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Explorer scientist

Harry Fielding Read and the Case tradition of the intrepid professor

Reid’s trek to Alaska in 1890 helped establish Case as a school that both attracted and cultivated bold scientists and engineers.

By Thomas P. Kicher

Early on the morning of July 1, 1890, the steamer carrying Professor Harry Fielding Reid and his team of young explorers anchored a half mile below Muir Glacier, within 200 yards of shore, where the calving of ice from the glacier was clearly visible and the falling blocks of ice created wavers that rocked the steamer like a groundswell.

They went ashore and were surprised to meet naturalist John Muir, who was studying the submerged forests around the glacier recently named for him. They unpacked and raised their tents. With boards they had purchased in Juneau, they built flooring for the tents, tables, camp stools and a shelf for their library.

That first night, the team from the Case School of Applied Science hiked about five miles up the east side of Muir Glacier, then returned to their encampment around midnight in the summer twilight of Alaska, the first of many long and rewarding days at what became known as “Camp Muir.”  It was an idyllic location for their base camp, on pristine Glacier Bay, at the edge of a spectacular glacier, in a largely unexplored frontier only recently purchased from Russia–some 6,000 miles from campus. 

A professor’s quest to explore and map Glacier Bay over summer break was bold and ambitious and a little dangerous, but not all that audacious in the early days of Case. Reid, who would pioneer the field of geophysics, was among the first in a long line of rugged, curious scientists that Case seemed to attract and cultivate.

The faculty personality was fostered by the likes of Albert Michelson, who was renowned for making delicate measurements with astonishing precision but also for his fighting spirit. The future Nobel laureate grew up in rough gold-mining towns of the West and came to Case from the Naval Academy, where he won boxing titles.

Another early faculty member, Dayton C. Miller, would advance X–ray technology by completing the first X-ray scan of an entire human body—his own.

Later generations of students became accustomed to professors who exhibited both academic brilliance and daring do. In the 1940s, George Barnes, as Chairman of Civil Engineering, consulted for South American governments on water and sanitation projects.  He spent months inspecting remote construction sites on horseback, packing a pearl-handled pistol for protection from bandits.

For much of the 1960s, Frank Ryan quarterbacked the Cleveland Browns on Sundays, then came into class Monday mornings to teach advanced mathematics—sometimes limping. He was an assistant professor when he made his third Pro Bowl in 1967.

More recently, Joe Prahl, a professor of aerospace engineering, took a break from teaching to train as a Space Shuttle astronaut. He was a backup payload specialist on the 1992 Columbia mission, thrilled to be applying his knowledge of thermodynamics to microgravity experiments, never quite achieving his dream of rocketing into space.

Reid helped launch the tradition of the Case explorer scientist. Thanks to his upbringing, he possessed much of the right stuff.

A great-great-grandnephew of George Washington, Reid grew up in a family of scientists and world travelers. By the time he arrived at Case in the fall of 1886 at age 26, he had travelled much of Europe, studied in Switzerland, and was eager to explore glaciology.

During his six years on the Case faculty, Reid made two summer treks to Glacier Bay. There, he achieved measurements that showed how the glaciers were moving and changing. He formulated a theory for how the front of a glacier maintained its shape. Later-arriving explorers would name Reid Glacier in his honor.

In 1890, the Case School of Applied Science was in its 10th year, under the direction of President Cady Staley, a civil engineer who had crossed the Plains in a wagon train to try his luck as a prospector. He likely had no problem with a professor and students exploring Alaska.

Reid, who earned his doctorate in physics at Johns Hopkins University, joined the faculty in 1886. Staley soon named him the Kerr Professor of Mathematics, the school’s first endowed chair. He would later become one of the world’s foremost authorities on earthquakes, postulating the source of seismic energy to be the accumulation of unequally distributed stored “elastic strain.” But for now, he was focused on glaciology, an activity he likely first experienced in Switzerland.

Building the team

In the spring of 1890, Reid planned and coordinated his first expedition to the Muir Glacier, soon to become the major attraction of Glacier Bay. It was located in the relatively unexplored wilds of Alaska, which had been purchased from Russia in 1867.  The glaciers of southeast Alaska were uncharted until first visited by John Muir in 1879. Reid likely self-financed his trip, which was common among scientists at the time, there being few other sources of funding. He was 30 years old.

Reid cut a dashing figure. While travelling or when on a casual hike, he was always photographed in a dress suit, complete with vest. While exploring, his uniform was the traditional canvas jacket and riding jodhpurs, leather hi-tops and a campaign hat.  

