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Why is Alaska's busy Glenn Highway named after a torturer?

  • Author:
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published January 10, 2012

Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part series. Read part 2 here.

Many of Alaska's mountains, rivers, and other geographic features were named for people who never set foot in Alaska. Mount McKinley may be the best example. In 1897, a prospector named the peak after President William McKinley, because he was a champion of the gold standard -- and happened to be a distinguished son of Ohio. While most Alaskans prefer Denali, the Athabaskan name, Ohio's congressional delegation has sandbagged every attempt to rename the mountain.

But most of the time Alaskans don't know who named a prominent feature or why. Take the Glenn Highway, one of Alaska's busiest highways, named after Capt. Edwin F. Glenn.

In 1898 and 1899, Glenn commanded several expeditions along routes that later became four of Alaska's highways. In 1898 Seward was a town, but none of the other towns built along the Seward, Parks, Richardson, or Glenn highways -- including Anchorage, Fairbanks, Palmer, Wasilla, and Glennallen -- yet existed. Glennallen was named by merging the surnames of Glenn and Lt. Henry Allen, an earlier explorer of the Copper River valley.

Three years after leaving Alaska, Glenn became one of the few American officers to be tried and convicted of waterboarding or other war crimes. Most of the following is from Compilations of Narratives of Explorations in Alaska, Lt. Castner's Alaskan Exploration, 1898: A Journey of Hardship and Suffering, and Glenn's service records.

Glenn's first Alaska expedition

Before Canada's Klondike Gold Rush, miners were finding gold in placer deposits scattered along the Yukon River and some of its tributaries in Alaska. American miners were accessing the Alaska gold fields from Skagway and Juneau, but these mapped routes, via the headwaters of the Yukon River, were through Canada. The government wanted an all-Alaska route.

In 1898 the U.S. Geological Survey combined forces with the U.S. Army to explore potential transportation routes along the territory's large river valleys. Glenn was tasked with finding a route to interior Alaska up the Matanuska and Susitna rivers.

Glenn had graduated from West Point in 1877, the year after George Armstrong Custer's defeat on the Little Bighorn River. He was posted to the 25th Infantry Regiment, one of the famous "buffalo soldier" units -- with black enlisted men and white officers -- doing duty in Texas, Montana and the Dakotas. Apparently tiring of Indian fighting, Glenn cast about for ways to advance his career. He became a professor of military science and tactics at the University of Minnesota, where he also attended law school, from 1888 to the early 1890s. He wrote a book on international law, published in 1895. When he received orders in 1898 to lead an expedition to Alaska, he was with the Judge Advocate Corps, although still nominally affiliated with the 25th Infantry.

Glenn headed up Alaska's Inside Passage. His party, consisting mostly of soldiers from the 14th Infantry, stationed in Southeast Alaska, eventually numbered four officers, 22 enlisted men, and three civilians. The expedition was supposed to acquire 50 reindeer and their Lapp handlers in Haines. Congress had purchased the reindeer from Norway for the Army to use in relief expeditions to the upper Yukon, where tales of widespread food shortages were filtering back to the United States. Many of the reindeer had died in transit; the remainder nearly dead from a diet of hay. Glenn deemed the reindeer unsuitable for his needs and went looking for other pack animals.

He found a large assortment of army horses and mules in Dyea, but almost all of these animals were heading back to the United States. The U.S.S. Maine had been sunk in Havana harbor, and American newspapers and some politicians were agitating for war against Spain. Glenn obtained four mules and one horse considered "too worthless for transport."

Glenn was in Valdez on April 20 when President McKinley forwarded a joint resolution by Congress to Spain, which the Spaniards considered a declaration of war. At the first news of hostilities, Glenn and his officers asked to be reassigned to their units but received no response until the war was over. Glenn was still in Prince William Sound on June 22, when U.S. troops landed at Daiquiri, Cuba.

Glenn sent lieutenants Henry Learnard and Joseph Castner in several directions across the Kenai Peninsula, looking for road and railroad routes from the ice-free ports of Seward and Portage Bay, in Prince William Sound. After a fruitless search for feasible routes between Prince William Sound and Alaska's interior over the glacier-encrusted Chugach Mountains, Glenn moved his expedition's base into upper Cook Inlet. He then sent Learnard and several enlisted men by boat up the Susitna River, with orders to find a route to the Tanana River.

