Skip to main content
 Previous Next
  • Zoom In (+)
  • Zoom Out (-)
  • Rotate CW (r)
  • Rotate CCW (R)
  • Overview (h)
Walter Curran Mendenhell: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Walter Curran Mendenhell

EA-Biography
(Philip S. Smith)

WALTER CURRAN MENDENHALL

Walter Curran Mendenhall (1871- ), brought a more diverse scientific
training to the task of Alaskan development than most men who have had a part
in it. His contributions were direct, through his personal explorations, or
less direct through his general Geological Survey activities that made him a
wise and sagacious mentor and a capable and efficient administrator. In this
article, especial attention will be paid to his direct personal participation
in the exploration of the Territory and his overall administration will be passed
over more briefly.
Born at Marlboro, Ohio, February 20, 1871, Mendenhall's undergraduate educa–
tion was received at Ohio Normal University, where he earned the degree of A.B.
in 1895. He took postgraduate work at Harvard University in 1896-97 and in
Heidelberg in 1899-1900 and was a constant student throughout his entire career.
Even while still in college he served in temporary positions on the Geological
Survey and became a full-fledged member of that organization in 1894, successive–
ly being in charge of the studies of ground water in the western states in 1908,
Chief of the Land Classification Board (later the Conservation Branch) in 1912,
Chief Geologist in 1922, and Director of the entire Survey in 1931. This later
post he held until his retirement from the government, after more than forty-eight
years' service, in 1943.
The first assignment he received for Alaska work was in 1898, when he was
selected as the Survey geologist to go on a joint expedition that had been arranged

EA-Biography. Smith: Walter Curran Mendenhall

between the U.S. Army and the Survey to explore parts of central southern
Alaska. The plans for the expedition called for the assembling of the party
near the head of Cook Inlet, from which point the route would follow eastward
along the Matanuska Valley and thence into the Copper River Valley as far north–
ward as time and conditions of travel permitted. The over-all charge of the
expedition was assigned by the War Department to Captain E. F. Glenn, and Menden–
hall was to be responsible only for keeping track of the geology and mineral re–
sources of the area traversed. There were vexations delays in getting the work
started and the party had not proceeded far from its base before it became evi–
dent that, if any sort of map of the route was to be obtained, Mendenhall would
have to make it. So, struggling along with a pack train manned by a group of
inexperienced tenderfeet, the job of maintaining a route survey of the country
covered and the making of a record of all the pertinent physical features seen
throughout the trip fell to Mendenhall. The fact that a good reconnaissance
record was obtained is attributable almost exclusively to his unflagging zeal.
The course of the expedition followed much of the route now traversed by
the Glenn Highway. The party thus passed through the Matanuska Coal field into
the Nelchina placer gold district and on to Copper Center, though of course be–
fore that time few of these features had been known to the general public. Forc–
ing their way northward, the party finally arrived at the pass through the Alaska
Range whereby that majestic mountain barrier was pierced so that entree was af–
forded to streams tributary to the Tanana River. It was a ragged, travel-worn
band of explorers that reached this point, but the ever-beckoning lure of seeing
a little farther into the unknown led Mendenhall to push on northward and descend
the valley of the northward-flowing Delta River. Just how far he reached on this
river cannot now be determined, but it is evident that he was almost in contact

EA-Biography. Smith: Walter Curran Mendenhall

with the main Tanana River before the lateness of the season, shortage of food,
and the necessity of rejoining the main party caused him to turn back.
The rpute to the party's starting point followed essentially that taken on
the outward journey. A comprehensive report on the results of the expedition
was published by the Geological Survey in Part 7 of the 20th Annual Report of
the Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, under the title, "A Reconnaissance
from Resurrection Bay to the Tanana River, Alaska, in 1898," pages 265 to 340,
1900. A somewhat more complete description of the work of this expedition was
published under the title "Reports of Explorations in the Territory of Alaska,"
by the War Department, Adjustant General's Office, Vol. 25, 1899.
Mendenhall's Alaskan career was interrupted in 1899 to enable him, with
George Otis Smith, under the general direction of Bailey Willis, to undertake
geologic explorations in the Cascade Range of the state of Washington. At the
time that work was done the conditions to be overcome differed but little from
those on Alaskan expeditions, and served to add greatly to the frontier experience
of both these young geologists and to establish a mutual regard that was strength–
ened as each took on increasing responsibilities in the institution of which they
were a part and in the profession to which they devoted their lives.
The general popular interest awakened by the discovery of the rich gold placers
near Nome caused the Geological Survey to undertake extensive explorations through–
out the entire tract of southern Seward Peninsula, during the field season of 1900.
The easternmost of these parties, working from Koyuk River, near the eastern head
of Norton Sound, westward to join with the central party that mapped the region near
Council, was in charge of Mendenhall, E. C. Barnard was the topographer associated
with Mendenhall in this project. The work was carried on by the members of the
party transporting themselves and their supplies, by canoes where practicable, or