The Muir Glacier presented an enticing target to the young scientist. First, it could be accessed via a train across North America and then passage on one of the steamers of the Pacific Coast Steamship Company that sailed into Glacier Bay on a weekly schedule.  Second, the Alaskan frontier was virtually unexplored and there was a need for accurate maps and coastal data, especially of the glaciers.  Finally, Reid was interested in findings reported by a small exploration party headed by Rev. Frederick Wright, a geologist and professor at nearby Oberlin College. Wright had reported glacier motion of 70 feet per day, an order of magnitude greater than the speed for glaciers observed in Europe, a snow and icescape with which Reid was familiar.

The U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Office provided Reid with surveying instruments, but otherwise the Case team would be on its own. Surveying in the Alaskan wilderness meant living in huts on the ice or camping on bare rock. Expedition members would have to hike uncharted lands, blaze trails with ice axes, and be able to handle a rifle—for protection against grizzly bears.

Reid recruited 30-year old Henry Platt Cushing, a descendent of a long line of prominent Cleveland physicians, as a key partner. Cushing was working on his doctorate in geology at Cornell University and would be responsible for the meteorological and geological observations and records, as well as the collection of plants.

Then he tapped youthful enthusiasm. John Morse had just completed his third year of study of mechanical engineering at Case. Comfort Adams received his bachelor’s degree in engineering from Case the day before departing for Alaska. The team was joined in Alaska by Herbert McBride and Robert Casement, two Cleveland natives who had recently graduated from Yale’s Sheffield School of Science.

These four young people, along with their relatively young leaders, would become among the first to explore and document one of America’s great natural wonders. They apparently got on well. In his seminal report to the National Geographic Society, Reid credited the “cheerful and efficient aid which all my companions rendered” for the accomplishment of the work.

Sailing the Inside Passage to Juneau

The team left Cleveland by train on June 13, 1890. They headed west via Chicago and St. Paul, chugged across the Great Plains and had their first sighting of Indians in Montana. Their train followed the Columbia River to the Yakima River to Tacoma, where they tested their surveying equipment. 

After a five-day layover in Tacoma, the team watched as its freight was loaded, including their recently purchased row boat and sail, and began their voyage to Glacier Bay.  As they sailed the Inside Passage north to Juneau, Alaska, they stopped for an exhibition of Native American dancers and peeked into an Alaskan gold mine. In spite of rough seas, “fin-back whales were seen spouting and diving,” Reid wrote in his journal.

Reid was a seasoned traveler who took great pleasure in people watching, noting their appearance and mannerisms and assigning names to reflect these features in his travel journal. While anchored at Chilkat Inlet, Reid and Cushing went ashore to a fishing settlement and hired William York as a camp helper, expanding the team to seven.

The sail down Lynn Canal was made interesting by the surrounding mountains, glaciers and fields and, as they turned into Glacier Bay at 10 o’clock on June 30, the sight of Mts. Crillon and Fairweather to the northwest was truly magnificent.  The entire scene was probably enhanced by the twilight of perpetual day afforded by the Summer Solstice.

Reid’s encounter with John Muir at the base of Muir Glacier appears to have been pure happenstance. Muir, who was travelling with a friend, invited the Case team to camp nearby and joined them on several of their excursions.

Muir’s image has become tarnished of late. It’s come to light that he said and wrote things about African Americans and Native Americans that promoted racist stereotypes. The Sierra Club, which he helped found, is reassessing his legacy. But at the time, Muir was America’s best known chronicler of the natural world and well on his way to becoming known as the father of the national park system.

The experience of spending time with the famous naturalist exploring and detailing the glaciers of the area was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The Muir Glacier was a magnificent ice field of about 35 by 10 miles.  The valley between the mountains was 800 square miles in area and drained into Glacier Bay with an ice wall that measured 9,200 feet at the water line and rose more than 200 feet out of the water.  The color of the ice wall and the floating icebergs presented a spectacular view that became a world renowned tourist attraction.

Casement and McBride arrived a week later, on July 7, on the steamship Queen, having made the trip to Glacier Bay on their own.  They were probably delayed by commencement from Yale.  Their ship also delivered supplies, including a magnetometer needle to measure magnetic fields, a “hoop-iron” that John Muir wanted to make a sled, and fresh meat. The exploration team was then complete with Reid as leader, Cushing responsible for the meteorological, geological and botanical matters, the students and recent graduates providing technical assistance, and York responsible for camp support.  They began their investigations in earnest.

