Photo courtesy of the Whittier Museum
The above archived photo at the Whittier Museum was taken in the spring of 1898 at the camp site located at the head of Passage Canal then known as Portage Bay. It is near where the Princess Tours cruise ship terminal is today. The photographer was Walter Mendenhall.
By Ted Spencer
Special to the Turnagain Times
Recently a new exhibit for the Prince William Sound Museum in Whittier was being planned and researched. The exhibit was inspired by a small book published by the Cook Inlet Historical Society in 1984. Lieutenant Castner's Alaskan Expedition 1898—A Journey of Hardship and Suffering was an account written by one of the patriarchs of Alaska historians, Lyman Woodman.
The book recounts the horrors of exploring the wilds of Interior Alaska during the late 19th century, several decades after the territory was acquired by the United States. The rugged, imposing regions were unknown and unmapped by the white explorers. An Army exploration team was sent North in the spring of 1898 to traverse the ground from Cook Inlet to the Matanuska Valley, over the Alaska Range and through the labyrinth of rivers, swamps and mountains to the Yukon River. T
The task was given to Lt. Joseph C. Castner, who led a group of a dozen men through uncharted wilderness beset by inclement weather, mosquitoes, no-see-ums , raging rivers and devils club. Lt. Castner and two of his men just barely made it out alive and would have probably have perished if not for aid from Tanana Valley natives.
While researching archives for the exhibit, my inquiries took me to the Walter Mendenhall photo collection at the USGS library in Denver, Colorado.
Mendenhall photographed the early stages of the expedition including the arrival and landing of the exploration team at the head of Portage Bay. After unloading their supplies and camping awhile, the military troupe set out hiking over the mountains at Portage Pass to access the waters of Turnagain Arm and Cook Inlet.
After receiving the historical images I began to examine the arrival scenes. Not being familiar with the body of water known as “Portage Bay” I thought that there might be a clue in the photos. As I looked at two photos, in particular, I thought, “Gee, those mountains look familiar!” I quickly realized that the mountains were those surrounding present day Whittier. Portage Bay is now known as Passage Canal.
With the exception of the Whittier skyline and an occasional behemoth cruise ship at dockside, the beach and campsite area of 1898 look pretty much as they did 112 years ago. And with a little investigation one might find the entrance to the famous trail used over the ages by Alaska Natives, miners and explorers to reach what is now the Portage Glacier, Seward Highway and Turnagain Arm from the waters of Prince William Sound . Ask the U. S. Forest Service folks at the Begich Boggs Visitor Center at Portage Lake to tell you all about it.
Ted Spencer is the Executive Director of the Prince William Sound Museum in Whittier. He will be contributing a series of columns documenting the history of Whittier.