EA-Biography. Smith: Walter Curran Mendenhall

by cross-country hikes, portaging their equipment on their backs where the boats
could not be used. The geologic structure of this area is complex and the rocks
are highly deformed and metamorphosed and intruded by deep-seated igneous rocks,
so that the geologist had to be constantly on his mettle to gain any real in–
sight as to their history. In spite of these difficulties, Mendenhall and his
associates made satisfactory reconnaissances, covering several thousand square
miles of the hitherto unsurveyed region, and prepared reports and maps that were
for many years the only authoritative sources of information regarding this part
of the Territory. The results of these surveys were published by the Geological
Survey as a special report entitled "Reconnaissances in the Cape Nome and Norton
Bay Regions, Alaska, in 1900."
Increasing support of the Survey's Alaska program of exploration having
received recognition by Congress through allotment of additional funds, the
Survey was enabled, in 1901, to undertake several larger projects that it had
been able to finance from its former more meager appropriations. Among these
more far-reaching projects was a survey of parts of the Territory lying north of the
Yukon and extending into western Alaska to include the basin of the Kobuk River.
Mendenhall, as geologist, and D. L. Raeburn, as topographic engineer, with five
camp hands were assigned to this job.
The plan called for the party to ascend in their canoes Dall River, a tribu–
tary of the Yukon that enters that stream near the western limits of the Yukon
flats. On reaching the headwaters of that stream, the technical members would
search for a suitable pass by which the party could portage streams flowing into
the Koyukuk River, descend that stream to the main river, and then select another
tributary of the Koyukuk by which the party might portage across the intervening
divide to reach boating water on the Kobuk and descend that stream to its mouth,

EA-Biography. Smith: Walter Curran Mendenhall

ultimately reaching salt water at Kotzebue Sound. To reach the starting point
of the field work at Fort Hamlin on Yukon River, the party traveled mainly on
steamers of the regular transportation companies, but to avoid undue delay, be–
cause the ice had not yet broken up on Lake Labarge, the party made that part
of its trip in its own canoes on the open water that lay between the shore and
the main body of the ice in the lake. Supplies for the early part of the trip
had to be taken by the party in its boats from Fort Hamlin, but on reaching the
Koyukuk it was able to replenish its supplies from stores that had been shipped
in the previous season to Bergman, at the head of navigation on the Koyukuk River.
The geology of much of the route traversed was exceedingly complex, as the
way lay along the borders between the great interior province and the rugged
mountains to the north. Difficulties of travel beset the explorers at frequent
intervals. Not only were there the ordinary difficulties attendant on treacher–
ous watercourses and the arduous labors of back-packing on the portages and the
long wearisome hikes to examine the features of scientific importance, but the
party had also the misfortune to lose much of its supplies and equipment in a
fire that wiped out most of the camp while the men were busy portaging from one
of the tributaries of the Koyukuk to the Kobuk drainage. An added trial had to
be faced when several of the men were laid low by severe cases of measles, the germs
of which had apparently been lying dormant in some rolls of bedding that had not been
opened up until the party had already advanced far on its western journey. With
self-made clothing, cut from excess blankets and showing the hard knocks to which
they had been exposed, it is small wonder that, on their arrival at their journey's
end on Kotzebue Sound, these hardy explorers had difficulty in convincing the resi–
dents that they really were civilized white men and not some wild denizens of the
back country. The report of the results of this expedition was published by the

EA-Biography. Smith: Walter Curran Mendenhall

Geological Survey as Professional Paper No. 10 , in 1902, a volume of 68 pages
and maps entitled "Reconnaissance from Fort Hamlin to Kotzebue Sound, Alaska,
by way of Dall, Kanuti, Allen [later authorized name Alatna] and Kowak [later
authorized spelling Kobuk] Rivers."
Increasing interest in the Copper River region led the Geological Survey,
in 1902, to make special efforts to explore places that had escaped attention
heretofore and to present a comprehensive summary of the resources of the area.
As a consequence, two separate parties were dispatched to make the necessary
survey, the southern one in charge of Mendenhall and the northern one in charge
of F. C. Schrader. Associated with Mendenhall on this trip was T. G. Gerdine,
topographer, and they were accomplished by the necessary camp hands and their
camp gear and equipment were carried by a pack train. In order that full ad–
vantage could be taken of the open season, most of the supplies for the expedi–
tion were sent in advance to Valdez and sledded from there to Copper Center during
the winter by Witherspoon, the topographer who would accompany the Schrader party.
The field of exploration for the Mendenhall party included much of the country
along the southern face of the Alaska Range, at the head of the Copper River
basin, and considerable tracts in the vicinity of Mount Wrangell and the group
of volcanic peaks that forms such striking landmarks in the area between the
Chitina River and the Alaska Range.
In the course of the work Mendenhall made a hurried examination of the
Chistochina district, which was the main area where commercial amounts of placer
gold had been discovered. Altogether the Mendenhall party covered some 4,500
square miles of country with the degree of thoroughness adequate for gaining a
reconnaissance knowledge of the general facts as to its geography and geology.
In preparing a report of the results of the work in the Copper River region, in

