Originally posted January 16, 2018, on National Geographic Voices Blog
(Under the transition to Disney partnership in 2020, National Geographic removed previous blog content by contributors. The article below is copied as it appeared on the site.)
Eliza Scidmore went to Japan for the first time in 1885. She was 28. Her brother George worked in Japan as a U.S. consular official, and she returned many times. Captivated by the beauty of cherry blossoms, she carried home an idea that indelibly shaped the public landscape of the U.S. capital: the flowering cherry trees that bloom every spring in Potomac Park, attracting more than a million visitors each year.
That legacy was far from her only major achievement. Eliza, an important figure in the National Geographic Society’s early history, was so widely respected in her day that newspapers routinely referred to the comings and goings of “Miss Scidmore.”
Born in the Midwest, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore grew up in Washington, where her mother ran boarding houses to support the family. Eliza’s relatives included newspapermen, and she herself showed writing talent from a young age.
After a short period at Oberlin College, Eliza broke into journalism at 19 by reporting on the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, America’s first world’s fair. Over the next decade she worked as one of the female correspondents — “lady writers,” the press called them — who reported on Gilded Age society in Washington for newspapers around the country. The Washington Hatchett observed in 1886 that “Miss E. R. Scidmore … did the work of ten of the best papers in the country.”
When not tied to her reporting obligations in Washington, Eliza traveled — far and wide. “It must have been born in me like original sin,” she said years later, explaining her hunger to travel.
In the summer of 1883 Eliza took a sight-seeing trip to Alaska. The U.S. had owned the wilderness territory only 16 years; mail steamers that sailed up and down the Inside Passage offered the only way to get there. The captain of her ship, the Idaho, had been intrigued by reports of magnificent glaciers seen during canoe explorations by the naturalist John Muir and local Indians. On one fine day in mid-July, James Carroll made a detour into the uncharted and ice-filled waters. Eliza and her fellow passengers became the first tourists to visit Glacier Bay.
She repeated the journey the next year, and turned her newspaper dispatches into the first guidebook on Alaska. Today Eliza has a mountain and a glacier in Alaska named for her.
A Woman of Influence
Eliza’s writings impressed the scientists and other eminent men who founded the National Geographic Society in 1888. Two years after she joined in 1890, they elected her corresponding secretary, making her the first woman on the Society’s board. The press noted: “This is the first time a woman has held a position of such honor in a geographic or scientific society of so much importance.”
Eliza lectured for the Society and wrote about places she visited for the increasingly popular National Geographic Magazine.
Thanks to her brother’s position in Japan, Eliza had a base for reporting from across the Far East for many newspapers and magazines. She published travel books on Japan, Java, China, and India, and a novel based on her investigation of Japan’s treatment of Russian prisoners during the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War.
As a contributing writer and editor of National Geographic for two decades, Eliza encouraged the use of photos. She acquired photographs for the editor during her travels and also took many of her own. Her article “Young Japan” in the July 1914 issue may have been the first time a woman had photographs in National Geographic.
1896 Disaster Report
While Eliza was in Yokohama in the summer of 1896, disturbing news reports began drifting in about a horrific disaster. “We did not feel the seismic wave here in the least,” Eliza wrote to friends back in America, “but we have been fed full of horrors by the accounts that come from the ruined north east coast.”
On June 15, 1896, a strong earthquake had struck beneath the sea, triggering powerful waves that slammed onto the rocky northern coastline of Japan’s main island. The giant wall of water destroyed nearly everything in its path and wiped out several fishing villages. The news reached Tokyo and other cities slowly because the area was remote, and telegraph equipment and operators were swept away.
Eliza wrote about the disaster for the September 1896 issue of National Geographic. Her article introduced readers to a Japanese word that now evokes feelings of terror: tsunami.
Derived from nami, for waves, and tsu, which means breaking upon a harbor, the term was not yet widely known. Many English-language references to the phenomenon used the term “tidal wave” — technically inaccurate because the destructive waves are caused not by gravitational effects of the sun and moon, but by undersea earthquakes or landslides.
