Every age has strong, independent women who defy the gender conventions of their era to follow their hearts and minds. Eliza Scidmore (1856-1928) was one such maverick. Today, people know of her mostly as the visionary of Washington’s now-famous cherry trees.
Yet she was so much more. Remarkably “modern” for her time, Scidmore became an intrepid world traveler; a prolific journalist and the author of seven books; an expert on Alaska and Japan; the first female board member of National Geographic and an early contributor to its iconic magazine.
I’m writing the first complete biography of Eliza Scidmore, now under contract to Oxford University Press. The in-depth research has taken me as far as Alaska and Japan. I have blogged on Eliza Scidmore since starting the project and have fielded queries about her and Washington’s cherry trees from many people in several countries — journalists, scholars, authors, bloggers, educators, and others. (The earlier blog on Scidmore, titled “A Great Blooming,” is now absorbed into this website),
I’ve been interviewed about Scidmore by major media (The Washington Post, National Geographic, Japanese and British television) and have lectured on the subject to diverse audiences in the U.S. and Japan. In the summer of 2018, I spoke on Scidmore and her historic travels to Alaska to park rangers and the public at Glacier Bay National Park.
See more details about my media appearances and speaking engagements on this website.
Scidmore began her career as a newspaper correspondent who reported on Washington’s glittering Gilded Age society after the Civil War. A milestone event occurred in 1883 when she took a sightseeing-cum-reporting trip to Alaska, traveling aboard a mail steamer named the Idaho. The journey became historic when a detour made Scidmore and her fellow passengers the first tourists ever to visit Glacier Bay. (See my video about Scidmore’s 1883 journey to Alaska.)
Scidmore turned her newspaper dispatches into the first book-length travelogue on Alaska. She continued reporting on Alaska and also published a more comprehensive guidebook that became popular with the birth of an Alaska cruise industry in the final years of the 19th century. Today she has a mountain and a glacier and bay named for her.
In the 1880s, Scidmore also began traveling regularly to Japan, where her brother worked as a U.S. consular officer. His longtime service in Japan gave her a base for travels across the region. Besides her best-known work, Jinrikisha Days in Japan (1891), she also published travel books on Java, China, and India, and a novel based on the Russo-Japanese War.
Seeds of a Legacy
Scidmore joined the National Geographic Society in 1890, two years after its founding. She made a major mark as the first woman to serve on its governing board and to publish articles and photographs in its now-iconic magazine. She helped shape the magazine’s picture-heavy format by providing many photos from the Far East as well as some of her own. (The Smithsonian Institution also has a collection of Scidmore’s photographs.)
While living on and off in Japan, Scidmore grew captivated by the beauty of cherry blossoms. Hoping to have some of the trees planted in downtown Washington, she took her idea to the city’s park officials.
The men ignored her suggestion — repeatedly. But Scidmore eventually found a way to get what she wanted by enlisting the support of First Lady Helen Taft. In 1912 Scidmore was one of the few guests Mrs. Taft invited to witness the historic planting of the first Japanese cherry trees in Potomac Park.
Scidmore spent her final years in Geneva, Switzerland, where she died in 1928. She is now interred in Yokohama next to her mother and brother. I visited her gravesite in March 2013 during a research trip to Japan.
“There’s always room for a story that can transport people to another place.”