I had slightly different goals for our vacations along the Alaskan coast, we both understood the importance of capturing the beauty of “the Last Frontier” through photography, and we both had the trip of a lifetime.