By Diana Pabst Parsell
Eliza Scidmore was in her late 20s when she visited Japan for the first time, in 1885. She went to visit her brother George, a U.S. consular officer in China and Japan. After months away, Eliza returned home to Washington, D.C., with an idea that would indelibly shape the landscape of the nation’s capital.
During her trip, Eliza found most wondrous the cherry trees in bloom. The Japanese revered cherry blossoms (sakura), regarding their transient beauty as emblematic of human life. In Tokyo, huge crowds flocked to “cherry viewing” parties at Uyeno Park, surrounding the tombs of noted shoguns, and at Mukojima, a mile-long tunnel of interlacing cherry trees that lined a road along the Sumida River. Clad in kimonos that wove a colorful tapestry, “all the million inhabitants of Tokio seem to stream in unceasing procession day and night,” she wrote.
Eliza decided a park of Japanese cherry trees on the banks of the Potomac River was exactly what Washington needed. A “Mukojima on the Potomac.”
Oriental flowering cherries had been introduced in the United States around in the middle of the 19th century but were still rare in America. Federal park officials whom Eliza approached with her idea showed no interest. It took nearly three decades until her vision came to pass, when First Lady Helen Taft included Japanese cherry trees in her beautification plans for the capital.
Eliza developed a deep love of Japan and its culture that lasted until her death in 1928. She returned many times, living on and off in Japan between wide-ranging travels that also took her to places such as China, Java, India, Russia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Her brother George spent most of his diplomatic career in Japan; their mother also moved there. (Helen Taft, after meeting the elderly Mrs. Scidmore in Japan, described her as “a sort of uncrowned queen of foreign society.”)
Extensive travel in Japan gave Eliza insight into a country most Americans knew little about. She lectured on Japan and wrote about it for many publications — including National Geographic.
After a great earthquake struck the northeast coast of Hondo, the main island of Japan, on June 15, 1896, Eliza was the perfect person to report on it. Her article in the September 1896 issue of National Geographic introduced English-speaking readers to a now-familiar Japanese word: tsunami (from waves, nami, breaking upon a harbor, tsu).
The word appears in Japanese historical records. Before Eliza’s article, however, the commonly used English term for the phenomenon was “tidal wave” — technically inaccurate because the destructive waves are caused not by gravitational effects of the sun and moon, but by undersea earthquakes or landslides that trigger shifts of the earth’s floor.
Few villagers on the remote San-Riku coast of Japan survived the “great earthquake wave” of 1896. Some who did, Eliza reported, told of how they heard a distant roar, saw the dark shadow of “a black wall 80 feet in height,” and “ran to high ground, crying ‘Tsunami! Tsunami!’ ” Rain had interrupted a local festival and driven people indoors at 8 o’clock in the evening, so most of the victims perished in their homes when the giant wave struck.
Eliza’s article documented the exact loss of life and property: 26,975 people killed, 9,313 houses wrecked and washed away, 10,000 fishing boats destroyed. “The Japanese system of census enumeration is so complete and minute that the name of every person who lost his life was soon known,” she told readers.
The clear, vivid writing style and authoritative nature of the article were characteristic of Eliza Scidmore’s published works, which included eight books and several hundred newspaper and magazine articles. In From the Field, a collection of excerpts from National Geographic, editor Charles McCarry called her “the best pure National Geographic writer the magazine ever had.”
McCarry praised her as “a meticulous reporter” and “a fluidly confident writer.” He saw her style as an expression of her personality, the product of “an independent, educated, late-Victorian woman of principle whose visible passions were those of the mind.”
Eliza Scidmore, who never married, achieved many “firsts” in her life. Her path-breaking life was all the more remarkable because she achieved all that she did at a time when few women enjoyed personal freedom or pursued a career.
Born Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore (the middle name came from her paternal grandmother), she had family roots in the Midwest. Though her family was not wealthy, they moved in the company of “good” society, and Eliza came to know many important people. One important role model was her mother, a charming and enterprising woman who, after a divorce, raised her children while running a boarding house in Washington, D.C. Another crucial figure was her uncle David Atwood, a well-respected newspaperman who founded the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison and helped establish the new Republican Party.
Eliza showed a talent for journalism while still in her late teens. She enrolled at Oberlin College in 1873, but left after two years to work as one of the female correspondents — or “lady writers” — hired to report on Gilded Age parties and other society events in Washington for newspapers around the country. In May 1876 the National Republican sent 19-year-old Eliza to cover the opening of the Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia, the nation’s first World’s Fair. A decade later, the Washington Hatchett observed that “Miss E. R. Scidmore … did the work of ten of the best papers in the country.”
Society reporting gave Eliza the money to travel. Curious about Alaska, she went there initially in the summers of 1883 and 1884, traveling by mail steamer along the Inside Passage. When the Idaho veered off course in 1883, she and her fellow passengers became the first tourists to visit Glacier Bay. Eliza wrote about her trips for newspapers and expanded the dispatches into her first book. It launched her career as a travel writer.
Eliza joined the National Geographic Society soon after it was founded in 1888. Several years later its all-male leadership elected her to the board of managers. When the Society’s quasi-scientific journal shifted to a magazine-style format, Eliza became a regular contributor. Her article “Young Japan” in the July 1914 issue was the first time a woman had photographs in National Geographic.
Of all the places Eliza Scidmore visited, Japan had a special place in her heart.
Of all the places Eliza Scidmore visited, Japan had a special place in her heart. She continued to advocate the planting of Japanese cherry trees, on a derelict spot near the Washington Monument. It would be, she explained, “a perpetual reminder of the friendship of the two peoples.”
She eventually found an ally in David Fairchild, a botanist at the U. S. Department of Agriculture. A member of National Geographic’s board (and a son-in-law of Alexander Graham Bell, who co-founded the Society), he too had become enamored of Japanese cherry trees as part of his job importing new plant species into the United States. He tested a selection at his estate in Chevy Chase, Md., to see how well they would grow in Washington’s climate. They did splendidly.
Hearing of Mrs. Taft’s improvement plans for the National Mall, they urged her to include Japanese cherry trees. Helen Taft agreed it was a wonderful idea, and the Japanese offered to donate several thousand trees for the project.
When the first two Yoshino cherry trees were finally planted alongside the Tidal Basin on March 27, 1912 — by Helen Taft and the Japanese ambassador’s wife — only a handful of people observed the event. Eliza Scidmore, then in her 50s, was among them.
Diana Pabst Parsell, a writer and editor in Washington, D.C., is working on a book about Eliza Scidmore and the origin of the city’s cherry trees.
Read Eliza Scidmore’s 1896 article: The Recent Earthquake Wave on the Coast of Japan