Harriman Alaska Expedition

The Good Ship George W. Elder.

As an intern at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, I have had the opportunity to work with a variety of objects including the souvenir album from the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899. The album, from the Harriman Alaska Expedition Collection, 1899-1900 (Record Unit 7243), consists of two volumes with 253 black-and-white images of the landscape and people the expedition encountered. All the images were carefully pasted on to the dark taupe pages, and a short description written in immaculate handwriting accompanies each image. As I digitally scanned the volumes, I thought about the great expense it would have taken to produce such an extensive album in the late 1800s. After a little digging, I quickly discovered that the Harriman Expedition is actually a significant part of Alaskan and scientific history.

Edward Henry "E. H." Harriman was not a man of science, but rather a very wealthy and powerful New York railroad tycoon. In 1897, a 49-year-old Harriman became the director of the ailing Union Pacific Railroad. Harriman was determined to get the railroad back on its feet, but by 1899 he had exhausted himself. Harriman’s doctor suggested a vacation, and taking his doctor’s advice, organized a trip for family and friends to go Kodiak bear hunting in the Alaskan wilderness. Head of Harriman Fiord, Prince William Sound. As Harriman noted, since the trip required a large ship and crew disproportionate to the number in his party, he decided to "include some guests who, while adding to the interest and pleasure of the expedition, would gather useful information and distribute it for the benefit of others." These added guests ended up turning Harriman’s vacation into one of the most important scientific expeditions of its time.

In March of 1899, Harriman visited Clinton Hart Merriam, biologist and founder of the National Geographic Society, to ask Merriam to organize the expedition. Three weeks later Merriam had assembled a range of experts—an impressive group including Merriam; naturalist John Muir; writer John Burroughs; Robert Ridgway, Curator of birds at the United States National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History); Daniel Giraud Elliot, zoologist and co-founder of New York’s American Museum of Natural History; and photographer Edward Curtis. A few months later, the expedition members and the Harriman family departed from Seattle, their departure making the front page of several newspapers around the world.

But what makes this vacation-cum-expedition so significant? The Harriman Alaska Expedition is significant because Alaska was still seen as the final frontier of North America. Not only had scientists never studied Alaska, but it was a dangerous place to travel since it was largely unmapped. By sailing along the coast, the expedition documented an unknown fiord and several glaciers, which were subsequently named Harriman Fiord and Harriman Glacier.

Stranded Bergs from the Columbia.

Harriman also allowed the scientists to dictate when and where they wanted to go ashore so they could study the ecology. As a result, the scientists were able to describe thirteen new genera, almost six hundred new species, thirty-eight new fossil species, and they mapped the geographic distribution of many of these species. To document the findings and the geographical sights along the way, the artists produced around five thousand photographs and paintings. 

In just two months the expedition had traveled some 9,000 miles along the coast of Alaska and Siberia before safely returning to Seattle on July 30th. It has been said that by the end of the expedition, “the coast of Alaska was a mystery no more.”

Because of the wealth of information gathered by the scientists, Harriman funded the publication of their findings. Entitled The Harriman Alaska Series, the series took twelve years to complete and consists of thirteen volumes. As a personal memento, Harriman also paid to have survivor albums made, like the one here at the Archives, which were given to the expedition members. Thanks to Harriman’s generosity, The Harriman Alaska Series and the albums are still being referenced by scientists studying Alaska today.

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