A Legend in His Own Mind

by Christine Jerome | History

Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. In 2005, Christine Jerome recounted the wild tale of an Adirondack writer turned arctic explorer.

In April 1908 subscribers
to Woods and Waters received a letter from twenty­-eight-year-old editor Harry V. Radford datelined North Creek, “the one spot of all the world to which I am most devotedly attached.” After a sixteen-month hiatus, he announced, he was shutting down his magazine: “Its editing and publishing was for eight years a matter of sheer love,” he wrote, but of late “the conviction has overtaken me that I have, or ought to have, out­grown the magazine and the old lines of en­deavor …. While the Adirondacks remain­—and, doubtless, will always remain—my favorite haunt, I feel a desire … to travel more extensively than ever before, and to see as much of the world as possible while I still have youth in my favor. Accordingly … early next year I hope to commence a tour of the world. I shall then have lived nearly three years in delightful retirement upon an Adirondack farm.”

Although Radford inflated its accomplishments, Woods and Waters did achieve considerable success. It began life as a newsletter for the Tanawadeh Outing Club, which had been formed in 1896 by three teenage boys who enjoyed annual camping trips. Brash, energetic, ebul­lient, Radford was the moving spirit of the enterprise. “Whoop wha!” he wrote a friend as a clubhouse was being considered. “Who says a few good fellows who appreciate our splendid object cannot build up an orga­nization that in time will make itself known and felt far and wide?” Eventually a dozen young men were involved in club activities, and in 1898 the newsletter became a professional periodical based at 212 East 105th Street, in Manhattan. In its first year the size of the modest publi­cation quadrupled. Thereafter the roster of contributors and columns grew steadily, associate editors were added, and photographs and advertisements proliferated. In spring 1900 circulation was two thousand; by August 1905 Radford was claiming “it reaches over 20,000” (most like­ly “pass-along” readership rather than actual subscrip­tions) in the United States and abroad.

An inveterate traveler, Radford used his magazine to chronicle his journeys to North Carolina, Idaho, Alberta, British Columbia and Cuba (where he asked a young man what game he hunted, but “the poor fellow could not speak English”), supplying photographs as well as text. It also served as his bully pulpit for conservation. He called for more state and national parks, removal of all bounties on wildlife, prohibiting the killing of birds for the feather trade and saving the buffalo. Closer to home, he promoted Adirondack businesses and guides, and campaigned vociferously for closed seasons on bear. His most energetic efforts involved restoration of species that had been depleted or were extinct in the Adirondacks, namely beaver and moose (and elk, in the mistaken notion that they had been indigenous). For these schemes he lobbied Albany in person and in print, ulti­mately prying several appropriations out of the legisla­ture. The beaver releases, initially in the Old Forge area and then farther north, were successful; the moose and elk projects failed, thanks largely to pot hunters, train traffic and ignorance of elk habitat requirements.

Originally subtitled “The Official Organ of the Tan­awadeh Outing Club,” by spring 1903 Woods and Waters had become “An Illustrated Magazine of Out-of-Door Sport and Recreation”; later it was designated “A Wild Life Magazine.” Early issues contained a bicycling col­umn called “Wheeling,” and cover art tended to be any photograph at hand (“Hindoo Woman in Full Dress”). To fill space the editor picked up articles from other maga­zines or printed poems and laudatory mail from adver­tisers. “Questionable” ads were shunned: “[W]e intend to keep [the magazine] free from any coarseness what­ever, that it may always be a welcome visitor at any decent home.” The Winter 1902-03 issue reprinted an Adiron­dack essay by Leonidas Hubbard Jr., who shared with Radford a form of romantic idealism common to their place and time. Within a year Hubbard would starve to death in Labrador, a victim of overconfidence, inexperi­ence, misjudgment and rotten luck. Harry Radford’s demise a decade later and much farther north can be attributed to similar failings, though in the final analysis it was his ungovernable temper that killed him, as sure­ly as the Inuit snow knife buried in his back.

