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Grove Karl Gilbert, ‘A Captain Bold’

The 33 founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group. They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo. In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s upcoming 130th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories. By Mark Collins Jenkins “…happiness is sitting under a tent...

The 33 founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group. They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo. In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s upcoming 130th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.

By Mark Collins Jenkins

“…happiness is sitting under a tent with the walls uplifted, just after a brief shower, when most of the flies have quit lighting on the lobster-red wrists burnt during the morning ride, and gone off to see what the cook is going to do next….It is rising at 4:30, while Jupiter is still paley visible but there is no longer any temptation to hunt for the comet, taking a sponge bath in the open, breakfasting from off a box lid gaudily decked by a painted table cloth, and then sallying forth on the white horse Frank…”

Grove Karl Gilbert was considered by his own and future generations to be the greatest of all American geologists, and “a captain bold,” according to Australian geologist E.C. Andrews. A founder of the National Geographic Society, Gilbert served a term as its president and is the only president and founder to be honored with the Hubbard Medal, the Society’s highest honor for geographic accomplishment.

Photograph courtesy USGS.

But our captain bold was also considered by students who knew him to be “mild-mannered, and quiet as a shadow.” Standing over six feet tall with a great reddish beard, he nevertheless always looked a little shabby because he preferred to mend his clothes himself. And so far from being the image of the dashing explorer, he even avoided mild personal confrontations.

Perhaps his close friend, C. Hart Merriam, put it best, describing him as “an authority in many fields, and yet one who never assumed authority; a leader in science, and yet one who never assumed leadership; neither power nor glory did he seek, but the satisfaction of contributing his share to the sum of human knowledge.”

Out of a Nutshell

Grove Karl Gilbert was born in Rochester, New York, on May 6, 1843, the son of Grove Sheldon and Eliza (Stanley) Gilbert. His father was an impecunious portrait painter, but the Gilbert household nevertheless provided such a warm and nurturing environment that the family referred to it simply as the Nutshell. Intellectually inclined but too poor to afford outside entertainment, the family often spent evenings solving puzzles or riddles among themselves. It was a habit that would serve young Karl, a quiet and sickly child, quite well in the future. So would the habit, also learned in genteel poverty, of mending his own clothes.

Karl attended the University of Rochester, graduating in 1862 at the age of 19 with a proficiency in Greek and mathematics. But hoping that regular outdoor exercise would improve his constitution, he had also taken a course in geology from Professor Henry A. Ward. It was like a seed cast onto extremely fertile ground–it only needed time to germinate.

In 1862 the nation was convulsed by the Civil War, but Gilbert did not join the army. Although tall, he was still sickly and was passed over by the draft. Instead he became Professor Ward’s assistant, assembling natural history specimens for schools and museums. At night he studied mathematics, geology, and anatomy at the Nutshell. The seed was stirring; it needed only one field excursion, to the Cohoes Falls near Albany, where a fossil mastodon had been unearthed, to awaken it.

Left in charge after the excavation director was hurt, Gilbert grew keenly interested in the work and published popular accounts. Improbably, he decided to spend his life enduring the rigors of field geology.

Once decided on this course, he never wavered. In 1869-70, he volunteered his services to a systematic exploration of the natural resources of Ohio led by John Strong Newberry, a prominent geologist and paleontologist. Here he associated with true field geologists, but though he proved himself a quick learner, Gilbert mostly drew fossils or prepared reports, lectures, and samples back at Columbia College in New York City. But fieldwork was what he really wanted, so when Lieutenant George Wheeler of the U.S. Army mounted the Geological and Geographic Survey West of the 100th Meridian–the Wheeler Survey, one of the four great Western surveys of the post-Civil War period–Newberry helped Gilbert get appointed as a geologist in 1871. Tall and rangy, with reddish hair and beginnings of a trademark beard, he was about to clamber “astride the occidental mule,” as he put it, for the first time.

Gilbert served as a geologist on the Wheeler Survey from 1871 to 1874. Something happened to him during those years: his physical frailty fell away, and though he never lost his shyness, acuity of mind and strong powers of observation rose to the fore. He thrived on fieldwork, happy with rudimentary shelter and provisions, easygoing and even-tempered. Wheeler’s parties covered vast parts of the West, trying to compete with the other, better-established surveys. Ranging mostly over Nevada and western Utah, Wheeler did manage to map more territory than the others, but this overwhelming emphasis on mapmaking meant that geology got short shrift. Gilbert was in effect nothing more than an assistant to the topographers. Even so, he crossed Death Valley, voyaged up the lower reaches of the little-known Colorado River, and traversed the wild country of central Arizona and New Mexico, before finally returning back down the Colorado to the Gulf of California. He also blossomed as a geologist, and among his initial contributions to the field, he named the desert area in which they mostly worked the Basin-and-Range province, and the canyon-split upland to the east onto which they occasionally spilled, the Colorado Plateau province–names by which we still designate them today.