Strangers in a strange, icy land

Spending an extended time on and near a massive glacier, a slowly flowing mass of ice, required a period of acclimation and it appears Reid took the time to teach his fellow explorers.  It began on the first evening with that hike up the east side of Muir Glacier, where the ice structure would have been firm and solid due to its slow movement over the underlying land.  Hiking a glacier on and near the mid-span is much more difficult, as the motion of the ice causes fractures that produce fissures, pinnacles and an irregular structure.

Frequently the terrain is hazardous, with deep crevasses and sharp pinnacles. At the inlet face, chunks of glacier calve into the water.  When hiking, team members were “always roped together and were provided with ice-axes which served to cut steps in places where they could not otherwise stand,” Reid reported. 

It rained about every third day.  As they collected scientific data, they performed the necessary calculations and record-keeping required of a serious investigator. Assignments were rotated daily so that every team member had an opportunity to perform each experiment.  The senior members of the expedition, as well as Muir, were paired with students. 

Personal hygiene was a challenge. The only running water was the frigid and muddy glacial melt.  Whenever they encountered a small pond or lake of glacial melt trapped in the glacier surface, warmed by the bright sun, they took a refreshing swim or an occasional bath.

The sun never set during July and August and they did not see the Aurora Borealis until the fall. But more challenging was the noise.  At Camp Muir, 1,200 yards from the face of Muir Glacier, there was the never-ending explosive calving of the glacier face.  When camping near a waterfall, one becomes accustomed to the continuous noise of falling water, but the irregular fracturing of icebergs is a sonic disturbance, comparable to cannon fire.

For the entire month of July and into the first week of August, the expedition remained near Camp Muir, collecting data and practicing and perfecting their skills for performing experiments. According to the daily log prepared by Reid, team members had to learn to navigate the ice-laden waters of the inlet, avoiding the areas close to the glacier face and negotiating the strong winds and currents.  Reid’s journal records instances when it would take several hours to cross the inlet to place surveying flags on the western shore and a mere hour or so to return.  

Surveying new wonders

The first task undertaken by the team was to establish surveying stations by placing flags at strategic locations along the inlet shore and across the top of the glacier.  The flags were recorded on survey maps and provided reference points from which the motion of a glacier could be observed, measured and recorded.

Each point of a survey triangle must be visible from the other points, which in some cases exceeded three miles.  This required the construction of a network of cascading triangles which could be used to calculate the relative locations of the corner points using standard surveying techniques.  The surveyors needed several observation points that would provide strategic overviews of both the glacier and the inlet shores so they could capture the full extent of the glacier, its motion and the surrounding mountains, while providing landmarks for future explorers. 

An established surveying methodology, known as triangulation, was used extensively to determine distance, since access to most survey stations was limited and direct measurements were impossible.  Albeit a time consuming exercise, the distances between surveying stations can be determined with remarkable accuracy and without a direct traverse between the points and a manual taping.

Rock cairns were erected at critical benchmarks for future surveyors. The appearances of these monuments are not shown in either sketches or photographs, but are described as “about four feet high, and were made of the largest rocks that we could move.” 

Mount Wright, just east of the Muir Glacier Ice Terminus in 1890, was frequently referenced in their observations for future survey efforts.  So was a newly named landmark, Mount Case, which Reid christened that summer and described as a “sharp peak with symmetrical shoulders…the highest peak in its neighborhood.” He later named glaciers for each of his team members from Cleveland, enshrining them in the Alaskan landscape. 

An anxious exit

By late August,  early signs of winter began to appear in Reid’s daily log. The weather had grown more hostile, with increasing rains, shifting winds and abruptly changing temperatures. On August 29, Cushing and Casement departed Camp Muir on a tugboat that had entered Muir Inlet to help a stranded steamship. The four remaining explorers began getting ready to leave. With much to finish, the work tempo became hurried.

Reid and McBride embarked a three-day excursion up the west side of the Muir Glacier, to a secondary camp they had established in early August. They climbed the peak and mapped and photographed the vast expanse of the glacier, hiking like the ice experts they now were. The next day, after climbing to the top of a smaller glacier, they returned to camp by enjoying a “glorious glissade down the snow slope, about seven hundred and fifty feet.”

Meanwhile, Adams and Morse were exploring the moraine on the west shore, where they photograph the “Interglacial Forest”—a graveyard of tree stumps and logs of a forest trapped by a previous Ice Age and exposed by the current warming cycle.

Reid and McBride rejoined the team for final hikes and scientific observations, which were becoming more treacherous. One night, they witnessed the clear signal of pending winter: their first sighting of the Arboreal Lights, indicating the approach of the Autumnal Equinox.