EA-Biography. Smith: Walter Curran Mendenhall

1902, it proved desirable to combine many of the observations made by both the
Mendenhall and the Schrader parties rather than publish the results of each of
these expeditions separately. The writing of the report was done principally
by Mendenhall, and was issued by the Geological Survey as Professional Paper
No. 41
, a volume of 133 pages, in 1905. It long remained the only authoritative
statement regarding the geology and mineral resources of extensive areas in the
northern part of the Copper River region.
The completion of his report on the Copper River region marked the close
of Mendenhall's active personal participation in the exploration of Alaska. From
then on, his main interest centered around various phases of the Geological Survey's
work in the States. Necessarily those interests had important bearing on some of
the similar types of activities in Alaska, so that his counsel and advice were
constantly sought in assuring that similar problems in the two geographic areas
were properly coordinated. This was especially true as regards the conduct of
the Land Classification operations in the two areas. In fact, for that type of
work in Alaska, the responsibility for the field examinations was placed on the
Alaska unit, while the interpretation of those results and the conduct of the
office phases of that work was assigned to the Land Classification Board, which
for the period from 1910 to 1922 was administered by Mendenhall.
Later, during the period from 1931 to the close of his government service,
while Dr. Mendenhall was the director of the entire activities of the Geological
Survey, he was the over-all directing head of the Survey's work in the Territory.
That his name does not appear more prominently as directing the Survey's work
during that period was due more to his self-effacingness and reliance on those
to whom he had entrusted responsibility than to any lack of keen interest in the
welfare and development of the Territory. One of his earliest acts, on assuming

EA-Biography. Smith: Walter Curran Mendenhall

the Directorship of the Survey, was to make an inspection trip to the Territory.
On this visit, he traveled widely to acquaint himself with local conditions and
to familiarize himself with the work of the individual Survey parties that could
be contacted in the time that was available to him. He had come up through the
ranks so that every phase of the work was familiar to him through his own exper–
ience, and though some of the methods and tools were new he could readily com–
prehend their application and usefulness. He was always alert to keep abreast
of the latest advances that would increase the efficiency of himself or of the
organization he directed.
Physically, Mendenhall was long and lank, a typical outdoors man who kept
himself in trim to perform whatever duties he might demand of his body. Kindly
and extremely courteous in all his dealings, he retained the peacefulness and
simplicity of his early Quaker upbringing. He had a keen sense of humor, which
he often used to relieve a situation that was becoming tense. Hos slowness of
speech and of reaching a decision were often misconstrued as lack of ability to
grasp a situation. They were, however, due rather to the carefulness with which
he analyzed the problems presented and the care he took that his pronouncements
should be clear and not susceptible of misunderstanding. This very forethought
made him set in his decisions, one they had been arrived at, and no amount of
pressure availed to make him change his mind to conform to more expediency. He
was never what might be called "popular" either with his associates or his super–
iors, but no one who had dealings with him ever questioned the sincerity of his
motives, the richness of the experience he brought to bear on the problem in hand,
or the lavishness with which he gave of himself to arrive at the correct solution.
He was married on September 15, 1915, to Alice May Boutell and is the father of
two daughters.

EA-Biography. Smith: Walter Curran Mendenhall

Mendenhall's scientific attainments have been recognized by his membership
in the most distinguished societies having to do with his professional fields,
such as the National Academy, the Geological Society of America, the American
Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, the American Association of
Petroleum Geologists, and a host of others. He was honored by the Colorado
School of Mines and the University of Wisconsin by being awarded their doctorates
of Science. His services were twice retained by the Government after he had
reached the usual compulsory age of retirement, so that it was February 1943 be–
fore he was finally retired from the Geological Survey, to which he had devoted
nearly fifty years of constructive effort and achievement.
Philip S. Smith
HomeWalter Curran Mendenhell : Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
 Text Only
 Text & Inline Image
 Text & Image Viewer
 Image Viewer Only