Harry Vincent Radford was born in Manhattan in 1880 and was quite young when his parents separated. An only child, he lived in a comfortable brownstone with his doting mother and spent idyllic summers with her in the Adirondacks. He fell in love with the outdoors and dreamed of becoming an explorer like his hero Sir Henry Stanley, whose African exploits fired his imagination. Young Harry was a staunch Catholic educated by the Christian Brothers at De La Salle Institute and then at Manhattan College, where he edited the student news­paper, belonged to the glee and mandolin clubs, and grad­uated with a master’s of science in 1901. Affluent enough to indulge his curiosity about the Continent, he spent several postgrad months in Italy but asserted that the Adirondacks was just as beautiful. In 1906 he returned to his alma ma­ter to earn an advanced degree in civil engineering with a thesis titled “The Artificial Preservation of Timber,” which described timber rot, borers and the creosoting pro­cess. That year he founded, with six undergraduates, the fraternity Alpha Sigma Beta, which survives to this day.

Traveling, editing, writing, photographing, assigning articles and selling space in his magazine while attending college seems not to have exhausted Radford’s energies. He also sold stories to other periodicals, including Field and Stream, which in its June 1901 issue named him edi­tor of its new Adirondack Department. He was twenty-­one. In those pages too, Radford lobbied for conservation and touted his species restoration projects. When he wasn’t off in the woods he was giving speeches and inter­views, and he belonged to many organizations, including the Guild of Catholic Authors, the De La Salle alumni association, the Arctic Club and the American Geograph­ical Society. In addition he was secretary of the Canadian Camp, which held an annual game dinner (its 1906 menu included puree of Labrador mink courtesy of Dillon Wal­lace, a survivor of the Leonidas Hubbard expedition, whose address just then was “somewhere in Ungava”).

Along the way, Radford found a friend and father fig­ure in W. H. H. “Adirondack” Murray, the genial former clergyman and author whose 1869 paean to the Adiron­dacks, Adventures in the Wilderness, had precipitated a tourist stampede into the region. Field and Stream dubbed Radford “the ‘Adirondack’ Murray of To-day,” and soon people were calling him “Adirondack Harry.” ln the Au­tumn 1904 issue of Woods and Waters, shortly after Mur­ray’s death, Radford wrote a fond sketch of his friend that he expanded into a book published the following year. A slim volume, Adirondack Murray: A Biographical Appre­ciation was padded with a pages-long footnote and a reprinted review of one of Murray’s books by an uniden­tified “old Adirondacker in the West.” It omitted signif­icant eras of his subject’s life, including the catastrophic financial reverses that had altered its trajectory. Although Murray had asked his young friend to be his biographer, the two had never gotten around to the interviews that would have permitted a comprehensive work.

The rushed quality of the Murray hagiography can also be attributed to Radford’s constant presence at his moth­er’s bedside during her final illness. According to histo­rian Alfred Donaldson, “From this gentle soul Harry drew the saving grace of his self-assertive character—a child-like innocence and lovableness that seeped through and softened his aggressive faults …. His affection for his mother was his anchor to windward. It was the one re­straining influence in his life.” In a July 1907 tribute in Sportsmen’s Review, noted outdoorsman and editor Charles Hallock reported on his young friend’s loss. “Malignant cancer unsuspected carried the mother off between two months …. The domestic calamity fell; his business plans and connections were broken up; his house uptown was razed to give place to a skyscraper … and the blight was over all. … But the coming fall will develop some plan of systematic pursuit …. He has a kindly face, a fine physique, a strong religious sense, and no end of heroism and endurance. His gallantry and graces are inherited from the chevaliers.”

A more sober view of Radford was offered by Father Talbot Smith, who had advised the young man on his publishing venture. “He made his way into every circle, had his own opinions about everything from capitalism down, usually had the wrong view, and held to it in the face of the world…. After studying the lives of great ex­plorers he discovered that press publicity has much to do with the art of exploration, and therefore he sought the limelight with the eagerness of a theatrical celebrity…. He was a good boy, and readily admitted the swelled head. I warned him often that this defect was most seri­ous and would wreck the planned enterprises…..Vainly I tried to tell him that his dream of exploration and consequent fame must depend on fine qualities, finer than he then possessed, but which in time he might pos­sess. He laughed at me. All one had to do was to go ahead and win.”

His mother’s death freed Radford to indulge his wan­derlust in more remote latitudes. After trips to Labrador and the Pacific Northwest, he began rounding up support for an expedition to the barrenlands of northern Canada, in present-day Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. He promoted himself to museums as a source of zoolog­ical specimens and assiduously drummed up publicity for his venture. Said an acquaintance named James Walsh, “His thirst for fame is very well illustrated by his interview  with a reporter for a New York paper the evening before he started…. He put the pedal down firmly on all that he would have to suffer on the trip, telling that he would have nothing but raw meat and fish to eat and be absolutely devoid of human companionship. I can just imagine how he must have rolled out that expressive phrase.” He left North Creek for the last time early in 1909.

