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    Walter Curran Mendenhell

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0506                                                                                                                  

    (Philip S. Smith)


            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

    002      |      Vol_XV-0507                                                                                                                  
    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

    003      |      Vol_XV-0508                                                                                                                  
    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

    004      |      Vol_XV-0509                                                                                                                  
    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,

    005      |      Vol_XV-0510                                                                                                                  
    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

    006      |      Vol_XV-0511                                                                                                                  
    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

    007      |      Vol_XV-0512                                                                                                                  
    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

    008      |      Vol_XV-0513                                                                                                                  
    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.

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    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

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