Ice is Nice if You’re an Alaskan Tourist

Aboard a luxurious steamship called the “Queen,” Frank and Nell are now traveling their way home to Los Angeles. The Queen was a well-known steamship in those parts of Alaska, it was one of the very first to bring stampeders to Skagway in 1897 and had been regularly ferrying travelers and supplies between Skagway and Seattle ever since. Their ship isn’t going directly to Seattle, though, and they are fortunate to pass the famous Muir Glacier. Today, ships can’t sail close to this massive glacier anymore since it has receded more than 31 miles since the 1890s and no longer has a tidewater terminus. But back then it was a favorite tourist destination for those traveling by boat. Frank, always thinking of business, sounds sad that ice companies couldn’t harvest the glaciers and sell their ice back East. Any surprise the glaciers are so much smaller today?

The “Queen” is 340 feet long and carries 250 first class passengers, a much larger and more comfortable vessel than the Cottage City. The state rooms are large and roomy, and the cuisine is elegant,- four meals a day, and fruit any time you want it.

Steamers Topeka and Queen.jpg
Steamers Topeka & Queen at Muir Glacier, Alaska, c. 1895, Alaska State Library.

Shortly after breakfast on the first morning out, our steamer enters Icy strait, and slows down to half speed for safety. We see ahead, what seems to be a bank of ice, but as we approach it, find that it is composed of floating bergs, and there is a passage for us to enter. After awhile the floes get thicker, and the engines are allowed down to the point that we can scarcely see any motion of the vessel, yet move we do, and for hours literally have to push our way through the ice cakes and bergs which fill the Icy strait and Glacier Bay.

Slowly we push on toward the world famous Muir Glacier where all this floating ice comes from. Usually this bay is comparatively free from bergs, and the steamers can go within a few hundred feet of the Glacier, but there have been some heavy earthquakes lately which caused these vast pieces of ice to break off and float down the bay, some of them as far as Juneau, not long after the shake up.

Muir Glacier.jpg
Muir Glacier, at the head of Glacier Bay, c. 1900, Library of Congress.

Numbers of these floating masses of ice are acres in extent, and stick up out of the water 50 to 100 feet. Some are black and covered with soil in places, while others are clear and transparent, and still again we see blue and green ice, while some have three or four tints closely adjoining each other.

We never before had seen a natural colored ice, and were much interested to hear a Professor, on board, explain that some peculiarity in the crystallization at the time the ice was frozen (perhaps a thousand or more years ago), is responsible for the colorings.

The air is quite cool, and we feel it the more because of the North wind blowing in our faces. Most of the passengers are wrapped in furs, and overcoats, and we notice a few pay frequent visits to their staterooms presumably for some cold tea, or warm brandy. We indulged in nothing stronger than wine, unless I have forgotten about the facts in the case.

Along in the afternoon we are told by the officers that they dare not go any closer to the glacier. The engine is stopped, and all of us make the most of the opportunity, with our glasses.

Only the face of this mighty river of ice is visible from the Bay, as it slowly slips down into the water, breaks off and floats away.

The noise can be heard for miles whenever a break occurs. This massive field of ice has a width of three miles and reaches back Twenty miles up the mountains. It is supposed to reach below the surface 700 feet, and above the water it forms a perpendicular wall 350 to 300 feet high of ice beautifully tinted with gorgeous blues, greens, and purple.

Harriman Alaska Expedition.JPG
Muir Glacier, Harriman Alaska Expedition, 1899, National Museum of the American Indian.

There are ten large glaciers in Alaska, and about 200 miles Northwest of the Muir Glacier, near Mount St. Elias, is the Malispina Glacier, supposed to be the largest glacier in the world. It is Forty miles long, -25 wide,- and from 1000 to 3000 feet thick. What a bonanza would this block of ice be if it was conveniently near some of the N.Y. Ice companies, who sell ice at fifty cents per hundred pounds.

Foot of Glacier.jpg
Vernon Smith, Foot of Glacier, Valdez, Alaska,” c. 1933-1943. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

While we are trying to grasp the beauty and magnificence of the scene before us, the men on the main deck have been taking in some ice for use on the boat. Using their steam hoist, they bring in to the lower deck of the vessel, immense pieces of beautifully clear and transparent ice. Later on, many of us go down to feel of it, and a young lady on board said she thought this must be cooler than ordinary ice because it had been in cold storage so long.

Carefully feeling the way our “Queen” slowly pushes through the ice, southward, and out of Glacier Bay, bound for Sitka.

We pass one night on the way, and the next day early in the afternoon, we sail into Sitka harbor with the sun shining gloriously.

This post is part of a longer travelogue written by Frank L. Felter of Los Angeles, a distant relative of mine, as he and his wife Nell journeyed up to and around Alaska in 1900. To read the previous part, click here. To read the next part, click here.

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