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I'd never before traveled any serious distance by water, and the idea seemed appealing, a throwback to a time of steamer trunks and straw boaters, a golden age before TSA pat-downs and punitive baggage fees. If I'd been in the market for an Alaska vacation, an Inside Passage cruise would've worked fine. But as was the case with Harriman, my ambitions were a little more grand.

There was another option. Alaska has its own coastal transportation network, the Alaska Marine Highway System, created to deal with its unique needs. Most of the state's residents live near the sea. The Marine Highway's purpose is to move people and vehicles long distances to remote places for a reasonable price. Alaska's ferries have as much in common with Greyhound buses as with anything offered by Norwegian Cruise Line, but what they lack in amenities they make up for in flexibility. With a little patience, Dramamine, and maybe a few time-saving shortcuts, it appeared to be possible to ride the three thousand miles from Washington State to Dutch Harbor, in the Aleutians, in about two months, the same time the Harriman Expedition took.

Not just a vacation, I told myself, pulling Muir's Travels in Alaska off the shelf, but an expedition. It could even, as Muir's pal Hart Merriam might say, be the event of a lifetime.


First-Class Men


Harriman and most of his invited specialists left Grand Central Station by train on the twenty-third of May 1899, in several private carriages that included a dining car, two sleepers, and a plush smoker stocked with fine cigars and a five-hundred-volume library on all topics related to Alaska. Harriman kept a private car for his own use. His guests, accustomed to the shoestring budgets of government-funded expeditions, luxuriated in the hospitality made possible by capitalism. The painter Frederick Dellenbaugh, who had run the uncharted Colorado River with explorer John Wesley Powell in large rowboats, marveled at the hot and cold running water in his stateroom and the choices of entrée with dinner—baked bluefish, prime roast beef, roasted Philadelphia capon. As Harriman's guests settled in for their weeklong cross-country journey, the host passed through his train cars to get acquainted.

Like Merriam, several of the men on the train had never heard of their small, mustached host prior to receiving his invitation. He did not exude warmth. "Every feature of his countenance manifested power, especially his wonderful eyes, deep and frank yet piercing, though likely at first sight to keep people at a distance," observed John Muir. In addition to being an innovative thinker, a genius with numbers, and a fierce competitor, Harriman was something of a late bloomer, whose name would not become synonymous with business until the coming decade. He had dropped out of school at fourteen to take a job as an office boy on Wall Street. By age twenty-two he had worked his way up to a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. In 1881, he was part of a syndicate that purchased a small, decrepit railroad in upstate New York, which Harriman arranged to resell for a profit. Not until 1898 did he acquire his first major railroad, the Union Pacific.

Harriman was known for his ability to digest huge amounts of information quickly, which allowed him to impose order and efficiency on situations that might easily spin into chaos, such as corralling a shipload of scientists whose individual worlds revolved around mollusks or birds or rocks and expecting them to spend two months harmoniously in close quarters. Once Harriman had taken the measure of a subordinate and found him adequate, however, he was an
eager delegator of authority. As the special train chugged toward Chicago, Harriman "announced that it was not his desire to dictate the route to be followed, or to control the details of the work," Merriam wrote. Instead, he appointed his guests to serve on a variety of committees of the sort one might have in a business organization. These he deputized to make decisions about the expedition's specific itinerary.

After crossing the Mississippi, the passengers aboard the special train observed mounting evidence of the taming of the West: fenced farms, coal mines, networks of train tracks. "In places the country looks as if all the railroad forces of the world might have been turned loose to delve and rend and pile in some mad, insane folly and debauch," John Burroughs wrote. Settlements remembered as pinpricks on a map a few years prior had grown into full-fledged towns and cities. Omaha was hosting the Greater America Exposition, to which Harriman's guests were escorted on a private trolley. In Boise, where the local paper declared Harriman "the man of the hour in railroad circles," the team was met at sunrise with a parade sponsored by the chamber of commerce. Merriam suggested that Shoshone Falls, in Idaho's Snake River Canyon, might make a nice day trip. Harriman wired ahead, "ordering horses, a stagecoach, and two buggies to be brought up by rail," according to historians William Goetzmann and Kay Sloan. No expense needed to be spared, as Harriman was making money faster than he could spend it. For the fiscal year that ended June 30, 1899, the Union Pacific would earn a net profit of fourteen million dollars.

As the Harriman special train rolled through the Rockies, a smaller coterie of guests, including Muir, had embarked from California to meet the others in Portland, where a dinner was being held at the city's finest hotel. The final leg of their rail journey was eased by Harriman's sometime rival J. P. Morgan, who had ordered the tracks of his Northern Pacific Railroad cleared. In Seattle, photographer Edward Curtis and his assistant, D. G. Inverarity, completed the party. As the Harriman Alaska Expedition prepared to depart Seattle on the thirty- first, its detail-oriented patron stood in the gray Northwest drizzle keeping an eye on the tons of strange cargo being loaded onto the George W. Elder: the baggage and scientific equipment of all his guests, hunting rifles and ammunition, a complete photo dark room and slide projector, a piano, the five hundred books on Alaska, cigars, brandy, champagne, and, according to Burroughs, "eleven fat steers, a flock of sheep,chickens, and turkeys, a milch cow, and a span of horses."

This excerpt ends on page 16 of the hardcover edition.

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