Departure proved trickier than expected. The steamer that was to pick them up never arrived. Instead, a Native American family appeared in a large canoe, carrying letters that directed Reid to a fishing village at Bartlett Bay, 35 miles down the coast.

The team members packed everything they could into the canoe and their rowboat and left Camp Muir on September 13.. They paddled and rowed for three days to reach Bartlett Bay. There, they waited several more anxious days, sleeping in a cannery, before boarding a salmon boat to rendezvous with a steamship in Juneau for the final leg of their passage south.

Passengers aboard the City of Topeka included itinerant workers from the canneries who were heading home for the winter, a Russian priest, a Polish revolutionary, a former Navy officer, two unobtrusive English ladies, a pair of French-speaking gentlemen and a pretty young American girl who captivated the young men aboard.  They sailed through the narrow passages between the islands of British Columbia, viewing the waterfalls and thickly wooded landscapes created by prior glacial action, and had reached Milbanke Sound when the captain announced that Professor Harry Fielding Reid of the Case School of Applied Science would the next night make a special presentation.

And so began Reid’s career as America’s first geophysicist, with his first formal presentation on the Muir Glacier on September 25, 1890, onboard the City of Topeka as it steamed somewhere along the Inside Passage between Milbanke Sound and Vancouver. 

Kicher ’59, MS ’62, PhD ’65, is the former Dean of the Case School of Engineering. 

To comment on this story, email casealum@casealum.org.

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The view from John Muir’s cabin on Glacier Bay, 1890.
Courtesy of the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Case impact on the landscape

GLACIERS
A lasting vestige of the Reid expeditions are the glaciers Morse, Cushing, McBride, Casement and Adams—which Reid named for the members of his 1890 expedition.

In 1899, members of the Harriman Expedition named Reid Glacier in honor of Harry Fielding Reid. “The Reid” is one of the more prominent glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.

A MOUNTAIN
On his 1890 expedition, Reid named a key landmark in honor of the Case School of Applied Science. Mount Case, with an elevation of 5,570 feet, is the highest of the mountains surrounding three sides of Muir Glacier in the St. Elias Mountains of southeast Alaska.

Case student John Morse shot this photo of a buried forest near Muir Glacier, with Mount Case in the distance. Courtesy of Alaska State
Library-Historical Collections.

Reid’s sketch of Muir Glacier, 1890.
Courtesy of the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

This photo, likely by John Morse, shows Comfort Adams resting in a campsite about 10 miles south of Camp Muir on Glacier Bay. The coffeepot and cups near the campfire indicate they were there at least one night.
Courtesy of CWRU Archives

LEFT: Reid in Alaska 1933. USGS photo by Charles Will Wright, 1933.
RIGHT: Reid at age 50. Courtesy of Ferdinand Hamburger Archives, Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University

Posing at John Muir’s cabin are (from left) Muir, Henry Cushing, Comfort Adams, Herbert McBride, Harry Fielding Reid and (on roof) Robert Casement. Photo by John Morse, courtesy of Ferdinand Hamburger Archives, Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

Life after Glacier Bay

Henry Cushing completed his doctorate in geology at Cornell, studied for a year at the University of Munich, and came home to Western Reserve University as an instructor in chemistry and geology. He taught at WRU until his death in 1921.

Comfort Adams became a nationally recognized professor of electrical engineering at Harvard University, where he taught for 35 years and served as Dean of Engineering. 

John Morse earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Case and worked for several companies in the Cleveland area. His son founded the Morse Control Company.

Herbert McBride worked for his father in downtown Cleveland and became a member of the Case School of Applied Science Corp., equivalent to the board of trustees.  He died of a heart attack in 1907 at the age of 38. His family endowed the McBride Lecture Series, which honors him today.

Robert Casement was to enter the family railroad business but died in Painesville in 1894 after convalescing in Colorado of a persistent lung disease. Some family and friends attributed his failing health to spending the summer living on a glacier.

Harry Fielding Reid returned to campus in the fall of 1890 and submitted his findings for publication. He returned to Glacier Bay in 1892 to finish his work. In 1893, he left the Case School of Applied Science and joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins. Reid shifted his focus to earthquakes. He invented the “elastic rebound” model of earthquake analysis and rose to national prominence for his work on the San Francisco Earthquake of 1904.  He is considered America’s first geophysicist.

Dean Kicher will discuss Reid’s trek and its impact on Case during a special Homecoming presentation: 4 p.m. Friday, October 9, via Zoom.

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