Blazing a trail up the Matanuska River

Some Athabaskans and Russians knew of a trade route between Cook Inlet and the Copper River. In 1885, Ahtna Indians on Tazlina Lake told Lt. Allen that Cook Inlet was a 12-day portage down the Matanuska River. Flour in an Ahtna settlement near the present location of Glennallen had been obtained from a trading post near the mouth of the Susitna River. But the future route of the Glenn Highway wasn't mapped.

Lt. Castner started up the Matanuska River with eight soldiers, two civilians and the five pack animals. His mission was to blaze a trail from Knik to the Yukon River, via the Copper River valley. Indians in Knik village, some of which had never seen a horse or mule, told Castner he'd never make it. They said he and his men would be confronted with blood-thirsty savages, huge bears, voracious mosquitoes, unfordable streams, impassable mountains, and monsters who left 12-foot-long footprints on muddy river banks -- all of which the Indians had seen.

By all accounts Castner had drawn a difficult assignment. The party had to hack its way through thick underbrush for 80 miles, and they were constantly pushing, pulling, and prying the pack animals out of bogs. In Turnagain Arm, Castner had found and hired the only white man to have been up the Matanuska River and lived to tell about it. Like the Indians, this guide was pessimistic about the party's prospects.

Castner characterized his men as "good, bad, and indifferent." Most were utterly disenchanted and wanted to quit. Complaining constantly, some actively conspired against Castner. When he overheard a man saying he'd throw a pack animal over a cliff at the first opportunity, Castner sentenced him to two weeks of bread and water, which, according to Castner, "caused him to lose considerable of the fat on his head."

Ironically, the punished soldier's diet wasn't much worse than that eaten by the rest of the party. Continually running out of food, Castner shuttled men and mules back and forth to Knik for more supplies. By the time he had reached the Matanuska Glacier, he realized that the returning men were eating most of the food carried by the pack animals before they could rejoin the rest of the party. He had too many men and too few pack animals. The solution was to send most of the men back to Cook Inlet. He also sent all the pack animals back for one last supply mission.

During this ordeal, Castner kept waiting for orders from Glenn to proceed beyond the headwaters of the Matanuska River. Glenn's last letter, in early July, had expressed a desire to return to the United States, and Glenn's subsequent silence led Castner to assume that's exactly what had happened. He decided if no orders were brought by the last resupply effort, he would forge on to the Yukon River without Glenn's permission. The season was getting late, and he had a long way to go. His commanding officer, meanwhile, was lingering in upper Cook Inlet, rarely out of sight of a boat. After his July letter, Glenn bought 25 horses and mules at Sunrise City, without official authorization, and decided to follow Castner into the mountains. His party left Knik a few days after Castner's last pack train headed up the Matanuska valley.

About three weeks earlier, on July 1, Col. Teddy Roosevelt had led the Rough Riders on a charge up San Juan Hill. Glenn's unit, the 25th Infantry, had captured a nearby hill to great public acclaim. The war in Cuba was almost over.

Castner's worn-out pack animals made remarkable progress on their return trip, 80 miles in five days. Glenn's party, equipped with "sleek" pack animals in Castner's words, was unable to catch up. Glenn sniped at the absent Castner in his journal: "I fear that Castner has departed from orders and has gone too far for me to overtake him." A couple of days later, Glenn wrote, "Castner will certainly kill all his stock at his present rate of travel." Not finding Castner at the headwaters of the Matanuska River, he finally concluded "It is of course useless to try to catch Castner," and veered off on a slightly different course across the Nelchina Basin.

On Aug. 12, the day the peace treaty was signed with Spain, Glenn was camped near the largest lake they had seen in Alaska. A week or so earlier, Castner had named the lake Adah, after a pretty girl he knew. Glenn renamed the lake Louise, after his wife.

As Glenn predicted, all but one of Castner's diseased and trail-worn pack animals died by the time he reached the Delta River. Grassy forage was scarce in much of Alaska, and frost-nipped grass was almost worthless nutritionally. Almost out of food again, Castner stopped to build a raft to float down the river. Glenn caught up with him here in late August, naming a nearby glacier after his prodigal lieutenant. During supper, Castner explained to Glenn why his drive to complete the mission wasn't insubordination. The supper consisted of Dall sheep and mule. Reaching a mutual understanding, both men also agreed that the mule was tastier than the sheep.

