, Newburyport, MA

October 10, 2013

National Geographic's birthday and its local connections

As I See It
Joe Callahan

---- — This month’s issue of National Geographic magazine marks the 125th anniversary of the prestigious publication published by the National Geographic Society.

There are at least two persons with Newburyport connections associated with the magazine. One was a native son who authored a feature in the very first issue. The other, the son of a Newburyport native, is responsible for the success of the magazine over the years.

In the October 1888 issue, Newburyport native and famous Arctic explorer Maj. Gen. Adolphus Greely wrote a feature story entitled “The Great Storm of March,” which was about the blizzard of March 1888.

Greely was in charge of the U.S. Weather Service in Washington, D.C., at the time of the storm, which remains one of the most severe storms on record to strike the Eastern Seaboard. Three to four feet of snow accompanied by near-zero temperatures and strong winds fell on New York and most of New England. Well over 400 people perished, 200 in New York City alone, as well as over 100 at sea. Damage was in the millions.

Greely’s article spoke of the loss of life and the damage inflicted on the region. He also strongly recommended a series of telegraphic signal stations at points along the coast to give warnings of approaching storms.

Surprisingly, the first few years of the magazine’s publication did not bring very good success. By 1899 the magazine had a monthly circulation of only about 1,000 and there were deep financial problems and the future did not look promising.

At this time Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, was the president of the National Geographic Society. Bell was deeply concerned about the future of the magazine and he decided to appoint his son-in-law to the position of editor. Bell’s son-in-law happened to be Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, who was teaching school in New Jersey and was married to Bell’s daughter, Elsie.

Gilbert Grosvenor was the son of Newburyport native Edwin A. Grosvenor, who was a professor of history and international law at Amherst College and had previously taught at Robert College in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey, where Gilbert was born in 1875. Gilbert’s grandfather was a well-known physician in Newburyport.

When Gilbert took over as editor, his first major innovation was to start using more photography, which up until that time had not been used very much in magazine publications. He soon began sending writers and photographers to different parts of the world and they returned with spectacular photos and amazing stories that soon captured the attention of readers across the country. As everybody knows, that innovation has lasted for over a century now. Gilbert Grosvenor then became known as the father of photojournalism.

In 1920 Gilbert became president of the society and he held both positions until his retirement in 1954. At that time the circulation had reached 4.5 million and the magazine had capital in the millions. Today’s circulation is 9 million and the magazine is published in 32 languages around the world.

Gilbert Grosvenor died on Feb. 4, 1966, at Baddeck, Nova Scotia, at the age of 90. He was succeeded as editor by his son, Melville. The current issue lists two of his descendants as members of the board of trustees.

Back to Gen. Greely. In 1923 the National Geographic Society commissioned a bronze tablet to be placed at Camp Clay on Cape Sabine, 800 miles north of the Arctic Circle. This was the site where 18 members of Greely’s expedition perished in 1884. The tablet was dedicated to these men and was attached to a rock there by Capt. Donald MacMillan, another Arctic explorer and friend of Gen. Greely.


Joe Callahan is a former fire chief of Salisbury who is interested in historical accounts of the area.