The Powell Survey

The Colorado Plateau was really the domain of a competing survey, which went through several name changes but was universally referred to as the Powell Survey, led by a magnetic one-armed Civil War veteran named John Wesley Powell. In the early 1870s, Gilbert met Powell in Salt Lake City; he saw him again in Washington, where most of the various survey men repaired for the winter to work on their reports. Powell was in his early 40s, Gilbert just entering his 30s; but for Gilbert it would be the most pivotal encounter of his life.

For one thing, it was while at a dance at Powell’s house in early 1874 that Gilbert met Fannie L. Porter, whom he subsequently married. For another, Powell managed to cut Gilbert away from the Wheeler Survey and add him to his own.

The difficult and broken country of the Colorado Plateau–buttes, canyons, gulches, eroded cliffs and scarps–made it the last part of the contiguous United States to be systematically explored and surveyed. This was the task that fell to the Powell Survey in the 1870s. Fortunately for all concerned, the time, the place, and the people combined happily: John Wesley Powell was the leader, Almon “Prof” Thompson the mapmaker, Clarence Dutton the visionary interpreter, and Grove Karl Gilbert the true scientist. In the end, they would create a new American geology.

Of Henry Mountain fame…

In 1875, three field parties, led by Thompson, Dutton, and Gilbert respectively, split up on the high Wasatch plateau of central Utah. Thompson went south to finish his mapping, Dutton prepared to make the first systematic study of Utah’s high plateaus before turning to the Grand Canyon. Gilbert turned east, accompanied by a topographer, and worked down into a great basin carved out by rivers flowing east into the Colorado. They headed to where, out of the vast sagebrush flats, rose five forested peaks that Powell had named the Henry Mountains, after Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian. “Prof” Thompson may have been the first to explore them, but for the best part of the next two field seasons, Gilbert came to know them as no one else could, and in so doing turned them into one of the paradigms of modern geology.

Most mountains are the result of fault-blocks or other tectonic processes, and are generally composed of different rock than the plains that lap up against them. But Gilbert recognized that these mountains were different: they were clothed in the same rock strata that made up the surrounding plains, as if they were merely bubbles or blisters in the earth. Patiently tracing out contours beneath the juniper and pine, he discovered that the crests of the hills were so eroded that the blistering agent was revealed: igneous magma had intruded, ponding beneath the overarching strata so as to uplift them. These mountains were, in effect, stillborn proto-volcanoes. Gilbert presented the results of his studies in Report on the Geology of the Henry Mountains and contributed enormously to what would come to be known as geomorphology. At 34, having worked less than a decade in the field, Gilbert was already one of the leading figures in his chosen science.

Gilbert worked with the Powell Survey for four years. In 1877, he undertook irrigation studies that helped provide the science behind Powell’s famous arid lands report; in 1878, he led the Survey’s field parties, cleaning up errors in the mapping work; he also measured water levels in the Great Salt Lake, where his thoughts must have dwelt on the even larger Pleistocene lake of which the Great Salt Lake was a mere remnant. This larger lake, which he named Lake Bonneville (after George Bonneville, army officer and Western explorer), had been of particular fascination to him since Wheeler days.

He soon had the opportunity to explore it in greater detail, for in 1879 the U.S. Geological Survey was formed, uniting the four separate surveys. Gilbert was then appointed Chief of the Great Basin Division, which embraces the vast semi-desert between the Sierra Nevada on the west and the Wasatch range on the east, the heart of which is Nevada and western Utah, precisely the shores that Lake Bonneville once lapped.

Tracing Lake Bonneville

His first business was to explore the geological evidence of this ancient lake, and so he promptly led two parties into the field, a topographical one under Gilbert Thompson, and a geological one with Israel Russell as assistant.

Standing in the sagebrush of the Basin floor, they could look eastwards to the wall of the Wasatch range and trace a horizontal line running along it, about a quarter of the way up. This striking feature was visible even from miles away, and marked the ancient shoreline of a once-immense lake. Closer inspection revealed a number of such shoreline remnants, beautifully preserved in the arid climate. These included cliffs and terraces, the remains of tributary deltas, sandbars, sedimentary deposits, wave-cut bedrock, and beaches in what had once been bays. As Gilbert worked it out, this lake occupied nearly 20,000 square miles–over ten times the size of Great Salt Lake, or nearly the size of Lake Michigan. The serrated ranges of the Basin had once been islands or peninsulas in a lake with a shoreline of at least 2,500 miles.

