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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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The 1899 Expedition
The 1899
Expedition


 

Original Participants
Original
Participants

Brief Chronology
Brief
Chronology

Science Aboard the Elder
Science
Aboard the
Elder

History of Exploration
Exploration &
Settlement

Development Along Alaska's Coast
Growth Along Alaska's Coast

Alaska Native Communities
Alaska
Natives

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Bernhard E. Fernow

1851-1923


Bernhard Fernow

Bernhard Fernow, photographed in Ithaca, New York.
From an early age, Bernhard Fernow was passionate about trees. Growing up amid his uncle's holdings in Posen, Prussia, the fascinated young man showed an aptitude beyond his years for the management of the estate forests. Unlike the vast American forests that were recklessly cut throughout the 19th century, European forests were, for the most part, managed tracts of land, wherein trees were planted and harvested like any other crop. Bernhard was his uncle's ward, and it seemed likely that, after studying forestry at school, he would return to the estate to oversee it permanently. A series of fortunate accidents changed his life, though. As he later said, "It was an accident that an American girl located with her family in a little town in Germany where I was studying forestry; it was an accident that I became acquainted with her; and, in part at least, an accident that I became engaged to her -- all of which accidents conspired to bring me over to the United States for a visit which extended to over thirty years."

Thus it was that Fernow came to the United States in 1876 to be married. Trained in forestry, he soon learned that, in America, his specialty was an unknown science. In fact, in many places Americans simply burned trees to get them out of the way. Fernow became a pioneer in the American forestry movement. In 1882, he organized the American Forestry Congress and called for laws to protect National Forest preserves. By 1899, when Harriman tapped him for the expedition, Fernow had already served as the chief of the Division of Forestry at the United States Department of Agriculture, and begun as Dean of the College of Forestry at Cornell where he was a founder of the School of Forestry.

Yet Fernow was still every bit the elegant European. During evenings on board, he played Beethoven sonatas on the ship's piano, or serenaded Harriman's daughters with Schubert. He regaled the crew with tales of his adventures as a volunteer soldier in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. His research on the expedition was hampered by the fact that the coastal itinerary never gave him a look at the inland forests. His overview thus limited, he concluded that Alaska would never be a great source of timber: the wood was inferior and the conditions of lumbering too difficult. Some say that history has proven him wrong, but his opinion did have an effect: for a time, it discouraged commercial interests from prospecting for timber in the Alaskan forests.

After the Harriman Expedition, Fernow continued to work for the development of forestry programs in both the U.S. and Canada. He died on February 6, 1923.


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