American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

THE HARRIMAN ALASKA EXPEDITION. The Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899 was the last great Alaska expedition of the nineteenth century. Sponsored entirely by American railroad magnate and philanthropist Edward H. Harriman and organized by C. Hart Merriam, then head of the U.S. Biological Survey, the eight-week voyage from Seattle to Alaska (31 May to 30 July 1899) was made aboard the George W. Elder, a steamship that had been refitted as a scientific luxury liner. The Elder's 126- member crew constituted a “floating university” that consisted of eminent American scientists, artists, photographers, and writers. Although the geographical discoveries of the expedition were not particularly significant, the carefully orchestrated voyage of so many important naturalists and writers drew national media attention both to the landscape of Alaska and to the importance of American literary and scientific natural history.

Among the literary members of the expedition were John Burroughs (1837-1921), nature writer and ornithologist; John Muir (1838-1914), author, conservationist, and glaciologist; George Bird Grinnell (1849-1938), essayist and editor of Forest and Stream; and Charles Keeler (1871-1937), poet and director of the Museum of the California Academy of Sciences. The scientific discoveries of the expedition were published by the Smithsonian Institution in the thirteen volumes titled Harriman Alaska Expedition (1901-1914); the first two volumes, published by Doubleday, Page and Company in 1901, are usually considered the “narrative set” of the expedition.

Literary accounts of the voyage are more dispersed. Among the most significant of these are Muir’s in Edward Henry Harriman (1912), in Travels in Alaska (1915), and in his journals (John of the Mountains: Unpublished Journals of John Muir, 1938); and Burroughs’ “In Green Alaska” in Far and Near (1904), in My Boyhood (1928), and in his journals (The Heart of Burroughs’ Journals, 1938). [See also THE ARCTIC]

Michael P. Branch