Of all I’ve learned about Eliza Scidmore so far, nothing has excited my imagination so much as her pioneering Alaska travel. She went for the first time in the summer of 1883, in a journey that became historic, as I show in the video below.
Scidmore, then 26, was working at the time as a newspaper correspondent in Washington. She and her colleagues — among the first female reporters in the nation’s capital — covered Gilded Age society in Washington.
Scidmore already had several years of experience in journalism. She had broken into reporting at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, America’s first world’s fair.
Always in search of the next big story, Scidmore ventured in the summer of 1883 to remote Alaska, which had been part of the United States only 16 years. To most Americans it loomed as strange and mysterious as a foreign land.
Scidmore knew otherwise. She had followed Alaskan affairs in Congress. She also had read the accounts of John Muir’s travels in Alaska.
Muir went to Alaska in 1879 and 1880, drawn by an interest in glaciers. He hired a canoe and several Indian guides, and explored the area that would soon be named Glacier Bay. Afterward, he described his adventures in West Coast lectures and newspaper accounts.
Scidmore followed in Muir’s footsteps. Like anyone going to Alaska, she traveled by one of the mail steamers that made monthly circuits along the Inside Passage, stopping at frontier settlements.
The captain of Scidmore’s ship, the Idaho, made a detour when the ship neared the mouth of Glacier Bay. Intrigued by Muir’s reports of magnificent glaciers in the far north, Captain James Carroll sailed into the northern waters, which had still not been charted.
That journey, on a day in mid-July, made Scidmore and her fellow passengers the first tourists to visit Glacier Bay.
She repeated the journey the next summer, then turned her newspaper dispatches into the first book-length travelogue on Alaska. That book, Alaska: Its Southern Coast and the Sitkan Archipelago (1885), helped fuel the birth of the Alaska cruise industry in the final years of the 19th century.
Note: Some of the photos in my video above are representative only, and a 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 below.