Hardly less important than the actual fruit of the expedition is its value as a sign-post to our multi-millionaires. A little while ago a Western man of vast wealth was heard to complain to a friend that he did not know how to spend his money satisfactorily. … Mr. Harriman's Alaska Expedition and its magnificent results seem to indicate
one true solution to the problem….
—Will Dall, “Discoveries in Our Arctic Region”
Between October 1898 and April 1899 Harriman solidified his hold on the Union Pacific, launched his improvements program, went after the Short Line and Navigation companies, plunged into the intricate diplomacy of the Northwest, secured control of the Alton, bought into the Gulf line, and joined the board of the B&O. He had formed an alliance with Schiff and Stillman in which the bankers furnished the capital for buying or merging railroads and put them in Harriman's charge. Despite all these moves, Harriman was still largely unknown to the public. His name seldom appeared in the papers and attracted scant recognition when it did.
A summer earlier, fresh from his first tour of Union Pacific, Harriman sagged with fatigue and took refuge at Paul Smith's. Since then his burdens had grown heavier and his pace even quicker. This time Harriman sought his relief in a twomonth sabbatical that may have been the most remarkable vacation ever taken by a man of business. His idea of rest was to organize, underwrite, and direct what became the last major scientific expedition of the nineteenth century.
Of all the mysteries surrounding Harriman's life, none is more elusive than the origins of the Alaskan expedition. Kennan, whose curiosity was always curbed by emotional reticence as well as allegiance, offered Harriman's own simple explanation. In seeking relaxation, Harriman decided to take his family on a chartered cruise to Alaska. His attention had been drawn to the region by the prospect of hunting for the world's largest bear, the Kodiak. When it became clear that the ship he required for comfort and safety could hold many more people, Harriman got the idea of inviting a party of scientists as well. 1
Perhaps that was all there was to it. As Kennan has demonstrated, Harriman's life can be interpreted at face value without probing into deeper motives. But