Of all I’ve learned about Eliza Scidmore so far, nothing has excited my imagination so much as her first trip to Alaska.
That voyage, which she made in 1883 at the age of 26, became historic.
Scidmore was working at the time as a newspaper correspondent in Washington. A “lady writer,” the press called her and her female colleagues who covered Gilded Age society in the nation’s capital.
She already had several years of experience in journalism by then. In 1876 she had broken into the field by covering the Philadelphia Centennial, now considered America’s first world’s fair.
To Eliza, always in search of the next big story, Alaska had the smell of opportunity.
The region had been part of the United States only 16 years. To most Americans it was still a foreign land.
Eliza followed Alaskan affairs in Congress. She was also heavily inspired by John Muir‘s travels to Alaska.
Muir had been driven to the area by an interest in glaciers. In 1879 and 1880 he paddled the area by canoe with a group of local Indians. Afterward, he described his adventures in West Coast lectures and newspaper accounts.
Mail steamers offered the only means of transport to the area at that time. The ships made monthly circuits up and down the Inside Passage, with stops at frontier settlements.
Scidmore traveled aboard a steamer named the Idaho. The captain of her ship was intrigued by reports of magnificent glaciers reported by Muir and his companions.
On a clear day in mid-July, Captain James Carroll decided to explore the upper part of the bay in search of the glaciers. The detour made Scidmore and her fellow passengers the first tourists to visit Glacier Bay.
She reported on her journey for a newspaper. The next summer she repeated the journey.
Scidmore turned her newspaper dispatches into her first book, Alaska: Its Southern Coast and the Sitkan Archipelago (1885).
Her book became popular when a cruise industry sprang up in Alaska in the final years of the 19th century.
I’ve tried to capture the wonder of that historic 1883 voyage in the video above. It’s my first home-made video, so it’s amateurish, but I hope it effectively captures the story.
I’m grateful to instructor and multimedia maven Rae Bryant for her technical assistance in a Johns Hopkins University course offered by the M.A. in writing program (from which I’m a graduate).
(Note: Some of the photos in the video are representative only, and a sharp reader in Alaska wrote to point out that in the video I featured a different ship named the Idaho. The actual ship Scidmore traveled on is shown here.)