Radford’s bumptious personality did not  wear well in the far north. In Smithsonian magazine, arctic journalist Lawrence Millman tells of “a celebrated joke at his ex­pense. In summer 1909 he was a passenger on an Atha­basca River steamer [whose] captain had grown a bit weary of Radford’s portrayal of himself as a Great White Hunter. One day Captain Barber suddenly pointed to a large bear on the shore. Radford stalked this bear and, upon getting close, emptied his rifle into it, only to dis­cover it was a wooden frame dressed in an old fur coat and rigged on a rope and pulley.” A more ominous assess­ment of the young man came from a mining engineer who encountered him twice, at Fort Resolution and later at Fort Norman, west of Great Bear Lake. Radford, he noted, had “a quick temper.”

“Radford’s dream of fame  must have seemed within reach when in the area west of the Slave River he discovered a herd of wood bison, a relative of the plains buf­falo thought by U.S. scientists to be extinct. To the indig­nation of local Indians, who were forbidden to hunt them, he was issued a permit to kill one and bagged an enor­mous specimen of 2,402 pounds, said to be the largest ever felled. After posing with his trophy, he had the skin sent to an Edmonton museum and the skeleton to the National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) in Washington, D.C.

Just when he conceived of his  ambitious trek across the tundra—from Great Slave Lake to Hudson Bay, then north to Bathurst Inlet and from there west along the Arc­tic coast to the Yukon Territory and south to Dawson—is unclear. But by the spring of 1911 he had recruited an assistant, an affable twenty-two-year-old Ottawan named George Street who was renowned for his strength and bush savvy. Street had been working for a government survey party exploring northern Saskatchewan and Alber­ta. Overwintering at Fort Smith, on the Slave River, he encountered Radford and decided to cast his lot with the thirty-one-year-old New Yorker. Before they set out, how­ever, Radford required him to sign a contract that has raised eyebrows ever since. In it, Street promised not to keep a journal (thus guaranteeing Radford’s version of events for future publication); that if food became scarce he would receive less than his half share; that he would defend his companion even at risk to his own life. Whether Street had qualms about this arrangement isn’t known, but the two set off on June 27, 1911, in an eighteen-and-a-half-foot Peterborough canoe named Hope. They reached Great Slave Lake with­out incident and from there turned east. By July 9, accord­ing to Millman, they had already collected sixty-seven mammals and twenty-two birds.

“A half breed and one Indian accompanied us as far as Artillery Lake,” Radford reported. “We had a heavy load of supplies for a two years’ residence in the Barrens and the Arctic, since I could not be sure that the relief sup­plies which I had requested … would reach their desti­nation.” At Artillery Lake he recruited two Yellowknife Indians to help the expedition through the Clinton–Cold­en Lakes and down the Hanbury River to its junction with the Thelon. After a few weeks these Indians desert­ed in the night; months later they turned up at Fort Res­olution complaining that they had been worked like dogs.

Concurrently with the desertion, Radford infected a fin­ger with the arsenic used for his specimens, and soon his whole arm was useless. Street performed heroically, portaging half a ton of gear over numerous carries, handling the boat alone in heavy rapids and cleaning his­ boss’s wound, which at last began to heal.

The Radford-Street expedition reached Chesterfield Inlet, on Hudson Bay, on September 30, too late in the season for travel north. After locating relief supplies shipped north by the Arctic Club, they backtracked to Schultz Lake and wintered with local Inuit, whose head­man, Akulack, saw to their needs. Before spring arrived Radford had precipitated two confrontations with local men, one involving a soured transaction in which he chased and threatened the seller, the other in which he pointed his rifle at a guide who demanded compensa­tion to support his family while he was away. Akulack defused the latter situation by agreeing to accompany the party, and on March 26, 1912, he and two other Inuit set off with the white men and two heavily loaded sleds pulled by twenty-two dogs. By this time Radford and Street had been given Inuit names: the former was lshu­matok (“the one who does the thinking,” or leader), the latter Kiuk (“wood,” for his strength).