Few villagers on the San-Riku coast survived. Rain had interrupted a local festival and driven people indoors at 8 o’clock in the evening, so most of the victims perished in their homes. Some survivors said they heard a distant roar, saw the dark shadow of “a black wall 80 feet in height,” and ran to high ground crying “Tsunami! Tsunami!”
Eliza was able to give the exact loss of life and property — 26,975 people killed, 9,313 houses wrecked, 10,000 fishing boats destroyed — because the Japanese kept detailed logs of every town and province.
The clear, vivid writing of the article was characteristic of Eliza’s journalistic work. In From the Field, a collection of excerpts from the magazine, editor Charles McCarry called Eliza “the best pure National Geographic writer the magazine ever had.” He praised her as “a meticulous reporter” and “a fluently confident writer.”
Cherry Blossom Legacy
During her entensive travels in Japan, Eliza got the idea that a grove of flowering cherry trees would be the perfect addition to a new park being built west and south of the Washington Monument — today’s Potomac Park.
In a country of nature-lovers and flower-worshipers, the Japanese revered cherry trees (sakura) most of all. The blossoms, with their fragile, transient beauty, were emblematic of human life.
For centuries, the Japanese had practiced the ritual of hanami — or “cherry viewing” — when everyone turned out to admire the trees in bloom. In Tokyo, crowds flocked every spring to Uyeno Park, surrounding the tombs of famous shoguns, and to Mukojima, a mile-long display of cherry trees lining the Sumida River. Clad in kimonos that wove a colorful tapestry, “all the million inhabitants of Tokio seem to stream in unceasing procession day and night,” Eliza wrote.
She wanted to create something similar in the nation’s capital: a “Mukojima on the Potomac.”
Ornamental cherry trees had been introduced in the United States in the middle of the 19th century but were still rare. Several times over the years Eliza proposed her idea to the men in charge of Washington’s public grounds. They showed no interest in such a radical idea, but she persisted.
More than two decades later, she finally found an ally in First Lady Helen Taft. Eliza knew Mrs. Taft appreciated Japanese culture, as she had lived and traveled in Asia while her husband served as governor-general of the Philippines. When Eliza learned that Mrs. Taft planned to beautify a section of Potomac Park, she urged her to include some cherry trees.
The campaign was helped along by David Fairchild, a plant explorer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and his wife, Marian (known as “Daisy”). The couple was very well connected, as Daisy’s father was Alexander Graham Bell, who co-founded the National Geographic Society. David Fairchild served on the Society’s board, and his brother-in-law was Gilbert H. Grosvenor, the influential early editor of National Geographic.
Their combined efforts swayed Mrs. Taft. The project got a further boost when the Japanese, hearing of the project, offered to donate 3,000 of the trees as a gesture of friendship to the United States, its longtime ally.
Eliza Scidmore was in her 50s when she attended the small private ceremony on March 27, 1912, when Mrs. Taft and the Japanese ambassador’s wife, Madame Iwa Chinda, planted the first two cherry trees alongside the Tidal Basin.
A fierce advocate of international peace, Scidmore saw her writings — and the cherry trees in Washington — as a bridge between cultures. Her circle of friends included many diplomats from Japan and other countries. She spent her final years in Geneva, Switzerland, following developments at the new League of Nations.
Eliza died in 1928 after an emergency appendectomy. Her ashes were carried to Japan and buried at a cemetery in Yokohama next to the remains of her mother and brother. For three decades a group of Japanese have visited her gravesite every spring during cherry blossom season to pay tribute to her as an early friend of Japan. Next to her grave they installed a plaque that reads: “A lady who loved cherry blossoms rests here in peace.”
Meet the Author
Diana Parsell is a writer, editor and former journalist in the Washington, D.C., area who has written on science, medicine and the environment, education, travel and cultural topics for media outlets including National Geographic. She has also worked for science organizations in the U.S. and Southeast Asia. She has degrees from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and Johns Hopkins University. Her current project is a biography of 19th-century journalist and world traveler Eliza Scidmore, the visionary behind Washington’s Japanese cherry trees. Visit Diana’s website at: www.dianaparsell.com.