By Jennifer Pocock, former assistant researcher at National Geographic Traveler magazine.

The peak cherry tree bloom has already come and gone, carpeting the sidewalks of America’s capital city with a layer of pink and white petals. For the Japanese, this blossoming is a metaphor for life: a brief and brilliant burst, followed by a certain fall.

Yet the life of Eliza Scidmore — the woman who brought the now-famous trees to Washington a hundred years ago today – seems a testament to the contrary. Scidmore (pronounced Sid-more) labored for 24 years to bring the government around to the idea of the planting. And on March 27, 1912, she finally helped root the saplings in a small unassuming ceremony at the north end of the Potomac Basin.

Scidmore was both steadfast and intrepid. Born into a family of adventurers (her parents were once missionaries), she had been bitten by the travel bug early in life and did whatever she could to continue seeing new, far-flung places, despite the criticism she must have met for her independent spirit.

Eliza Scidmore, courtesy DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division

She attended Oberlin College for a short time before leaving to write society columns for newspapers around the country. The money she earned from the job allowed her to explore other, more exotic travel possibilities. The first of these was a journey to what was then “the Department of Alaska” — and the start of a lingering love affair with the Last Frontier — in 1883.

“Each summer I bought my long purple ticket, reading from Portland to Sitka and return, with pleasurable anticipations; and all of them – and more — being realized I yielded up the last coupons with regret,” she wrote.

One of the steamships she took to Alaska, the Idaho, became the first to successfully navigate the northern end of Glacier Bay. James Carroll, the ship’s captain, named Scidmore Glacier after his esteemed passenger.

These trips provided fodder for articles, which were published by many of the top newspapers and magazines of the day, and then collected and republished as a book in 1885. It was considered the first comprehensive travelogue of Alaska, recording, with near-anthropological scope and precision, not only her travels, but also descriptions of the towns and customs of its people.

A photo of an “animal dance” performed at a child’s garden party. (Photo: Eliza R. Scidmore)

Her adventures continued. In 1885, she visited the Far East for the first time on a trip to Japan to visit her brother. She fell in love with the people, the culture, and most of all, the cherry blossoms. Soon after her return, she began to petition Washington to plant the delicate trees in the barren areas around the Capitol — a fight that would last almost a quarter of a century.

Scidmore joined the National Geographic Society in 1890, two years after it was established, where she became not only the Society’s first female writer, photographer, and board member, but also an associate editor and overseas ambassador.

She was behind other firsts, as well, having brought the word tsunami to the English lexicon through her coverage (for National Geographic) of the aftereffects of an earthquake off the coast of Hondo in the summer of 1896.

Though she worked tirelessly in Washington, D.C. for the Society and for her cherry trees, Scidmore’s restless spirit always called her to far-off places. India, China, Java, and the Philippines, to name a few.

In Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), she climbed Dambool Rock, something she described in a 1907 article for National Geographic magazine as “an enchanted mesa that burned blood red and purple in the sunset and seemed impossible of attainment by any two-footed climber.”

But through all of her adventures, her heart belonged to Japan — and to her beloved blossoms. Her dogged quest to see a “Mukojima on the Potomac” paid off when First Lady Helen Taft finally got wind of her proposal and provided enough political clout to get the idea off the ground, or, rather, in it.

Scidmore returned to Japan again and again, leaving the U.S. for good in 1923 when the government began clamping down on travel. Her firsthand accounts and hand-colored photographs of the landscape and people there brought a new understanding of Japanese culture to a curious America in the lead up to the first World War. When she died in 1928, her ashes were buried in Yokohama, under a springtime carpet of pink and white petals.

A rice field worker travels atop a wooden plank bridge at dusk. (Photo: Eliza R. Scidmore)

For someone so out there in the world, Scidmore was a fiercely private individual. Having instructed her parents to burn her personal letters upon her death, we have little insight into who she was behind closed doors. But Scidmore leaves behind seven books of travel writing, 17 photo-driven articles in National Geographic magazine, and thousands of blooming cherry trees along the Potomac that continue — despite the odds — to provide a fitting legacy for her abiding spirit.

This article was written with some consultation with Paul Martin, a former National Geographic Traveler editor. His new book, Secret Heroes: Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World, is available for pre-order on Amazon.com.

Comments

  1. […] Dan about photography, the cherry blossoms (National Geographic‘s first female writer played a major role in bringing them to D.C.), or what it’s like to work at Nat Geo Travel; or share your own insights–sky’s […]

  2. […] Hangout in real time. Ask Dan and the rest of our crew about photography, the cherry blossoms (National Geographic‘s first female writers played a major role in bringing them to D.C.), or what it’s like to work at Nat Geo Travel; or share your own insights–sky’s the […]

  3. [...] festival centers around the willowy sakuras that Nat Geo’s first female board member, Eliza Scidmore, played a vital role in bringing to the capital [...]

  4. Daniel H Sidmore
    Dekalb Il
    August 14, 2012, 10:36 am

    Please read my Master Thesis Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore More Than A Footnote in History thier is a copy in the National Geographic Society Archive.

  5. Diana Parsell
    Falls Church, VA
    April 25, 2012, 6:18 pm

    I read this article with much interest, as I have been researching the life and travels of Eliza Scidmore more than two years for a book about her. (My Website on the project is at: http://www.agreatblooming.com) This story has a couple of inaccuracies. First, Eliza’s parents were not missionaries, though that is erroneously reported in at least one major biographical index I consulted. Also, Captain James Carroll named an island, not a glacier, for Scidmore during her first trip to Alaska in 1883. (See my YouTube video about that trip, on the Website.) In later years, both Scidmore Glacier and Mount Ruhamah were named for her.

  6. Dixie Grainger
    Nichols, SC
    April 2, 2012, 9:22 am

    Thanks Eliza, and thanks to the person who wrote this article, it awoke some precious memories of my time in Japan as a child in 1949/50, and reminded me that we should continue to experience as much of this beautiful planet as we possibly can, as there are some things a photo just cannot capture. Get up and go people, The Kingdon of heaven is at hand. Open your eyes and your heart and enjoy God’s wonderful gifts.