He traced all this out in his book, Lake Bonneville, reconstructing the lake’s probable history as a feature of the Ice Age. He also concluded that studying such fossil remnants was a better way of understanding lake dynamics than studying actual lakes. Other geologists found it mesmerizing, and the book became his second masterpiece. As a biographer would remark, “If the Henry Mountains had been a tour de force; Lake Bonneville was a summa.” It was “one of the consummate works of nineteenth-century American geology;” and Gilbert himself even hazarded to call it his magnum opus. He was now far and away the intellectual leader of his science.

The National Geographic Society

While he was working on Lake Bonneville, Gilbert found himself more and more confined to his office in Washington, and in January 1888 he arranged with the Cosmos Club that the group wishing to meet and discuss the possibility of forming a “society of geography” could use the Club’s Assembly Hall. Starting in the early 1890s he served on the new organization’s Board of Managers, attending its weekly meetings at the houses of presidents Gardiner Greene Hubbard or Alexander Graham Bell. He was one of the earliest chairmen of the Society’s research committee. Always a prolific contributor to encyclopedias and professional journals, Gilbert also published several articles in the new National Geographic Magazine, mostly on various aspects of physiography.

To the Moon…

In the early 1890s, Gilbert seemingly tossed off yet another far-reaching contribution–not to earth science this time, but rather to our understanding of the Moon.

Always interested in astronomy, he made use of the U.S. Naval Observatory while in Washington and through its telescope studied the Moon’s craters, then almost universally believed to be of volcanic origin. Gilbert concluded otherwise: he theorized that the craters were impact craters, perhaps the result of meteor strikes. He put forth this hypothesis, the first scientist ever to do so, in a 1893 paper, “The Moon’s Face, a study of the Origin of its Features,” which was published in a bulletin of the Philosophical Society of Washington and so, unfortunately, was little noticed by professional astronomers. It would lie there in obscurity until rediscovered in the 1960s, at which time it would be recognized as one of the most important papers ever written on the subject because, of course, he was right. Gilbert’s name would then be enshrined in that heaven of lunar studies, the surface of the moon itself, in Gilbert Crater, with the likes of Galileo, Hevelius, and Tycho Brahe, all great lunar pioneers. And this wasn’t even his field.

In March 1899, his wife died after a long struggle with illness. At 58, he found himself a lonely man, and for the rest of his life he had no fixed abode, rooming in Washington with C. Hart Merriam, with his brother at the Nutshell, or with his sister in Michigan. After Gilbert buried his wife, Clarence Dutton took him on a trip to Mexico. A few weeks later, Gilbert joined many of his scientific colleagues on the Harriman Alaska Expedition. He managed to enjoy himself tremendously, surveying nearly 40 glaciers, and producing the Harriman Alaska Expedition, Glaciers and Glaciation (volume 3 of the Harriman Report), and “The Glaciers of Alaska” for the November 1904 National Geographic Magazine.

Death continued to carry away relatives and friends. His brother died in 1901, and the Nutshell was lost; then in 1902 he received news that his greatest influence and benefactor, John Wesley Powell, had died. He had the sad honor of being Powell’s executor–in life he had always tidied up Powell’s spilling ideas, in death he now tidied up Powell’s small estate. He then wrote the first biographical memoir of that great man.

His activity in various professional organizations began to ebb, but just at this time he performed perhaps his greatest service to the National Geographic Society. In 1904, the Society’s president, W J McGee, resigned, and Gilbert, as vice president, agreed to succeed to the office.

He really agreed to be “acting president,” willing to serve only through the remainder of the year, and stepped down when new elections were held the following January. This was enough, however, because in 1904 the Society was hosting the International Geographical Congress in its first meeting on American soil. When that body eventually convened, Gilbert addressed it: “…the National Geographic Society, having its home at the seat of government, [includes] in its membership the official geographers of the nation, …on behalf of that society, I offer you a hearty welcome to our land and to our city.”

When finally released from this duty, Gilbert happily turned to what had become his last major professional interest, the Sierra Nevada of California. He had begun visiting the area at the turn of the century, in charge of a Geological Survey examination of hydraulic gold mining and its ruinous effect on the mountainsides. This investigation would eventually take over ten years; in the process, Gilbert came “to love every inch of the Sierras.”

At the University of California campus in Berkeley, he designed experiments to measure fluvial processes and sedimentation rates; but it was on pack trips into the mountains that he really thrived. An early member of the Sierra Club and friend of John Muir, Gilbert found the lush forests of the Sierras intoxicatingly different from the arid plains that had heretofore dominated his fieldwork. He studied glaciers and visited Yosemite. Occasionally Willard Johnson and a visiting Australian geologist named E.C. Andrews accompanied him. On these trips, Gilbert left a deep impression on younger colleagues. Though in his 60s, he was still tall and rangy, and his long beard, increasingly flecked with gray, lent him such an austere aspect that he was known affectionately as “Charlemagne.” At halts for refitting, he would amuse everyone by solving mathematical puzzles in his head; and at night, as they settled into their bedding, he would point out the various stars and constellations.

