John Muir: Romancing the Glaciers

Thomas Hill, Muir Glacier, Alaska, 1887-88, Oakland Museum of California

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

Because he had never seen a glacier, Muir made several expeditions to Glacier Bay, Alaska, to observe and describe them. His writings, published in a San Francisco newspaper, stimulated tourism to the ice.

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 dramatize the 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 the artist Thomas Hill (American, 1829– 1908) to document the glacier. The painting was reproduced on the cover of Muir’s book Travels in Alaska (1915). Hill visited Glacier Bay on a recently inaugurated tourist steamship. Rowboats ferried passengers on shore, where they were greeted by Tlingit residents. Muir believed that native Alaskans provided a model of how to live in harmony with nature.

‘Muir believed that native Alaskans provided a model of how to live in harmony with nature.’