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Geologist Israel C. Russell in Alaska

by Murray Lundberg

    Israel C. Russell (1852-1906) worked as a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) from 1880 until 1892, and was one of the founders of the National Geographic Society (NGS) in 1888.

    Russell published a report on "Existing Glaciers of the United States," in the 1883-84 Annual Report of the USGS. On May 20, 1890, he was awarded a grant to launch the first scientific study of the icefields and glaciers of the St. Elias Range that straddles the Alaska-Yukon border. This was the first research grant awarded by the National Geographic Society, which assembled contributions from 27 donors for the grant.

    During the 1890 expedition, Russell, with Mark B. Karr and six camp hands, landed near the head of Yakutat Bay and explored the Marvine, Seward and Agassiz Glaciers. An attempt to reach the summit of Mount St. Elias was unsuccessful due to a storm that trapped them for four days without fuel and almost without food.

    Russell returned the following year, and from his landing place on Icy Bay, explored the Agassiz and Newton Glaciers. With him this year were Thomas Staney, Thomas White, J. H. Crumback, Neil McCarthy and a Mr. Warner, all from Seattle; all but Warner had been in the region prior to this expedition. Russell attempted a solo climb of Mount St. Elias, and reached an altitude of 14,500 before again being forced by storms to retreat. Among the information gained, his report on the 1891 expedition includes the first detailed description of ice worms:

In the early morning before the sunlight touched the snow its surface was literally covered with small, slim black worms, about an inch long, and having a remarkably snake-like appearance. These creatures were wiggling over the snow in thousands, but as soon as the sun rose and made its warmth felt they disappeared beneath the surface. They are not seen when the temperature is above freezing.

Israel C. Russell Bibliography (partial)

  • Existing Glaciers of the United States (NGS, 1885)
  • A Journey Up The Yukon River (1889)
  • SubaŽrial Decay Of Rocks And Origin Of The Red Color Of Certain Formations (1889)
  • A Geological Reconnaissance In Central Washington (1893)
  • Alaska, Its Physical Geography (1894)
  • Lakes Of North America A Reading Lesson For Students Of Geography And Geology (1895)
  • Glaciers Of North America : A Reading Lesson For Students Of Geography And Geology (1897)
  • The Glaciers Of North America (1898)
  • Glaciers of Mount Rainier (NGS, 1898)
  • Rivers Of North America A Reading Lesson For Students Of Geography And Geology (1898)
  • Geology And Water Resources Of The Snake River Plains Of Idaho (1902)
  • Notes On The Geology Of Southwestern Idaho And Southeastern Oregon (1903)
  • Preliminary Report On The Geology And Water Resources Of Central Oregon (1905)

Related Links

Disaster at Icy Bay
While Russell's exploration party was being landed at Icy bay in 1891, a boat swamped and six men were drowned.

Exploration of Wrangell-St. Elias Mountain Region, 1796-1940
A report for the NPS by Geoffrey T. Bleakley.

Photo from 1890 Expedition
People not identified.

Malaspina Glacier
A high-altitude aerial photo of the region traversed by Russell's expeditions.

Founding of the National Geographic Society
A lengthy report on the Society's early years, focusing on the contributions of Gilbert Grosvenor.