In the midst of these California projects, Gilbert had the great good fortune–for a geologist–of being in Berkeley when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck. Shaken out of bed, he caught the first ferry across the Bay to the burning wreck of San Francisco, taking copious notes all the while. He eventually published his observations, and his photograph of the dislocated San Andreas fault would become a staple in geology texts for decades.

Photo by G.K. Gilbert

Because his geology had the cogency of geometry, Gilbert had won enormous respect both in North America and Europe. In 1900, he became only the third American ever to be awarded the Wollaston medal of the London Geological Society. He was a member of virtually every important professional organization: the National Academy of Sciences, the American Society of Naturalists, the Geological Societies of America, Washington, and London, the Geographic Society of Berlin, the Association of American Geographers, and so on. Eventually the Royal Society in Great Britain made him a corresponding member.

But in March, 1909, when he was not quite 66, Gilbert suffered a stroke, and for a while it looked as if his career and life were ending. He was removed to his sister’s house in Michigan, where he insisted on dictating unfinished portions of his work from memory in case he died. He worked hard to improve, though, and was back in Washington by the fall. That December, the National Geographic Society honored its founder and former president by bestowing on him its Hubbard Medal, citing his “original investigations and achievements in physiographic research over a period of thirty years.” Gilbert did not attend the banquet, which was a lavish event dominated by Robert E. Peary, recently returned from the North Pole–big social events were probably still too much for him.

By 1911, though, his health seemed to be on the mend, and he returned to California periodically to resume work. By 1914, at 71 years old, he was even camping in the Wasatch Range in Utah, back in the Great Basin one last time hoping to unravel some of its still knotty problems (work eventually published posthumously as Studies of Basin-Range Structure. In 1916 and 1917, he even toured vast stretches of the West with Willard Johnson, but sadly relinquishing the “occidental mule,” they traveled by motorcar instead.

He had two more important books in him. In 1914, he published Transportation of Debris by Running Water, and in 1917 his final masterpiece, Hydraulic-Mining Debris in the Sierra Nevada. Forbidding titles: the former a quantitative summation of his thoughts and experiments on hydromechanics; the latter, essentially a biography of the Sacramento River system and the contrast between its natural and engineered states, was like nothing else Gilbert had previously written. It “easily belongs in the canon of progressive conservation literature,” according to a biographer. Not a prescription for land reform, it rather resembles what today is called an environmental impact study.

In 1918, as he was nearing 75 years old, Gilbert up and married again. Her name was Alice Eastwood; she was a botanist he had met through the Sierra Club and with whom he had fallen in love. Possibilities of new life glimmered, perhaps a home…But it was not to be. While visiting his sister in Michigan, Gilbert sickened and died on May 1, 1918.

Gilbert is widely considered the greatest of all American geologists, the central figure in one of the greatest of all American sciences. To Gilbert more than to anyone else–including Powell and Dutton–goes the credit for establishing the foundations of geomorphology, a theory of landscapes fully elaborated by William Morris Davis, a one-time member of the National Geographic Society’s Board of Managers. Gilbert’s influence on the U.S. Geological Survey was such that in 1979, the centenary of that institution’s founding, it established the G.K. Gilbert Fellowship.

He had always worked throughout the long hot afternoons while others napped in the shade. Asked once to describe the meaning of happiness, this quiet, genial, cerebral, serene man, observant and accommodating, inspiring and enormously influential in a broad range of fields–orthography, physiography, sedimentology, paleoclimatology, survey techniques, glacial studies, lunar studies, earthquakes, hydromechanics, geophysics, methodology and theory–could only write that, a portion of which opened this piece:

“…happiness is sitting under a tent with the walls uplifted, just after a brief shower, when most of the flies have quit lighting on the lobster-red wrists burnt during the morning ride, and gone off to see what the cook is going to do next….It is rising at 4:30, while Jupiter is still paley visible but there is no longer any temptation to hunt for the comet, taking a sponge bath in the open, breakfasting from off a box lid gaudily decked by a painted table cloth, and then sallying forth on the white horse Frank to study the limits of the alluvial veneering on the base-level mesas, measure the dips of rows of rusty nodules, sketch problematic buttes….It is going to bed by early candle light in the midst of a grove of Rhus tox, hunting the double stars near Lyrae and Cygni among the branches of overhanging cottonwoods, moralizing on the development of character through the trying associations of camp life, congratulating yourself that you are not a pessimist, and finally dropping off to sleep…”

It is–in a Nutshell–our captain bold in paradise.

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