Rare books can transport readers

Posted: Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Collecting rare books allows a person to walk back through history. A few years ago I bought the first Alaska Coast Pilot printed by the US Government Printing Office in 1869. It is a marvelously detailed description of our coastline. It also includes two wonderful prints of Sitka, lithographs produced by a noted artist, P.S. Duval of Philadelphia.

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It was written by George Davidson, perhaps one of the most famous scientists associated with the history of Alaska.

He was born in England in 1832 and came to America as a young boy. He came under the tutelage of a noted scientist and teacher, who was his high school principal. That man's name was Alexander Dallas Bache, the great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin.

In 1843, Bache became the director of the federal agency "the United States Coast Survey" and Davidson began his lifetime service.

He arrived in San Francisco in 1850 and began charting and describing the coasts of the Pacific from California to Alaska.

His academic record included association with the University of California, where he was professor at various times of astronomy and geodesy and of geography. Later he became a regent and professor emeritus. He was president of the California Academy of Sciences and the Geographical Society.

Recently I bought two other books that he wrote. He inscribed both as gifts to friends.

One was called the "Alaska Boundary"published in 1903 in San Francisco. It was underwritten by a famous Alaska fishing company called the Alaska Packers Association. It was this organization that sent the fleet of "Star" sailing ships to all parts of Alaska, bringing crews and supplies north in the spring and loads of canned salmon south in the late summer. The famous emblem of the Alaska Packers is affixed to the front page.

The "Alaska Boundary" gives the history of how from the early 1800's to the first decade of the 1900's the lines of our Southeastern home became defined.

Just a few days ago, I received from a bookseller in Victoria, British Columbia,"The Tracks and Landfalls of Bering and Chirikov on the Northwest Coast of America," privately printed by Davidson in 1901. His strong signature is on the title page.

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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