Exploring Alaska on the Harriman Expedition

Imagine gathering America’s most intelligent and well-known scientists in topics like biology and botany, with support from gifted artists, photographers and technicians to do research in one geographic area. Good idea, right? Even today, that would be a challenging task.

The Harriman Expedition to Alaska, led by wealthy railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman in 1899, did just that, putting 30 highly respected academicians, including Missouri Botanical Garden president Dr. William Trelease, on what was essentially a floating university.

Never before accomplished at this magnitude, the Harriman Expedition is called “perhaps the last grand expedition of the nineteenth century.” (Goetzmann, xi).

Explore the plants, places and people of the Harriman Expedition with this interactive story map.

A group photo of the Harriman Expedition at Cape Fox, Alaska. From the Missouri Botanical Garden Archives.

Those setting sail on the S.S. George W. Elder would see two Alaskas. One of pristine beauty, untouched by man in any way. The other of a land being invaded, overused, and being exploited for monetary gain. Much of what had been experienced in the lower 48 states by native people and industrialization was being experienced in Alaska when this group observed it.

Ironically, most of the observers, including Dr. Trelease, would not address the elephant in the room: because of frontier capitalism, Alaska was being pillaged of its greatest natural resources, specifically from the Alaska Gold Rush. The environmental landscape was changing quickly, with impact to both science and the inhabitants of the region.

More than a Hunting Trip

Edward H. Harriman ascended to fame in the competitive world of American railroads. After years of developing the Illinois Central Railroad, Harriman took the reigns of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1897.

Interested in taking a vacation, Harriman considered a big game hunting trip like those made famous by Theodore Roosevelt. Encouraged by his friend Daniel Elliot, curator of the Chicago’s Field Columbian Museum, Harriman set his sights on killing an Alaskan Kodiak bear.

Soon this small hunting trip became much more; a contribution to the scientific world. “In a single sweeping gesture, a scientific expedition would build Harriman a public image as a philanthropist…” (Goetzmann, 6), a common theme for the wealthy of this era. Garden founder Henry Shaw could relate; one of his largest philanthropic contributions through science came in the form of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

This reputation-building was of utmost importance; considered a person of “new money”, Harriman looked for any opportunity to appear philanthropic to society. The most publicized reason for Harriman’s interest in embarking on this journey sparked from a grand idea, representative of the Industrial Era. “… beginning to visualize the most grandiose railroad scheme of all…” (Goetzmann, 8), Harriman imagined a railroad line that would circle the world.

Finding a way to connect Alaska and Siberia would be the first step in achieving that dream, by building a tunnel beneath the Bering Sea. While this seems impossible to imagine now, in the era of the Industrial Revolution, no idea was impossible.

A map showing the route of the Harriman Expedition in 1899. From the Missouri Botanical Garden Archives.

The Adventure of a Lifetime

Future Garden director William Trelease was born in Mount Vernon, New York, on February 22, 1857. The son of a pattern-cutter in metal working, young William followed tradition, learning the trade of his father.  It was expected that metalworking would be his profession.

However, his interest in the natural world became too strong to ignore. Early accounts share his main activities to be hunting and fishing when taking trips into the woods. This created opportunities for him to collect interesting plants and insects.

It’s noted that this initiative was his main preparation for Cornell University, which he entered in 1877 and where he completed his course work in three years, far ahead of his colleagues. In 1880, Trelease entered Harvard University to achieve a doctorate, studying parasitic fungi under William Farlow and systematic botany Asa Gray, Henry Shaw’s friend and scientific advisor.

In 1885, he was recruited to head an evolving program at Washington University in St. Louis, endowed by Henry Shaw, and to work in conjunction with the nationally recognized Missouri Botanical Garden. After meeting Shaw personally, Trelease would be chosen to run the Missouri Botanical Garden as the first director. Moving into Tower Grove House with his wife Julia, Trelease would raise 4 boys in that home. Invited to work on the Harriman Expedition by Clinton H. Merriam, head of the Biological Survey at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Trelease would embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

Scientific Discoveries

These two men and many more, such as John Muir and John Burroughs, came together on this weighty scientific endeavor. The importance of this exploration cannot be understated for its contributions to science. In most instances, the group was exploring wild, uninhabited areas of Alaska.

The environmental impacts of industrialization in the past century can be compared against the pristine flora and fauna recorded in this expedition. Glacier studies from Grove Karl Gilbert were among the first of their kind to encapsulate climate change in real time. These impacts also had cultural implications, as the native people learned to cope with an influx of white Americans.

This adventure was recorded in numerous journals and personal diaries, offering unique memories from a variety of expedition members. Edward Curtis, the expedition’s photographer, would become famous for the photos taken on this adventure. His images offer views of the untouched landscape and the native cultures of Alaska, creating a snapshot of life in 1899.

A sealer’s hut in Yakutat Bay, Alaska, photographed by Edward Curtis. From the Missouri Botanical Garden Archives.

It took 50 specialists almost a decade to catalog and identify all of the species submitted for this project after its completion. A collection of everything from plants to insects and animals, these specimens were significant in recording unknown species. Dr. Trelease would bring back hundreds of specimens, mostly mosses, including at least three that would later be named in his honor. The plants Trelease collected during the Harriman Expedition are held in the Missouri Botanical Garden Herbarium.

Three mosses collected during the Harriman expedition and named for William Trelease. From the Missouri Botanical Garden Herbarium.

See an exhibit of Edward Curtis photographs where Dr. Trelease made his home in St. Louis at Tower Grove House when the Garden reopens. 

Haley O’Toole
Historical and Cultural Interpretation Supervisor, Tower Grove House Collection

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