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Harriman Alaska expedition

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The Harriman Alaska expedition explored the coast of Alaska for two months from Seattle to Alaska and Siberia and back again In 1899. It was organized by wealthy railroad magnate Edward Harriman. Harriman brought with him an elite community of scientists, artists, photographers, and naturalists to explore and document the Alaskan coast.

The genesis of the voyage

Edward Harriman was one of the most powerful men in America and controlled several railroads. By early 1899, he was exhausted. His doctor told him that he needed a long vacation. Harriman went to Alaska to hunt Kodiak bears. Rather than go alone, he took a scientific community to explore and document the coast of Alaska.

He contacted Clinton Hart Merriam, the head of the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy at the United States Department of Agriculture, and one of the founders of the National Geographic Society. Harriman told Merriam that he would cover the expenses of scientists, artists, and other experts who would join the voyage. He asked Merriam to choose the scientific party.

Historians question why Harriman wanted to go to Alaska. Some think he was considering developing Alaskan resources. Some think he was considering building a railroad to the Alaskan territory. Some people at the time openly wondered if he was going to buy Alaska, or build a railroad bridge from Alaska to Siberia — a railroad around the world. Nothing seemed impossible for Edward H. Harriman.

Merriam held a flurry of meetings and sent many telegrams. He organized a broad range of experts: arctic experts, botanists, biologists and zoologists, geologists and geographers, artists, photographers, ornithologists and writers.

Harriman had the steamship SS George W. Elder refitted for the expedition. The remodeled ship featured lecture rooms, a library with over 500 volumes on Alaska, a stable for animals, taxidermy studios, and luxury rooms for the team. Some on the expedition referred to her as the George W. Roller, for its tendency to roll at sea, causing seasickness among the passengers.


Expedition members posed on the beach at Cape Fox Village, Alaska, 1899
The members of the interdisciplinary team included many of the best American scientists, artists, and photographers of the time.

Arctic experts

William Brewer, naturalist

John Muir, naturalist

William Dall, paleontologist, geographer


Frederick Coville, botanist

Thomas Kearney, botanist

De Alton Saunders, botanist

William Trelease, botanist

Bernhard Fernow, forester

Biologists and zoologists

Wesley Coe, biologist

Daniel Elliot, zoologist

Clinton Hart Merriam, zoologist

William Emerson Ritter, biologist

Trevor Kincaid, entomologist

A. K. Fisher, ornithologist

Charles Keeler, ornithologist

Robert Ridgway, ornithologist

William H. Averell

Leon J. Cole, ornithologist

Geologists and geographers

W. B. Devereux, mining engineer

Benjamin Emerson, geologist

Henry Gannett, geographer

Grove Karl Gilbert, geologist

Charles Palache, geologist

Artists and photographers

Edward Curtis, photographer

Frederick Dellenbaugh, artist

Louis Agassiz Fuertes, bird artist

R. Swain Gifford, artist

D. G. Inverarity, photographer (Curtis’ assistant)


George Bird Grinnell, expert on Native American culture (Editor, Forest and Stream)

John Burroughs, Author

Harriman also brought a medical team, a chaplain, hunters and packers, guides, and taxidermists. He brought his own family and his servants. Together, with the crew of the Elder, the total number of people on the ship was 126.

The Voyage