New Harriman Expedition cruises into town

Kim Heacox, Thomas S. Litwin, Conrad Field on board the Clipper Odyssey in Skagway Harbor July 26. Photo by Dimitra Lavrakas

What a trip. The lucky members of this cruise not only recreate history but become a part of it.
“It’s going fabulously,” said expedition director Thomas S. Litwin, also director of Smith College’s Clark Science Center in Northampton, Mass. “The communities we visited have been so welcoming to us, sharing their stories. That’s the whole idea of this expedition – communication, and Alaska has risen to this challenge.”
Litwin is presiding over the recreation of the Harriman Expedition. Railroad tycoon Edward Harriman made the 1899, two-month on the George W. Elder journey with family, prominent scientists , photographers, and distinguished guests on board to explore the Alaska coast from Southeast to Nome .
Renowned photographer of Native Americans, Edwards Curtis was on board, as was naturalist John Muir, nature writer John Burroughs, ornithologist Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and William Healey Dall, whose name was given to the Dall sheep. What they collected over 100 years ago swelled the cultural knowledge of Alaska and of its native plants and animals. It was also a touchstone for this trip.
But they did commit a grave error. Coming upon what they thought was an abandoned Cape Fox village, they took totem poles and other artifacts.
This voyage intends to make that right. In Ketchikan, they returned a totem pole and two house posts to the Saanya Kwaan people, that were in the collections of Cornell University and the Burke Museum. The remaining artifacts will be returned by the Smithsonian Institution, the Field Museum and the Harvard Peabody Museum.
The Clipper Odyssey arrived in Skagway on July 26, a stop on the original expedition.
Steaming up the Lynn Canal, the Elder headed for Skagway. According to the account in “Looking Far North: The Harriman Expedition to Alaska, 1899, by William H. Goetzmann and Kay Sloan, naturalist John Muir was not thrilled by the prospect.
“John Muir half-dreaded the stop at Skagway. On his last visit to the town two years earlier, he had found the gold miners like ‘a nest of ants taken into a strange country and stirred up by a stick.’ Alaska, he worried, might be ruined by the unbridled greed for gold.”
On its arrival in Skagway in 1899, the Harriman Expedition was in for a surprise, in a way fulfilling Muir’s fears:
“When the Elder floated into the bay at Skagway around ten in the morning, a motley crowd of excited townspeople swarmed along the shore, confirming the town's colorful legends even before the ship docked. They waved madly to the scientists gathered on deck. Here at last, thought the Skagway residents, was the mail boat Rosalie bringing them long-awaited letters from home. And, from the ship, the baffled scientists thought all of Skagway had turned out to welcome their prestigious group. As soon as the ship touched the long pier, more than a hundred men and boys scrambled recklessly aboard and raced wildly across the deck of Harriman’s ship while the scientists watched, amazed at the sudden chaos. In stark contrast to the repressive order they witnessed at New Metlakahtla, the lusty, unruly crowd spilled across the decorous decks of the Elder until the ship’s crew sternly ordered the intruders off. John Burrough’s eyes bulged, possibly not with innocence, at the sight of women in billowy ‘bicycle suits,’ who ‘gazed intently at the strangers.’ The frontier, it seemed to the naturalist, had spawned a bold new breed of woman.”
They took a ride up to Bennett on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, and the book describes Burrough’s impression of the scenery high in the White Pass:
“Burroughs conjured up all his best Ruskinian images to describe the trip up to the summit. He recalled, ‘The terrible and the sublime were on every hand. It was as appalling to look up as to look down; chaos and death below us, impending avalanches of hanging rocks above us. How elemental and cataclysmical it all looked!’ He added for emphasis, ‘I felt as if I were seeing for the first time the real granite ribs of the earth. Here were the primal rocks ... that held the planet together.”
But it was Dall who saw into Skagway’s future: “It was not the gold miner, however, who ensured Skagway a prosperous future, thought Dall. Tourists would bring the bustling town economic security. Nestled in his comfortable seat on the railcar, the solemn, taciturn Dall puffed on his ever-present pipe and reflected, without a trace of irony, that Skagway was indeed a model ‘town of the future,’ since the new railroad would lure tourists.”
Like the original voyage, there are scientists and scholars on board.
Conrad Field, a naturalist from Homer who specializes in marine invertebrates and botany, said he was awed by the array of scientists on board this trip.
“These are the Who’s Who in environmental policy, these are the people who wrote the books,” he said.
Kim Heacox of Gustavus is the official photographer for the expedition. Poet Sheila Nickerson, former Juneauite, is also on board.
They are considered Harriman scholars for this occasion, giving lectures and slide shows to the approximately 110 passengers.
While everything was paid for the 30 invited scholars, for passengers the price was $15,000, said Mike Messick, owner of Zegrahm Expeditions of Seattle. The price includes airfare, meals and shore excursions but as with the big cruise ships, not drinks.
“It was Tom Litwin’s idea,” Messick said of the impetus behind the expedition. “He came to us because we’ve been in business for 11 years in expedition cruising worldwide.”
A PBS crew filmed the expedition. Previews can be viewed on its Web site <>.