Two different ways of following orders

A week later Glenn took all but two of the men and retraced their trail to Cook Inlet, arriving in late September. He remained in Cook Inlet for about a month, and half of his 1898 journal is devoted to the gossip circulating among the local civilians. He often admired the ladies he encountered. Like the captain of the Starship Enterprise, Glenn was seeking out new life and new civilizations. But he was not boldly going where no man has gone before.

His doppelganger, Castner, took the two enlisted men and two of Glenn's relatively sleek mules and struck out down the Delta River toward the expedition's objective. After reaching Circle City, they planned to catch a stern-wheeler to the mouth of the Yukon, followed by a steamer to the United States.

Reality intervened. Both mules were dead in less than two weeks, and misleading directions left the men without food in nearly impassable mountains between the Tanana and Yukon rivers. It was October. Their summer clothes were rotting off their backs, they were sleeping on the ground without blankets, their shoes had worn out and they were hiking in stockings. They shot a wolf and ate it. Finally, they stumbled across a group of Tanana Indians who fed and cared for them, and then ferried them in canoes to the confluence of the Tanana and Yukon rivers. Castner credited the Indians with saving their lives.

But the last steamer of the season had gone downriver. Castner believed his maps and other information would be invaluable to any follow-up expedition in 1899, and didn't relish marking time on the Yukon River until breakup. He resolved to leave his two men at a military post at Rampart and return to the United States by dog team. He bought a dog team and sled and hired a Canadian to take him to Skagway via Dawson City. This added 1,300 miles to the 700 miles or more that he had already trekked. They arrived in Skagway in late February 1899. His commanding officer had caught a steamer out of Cook Inlet and returned to Washington state three months earlier.

Glenn’s second Alaska expedition

Glenn was ordered to mount a second expedition in 1899, with essentially the same objectives as the first. Lt. Castner was not a member of the 1899 expedition. He was replaced by Lt. Joseph Herron. Herron and his men also labored under Glenn's peculiar brand of leadership.

In late May, Glenn dispatched Herron with three men, dogs, sleds, snowshoes, and other gear to explore a route from Portage Bay to Knik, via the headwaters of the Twentymile River, Crow Pass, and Eagle River. Glenn's men had mapped a much easier route over the low pass between Portage Bay and Portage Lake in 1898. In his report, Herron alluded to the inanity of his assignment "to explore a supposititious local route." Disembarking on the beach across the bay from the present location of Whittier, Herron found no snow for the sleds. He left two men with the dogs and most of the gear on the beach. He found the going difficult, post-holing through soft snow in the pass to Carmen Lake, taking so long to get to Turnagain Arm that he gave up on the bulk of his mission and hitched a boat ride down the inlet to Fire Island, where he met Glenn. Several weeks later Herron was able to charter a boat around the Kenai Peninsula to rescue his remaining men. Left for a month with insufficient rations, the two men had survived by digging clams at low tides, shooting a goose with a revolver, and eating dog food.

Next, Glenn sent Herron and several men to find a route from Cook Inlet to the Tanana River via the headwaters of the Kuskokwim River. Like Castner in 1898, Herron got a late start, but doggedly pursued his objective. Unable to feed his pack horses with winter coming on strong, he abandoned them, was rescued by a party of Athabaskans near Lake Minchumina, and completed his mission on snowshoes in December, more than five months after leaving Cook Inlet.

Once again, after dispatching several expeditions inland, two of them inexplicably led by a civilian and a private, Glenn rarely left the settlements in upper Cook Inlet. Instead, he complained about his subordinates in his journal -- remarking, for example, that the Susitna River expedition turned back a few miles up the Tanana River after "its members saw a comparatively insignificant swamp ahead of them." He returned to the United States in November 1899.

Perhaps I'm being a little too hard on Glenn. Morgan Sherwood, in his book Exploration of Alaska: 1865-1900, concluded the Army was the wrong agency for exploring Alaska. The 1898 and 1899 expeditions under the U.S. Geological Survey -- with fewer men, less red tape, and clear scientific goals -- were much more successful. Army expeditions typically employed too many men and, unlike the scientists, the enlisted men were often more interested in surviving the experience than gaining useful information. The Army considered the impending war with Spain a much higher priority than exploring a remote territory. But Sherwood also believed part of the fault was Glenn's.

In March 1900 Glenn was sent to the Philippine Islands. A year after his return from the second Alaska expedition, Glenn committed the act that resulted in his court martial for torture.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact Rick Sinnott at rick(at)

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