Belmore Browne, 1880-1954

Publication Year: 1955.



Artist, explorer, mountaineer, and great exponent of northern outdoor living and wilderness travel, Belmore Browne, a member since 1913 and later honorary member of the Club, died May 2, 1954, after a short illness, while still very much at the peak of his professional career. After four months’ work, he had just completed a painting in oils of the background for a new black bear exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston and was making the preliminary sketches for a background of one of his favorite subjects, the Alaskan brown bear, for the Peabody Museum at Yale, when death from cancer came only a few weeks before his 74th birthday.

Belmore Browne will be remembered by those who knew him well for the exceptional kind of man he was, and by those who only knew of him, for his early rugged journeys in Alaska, culminating in the 1912 expedition from Seward, on the coast, 400 miles to the north side of Mt. McKinley in the dead of winter. These journeys are recounted in his book The Conquest of Mount McKinley, a classic of mountaineering literature. The man’s human qualities, his strength, his love of the outdoors, his modesty, and much that he was is clearly recorded in this book, written when he was 33. Less well known perhaps is the fact that it was he who with his companions in 1910 were able to secure proof of the falsity of Cook’s claim to have ascended Mt. McKinley in 1906. Cook’s claim regarding the North Pole was never so clearly disproved as his McKinley claim, but when pressed, he was never able to produce any positive proofs of either claim.

Belmore was a quiet spoken, friendly man who, though not easily aroused, could become very forceful on the subject of Dr. Cook and Mt. McKinley, for he knew Cook well from having been with him in the spring and summer of 1906, a few weeks prior to the alleged ascent.

Belmore Browne was born at Thompkinsville, Staten Island, New York, of well-to-do parents. The next year he was taken to Europe where for six years his summers were spent in Switzerland or on the Italian Lakes. In 1888 the family traveled to the Northwest and to Alaska, and in 1889 settled in Tacoma, where Browne’s father became engaged in the lumber business. Belmore and his two brothers were sent east to private schools. His outdoor instincts cropped up in various ways at school. He trapped, hunted, and got in a scrape cutting down trees and building a cabin in nearby woods, not realizing that such activities were more restricted in the East. After passing his college entrance examinations, he was forced by business reverses of his father’s, as a result of a real estate panic, to return to Tacoma and go to work in the family lumber company at $30 a month. He then returned east for two years, studying art, and working on a friend’s sailboat in the summers. Still later, in 1902, after working for some time on a ranch east of the Cascades, he went to Alaska as a hunter and young artist on an expedition of the American Museum of Natural History to the Cassiar region of British Columbia. On this trip he accompanied Andrew J. Stone, after whom the bighorn sheep (ovis stonei) were later named. A ride down the Stikine in Chief Tlingit’s great war canoe so impressed him that many years later he painted “The Chief’s Canoe,” which now hangs in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.

In 1903 he went to the Kenai for hunting and sketching and again to the Cassiar in 1905. On the Canadian Pacific train crossing the Rockies that year he met Professor Herschel C. Parker of Columbia. They talked mountains and Alaska, and it developed that they both wanted to go to Mt. McKinley, which had been named only ten years before. In 1906 Parker and Dr. Frederick A. Cook joined forces and Belmore was invited to go with them. This journey from Cook Inlet up the Yentna River by boat and packhorse was the first of three attempts to reach and climb the great mountain. The second came in 1910, by boat up the Susitna and Chulitna Rivers to what is now known as Ruth Glacier and to its head at the foot of the southeast ridge of the McKinley massif. In 1912, the dog-sled journey took them from Seward on the coast, past Turnagain and Knik Arms, up the Susitna and Chulitna again, but on the winter ice, across the Alaska range, then up Muldrow Glacier, and finally up the slopes of Mt. McKinley itself, to within a few hundred almost horizontal feet of the summit. Browne and LaVoy would almost certainly have reached the highest piont had they not turned back with Parker who was no longer able to face the wind and cold. Stuck’s party in 1913 is technically credited with the first ascent of McKinley, but Belmore Browne’s party had found the way to the summit and up it. Bates and Washburn in 1942 took pictures along the summit ridge, in the reverse direction of some of those in Browne’s book, and they and he agree that he had been within a few minutes’ easy walking distance of the top in 1912.

The three expeditions to Mt. McKinley, in 1906, 1910, and particularly 1912, were without question the most arduous journeys up to that time or for that matter anywhere in the mountains of North America, not excepting that to Mt. Logan in 1925.

With such extensive wilderness experience behind him, Belmore went home in 1913 to marry an old friend, Agnes Sibley of Philadelphia, and then live for four years in New York. A daughter Evelyn and a son George were born there. In 1917 he had the satisfaction of seeing Mount McKinley National Park created. After short service in the first war as captain in the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps, he returned to civilian life and the family moved to Banff.

The house which they built there from a small beginning on the main street, between the town and the Banff Springs Hotel, became well known to many friends of the Brownes and to summer visitors. For about 25 years it was their real home. In 1947 they moved to Seebe, just at the edge of the mountains east of Banff, where not so many people could find them but where a log house in a clearing five miles south of the railroad enabled Belmore to have his horses nearby and live more as he had in the earlier days.

For years Belmore and his son George were inseparable companions on the trail in the Canadian Rockies, always handling their own pack train and camping in many upland valleys where they painted well into the fall each year. In our 1941 Journal, in an illustrated article entitled “Paintbrush on the Heights,” Belmore has explained something of his philosophy and urge to paint in the mountains.

In the early thirties his winters were spent in Santa Barbara where he became Director of the Santa Barbara School of Art. From 1938, the winters were spent at Ross, north of Golden Gate, when he was not working elsewhere. Just before the last war he was commissioned to paint several backgrounds for big- game exhibits in the North American Hall of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The Kodiak bear, mountain goat, elk, caribou, mountain sheep (ovis dali), and other big game all stand now in front of the backgrounds so well created by him and his son.

During World War II Belmore, then in his early sixties, became Air Force instructor in survival procedures, conducting schools in the high mountains of Colorado. He said once that this work, which he hoped would save lives, was much the most satisfactory type of war service. He made a great success with his pleasing personality and his complete mastery of his subject, at once obvious to all who were fortunate enough to benefit by his instruction. Even after the war he was kept at this work at McCall, Idaho, and elsewhere, because, as he said, most men these days know little of even the most elementary facts about outdoor existence, and crews of planes downed in remote places may at any moment find themselves wholly dependent upon themselves while awaiting rescue. Directly and indirectly, he taught many thousands of men the simple but essential things necessary for wilderness survival.

The Brownes were a very close and happy family. Belmore had the satisfaction of seeing his son follow in his footsteps and his daughter become a teacher of physical education at a New Hampshire college. George himself had two children, including a son named for his grandfather.

Belmore Browne was one of the last of the pioneer north-woods travelers who remained active right up to the end. It has been said that he was the ideal of what an explorer and mountaineer should be. His early years in Europe, the school years in the East, and his years in the Northwest, exploring, climbing, traveling by early means, and painting, had all combined to develop in him quiet strength, modesty, charm, and skills which we may not soon again see duplicated in one individual.

Henry S. Hall