John Muir: Romancing the Glaciers

Most people identify John Muir (Scottish-American, 1838–1914) with advancing the establishment of Yosemite National Park (1890) and founding the Sierra Club (1892). Few know about the writer-naturalist’s passion for glaciers, which began when he realized that Yosemite Valley was formed by the movement of ice-age glaciers.

In order to study actual formations, Muir journeyed to Glacier Bay, Alaska, to observe and describe them. His writings, published in a San Francisco newspaper, enticed tourists to the region.

Top: G.D. Hazzard, East shoreline of Muir Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Alaska, 1880s-1890s, Courtesy of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve Archive; Bottom: Bruce F. Molnia, same view, August 11, 2005, Courtesy of US Geological Survey

He discovered and named Muir Glacier in 1879. The comparative photographs displayed here represent the extreme retreat of Muir Glacier by more than 31 miles (50 km) between the 1880s and 2005. Scientists no longer classify it as a tidewater glacier that reaches the sea.

In 1887, Muir commissioned  Thomas Hill (American, 1829– 1908) to depict Muir Glacier. The painting was reproduced on the cover of Muir’s book Travels in Alaska (1915). Hill visited Glacier Bay on a recently introduced steamship for tourists. Rowboats ferried passengers on shore, where they were greeted by Tlingit residents (included in the painting). Muir believed that native Alaskans offered a model for living in balance with the natural world.

Top banner image: Thomas Hill, Muir Glacier, Alaska, 1887-88, Oakland Museum of California