A momentous yet little-remembered late-19th century voyage receives the detailed, admiring tribute it deserves in these pages, thanks to John J. Michalik’s scrupulous scholarship.
In 1899, railroad tycoon E.H. Harriman chartered a cruise from Seattle to Alaska. Not one for half measures, he organized an excursion covering nearly 9,000 miles and much of Alaska’s coast, and invited aboard a dream team of leading scientists, conservationists, nature writers, and artists, with a mind to gathering information about a still little-known land.
Michalik introduces, in turn, each expedition member, among them still-famous names such as Sierra Club co-founder John Muir and photographer Edward S. Curtis. He also summarizes Harriman’s background (mostly involving dizzying financial machinations), and describes each of the expedition’s stops at an array of rough-hewn Gold Rush towns, starkly forbidding glaciers, and remote Inuit villages.
Michalik’s prose is smooth and sometimes atmospheric, as when the expedition leaves Seattle “in the failing light of evening, amid the misty remnants of a day-long, drizzling rain.” At times, however, the sheer abundance of names and dates becomes overwhelming. Some may wish Michalik had explored more fully the glimmers of human drama, such as independent-minded Muir’s growing respect for his famously domineering host, which emerge against the story’s magnificent backdrop. While Harriman’s expedition was consequential, leading to corrected maps of Alaska, new information on rare species, and even early theories about climate change, it isn’t especially dramatic in this telling.
Too many insignificant details add to the problem, such as: “After Sunday evening church service, at about 10:00 p.m., another dozen or so of the party, including the Burroughs and the ladies, left the Elder and went ashore for ‘a walk in the long twilight.’”
Without a more a propulsive narrative, the book is unlikely to entice a general audience to take this particular trip. However, any readers or library collections with an interest in Michalik’s subject won’t want to miss it.
Also available as an ebook.