Plentiful game helped the party move swiftly, and by early June they had crossed the Arctic Circle and reached Bathurst Inlet. On June 5, Akulack departed with a letter for the Hudson Bay trader back at Chesterfield Inlet, ­reporting a good reception by the Inuit at North Quadyuk Island, in the inlet’s southern reaches. Once the Schultz Lake guides left them, the whites and Inuit could com­municate only by signs. These people lived a more prim­itive existence than Akulack’s band and had almost no experience of white men, though they were unanimous later in describing Radford as “bad” and “always mad” and Street as “good.” In the couple of weeks he spent with this group, Radford was embroiled in a dispute with an individual named Kaneak that resulted in lingering ill will. Unfortunately, Kaneak was to be one of his two guides for the next stage, to the west.

Inuit mark time by seasons, not days, so the timeline here is conjectural. But about June 12, with both sleds loaded and the first disappearing around a point, Kaneak informed Radford that his wife had hurt herself in a fall and he could not leave her. Understanding only the refusal to proceed, an incensed Radford began shouting and beat­ing Kaneak on the head and face with a dog whip. He then dragged him to open water and threatened to throw him in, Street, meanwhile, trying to pull his partner off. Convinced their comrade was about to be killed, two Inuit rushed up and one held Radford while the other stabbed him three times in the back. As Radford lay on the ice still alive, his assailant slit his throat to end his suffering. See­ing this, Street ran toward the sled, either to flee or grab his rifle. Alarmed, two other Inuit caught him and knifed him as well. He died immediately. The bodies were cov­ered with caribou skins and left on the ice. The follow­ing day the band broke camp and moved south, sending runners to tell Akulack what had happened. Some time later, a group returned and threw Radford and Street’s remains into the sea. As for their effects, what the practi­cal Inuit couldn’t use they discarded.

It was a full year before Akulack returned to Ches­terfield Inlet on Hudson Bay with the news. The New York Times had been following the expedi­tion, but word trickled out so slowly that three months after Radford’s death the paper was just reporting his bison discovery. Finally, on Septem­ber 10, 1913, came the page-one re­port: “Explorer Radford Killed by Eskimos.”

The full story took much longer to unravel. In 1914 the Royal Northwest Mounted Police launched a formal investigation that, because of the remote site and inhospitable climate, spanned four years and cost more than seventy thousand dollars, rough­ly $1.2 million today. The setbacks and privations encountered during several attempts to travel the four hundred miles from Chesterfield Inlet to Bathurst Inlet are a story in itself, a saga of implacable weather and near-starvation. When Inspector F. H. French reached the inlet the two Inuit assailants were away hunt­ing, but interviews with many mem­bers of the band revealed a consistent story. “We did not want to kill the white men but we could not under­stand them and thought they were going to kill us,” said a man who was present at the fracas. Said another, “We did not want to have any trouble with the white men, and if the white men would have spoken our lan­guage, I do not think it would have happened as we want to have the white man come and trade with us.”

Inspector French’s opinion was blunt. “Mr. Radford used very little discretion or judgment in handling these natives when trying to obtain their services. He appears at all times to have used rough methods all along his route of travel from Chesterfield Inlet, as I have heard stories of previ­ous occurrences of a similar nature.” Elsewhere the police file noted, “Ev­eryone who came into contact with Mr. Radford has stated that his manner in dealing with the natives was most overbearing and injudicious and that they are not surprised at his meeting his end in the way he did.”

The official conclusion was that the murders were self-defense. The Inuit acted “in accordance with the custom of their tribe,” which was, as the Chesterfield Inlet trader H. H. Hall explained, “that all quarrels and dis­putes are generally settled by the death of one of the combatants.”

“A man’s character,” Heraclitus said, “is his fate.” Harry Radford’s temper, combined with lack of re­spect for his Inuit hosts and igno­rance of their language and customs, conspired to cost him and his more circumspect assistant their lives. In October 1915 his estate was assessed at $53,683 (now about $950,000). Street’s family received $2,986, the compensation stipulated in that odd contract; the rest went to assorted Radford relatives. In a touching ges­ture ten years after the murders, the man who killed George Street ex­pressed his regret by sending the Ottawan’s family a handsome set of white fox furs. Eventually the Streets placed a plaque near the site of the murders in memory of their lost one, “who died going to the aid of his friend.”

As for Harry Radford, few traces of him remain in his beloved Adiron­dacks. On a plaque beside Route 28N near Newcomb that commem­orates Teddy Roosevelt’s midnight ride is the inscription: “Erected 1908 and Presented to the Town of New­comb by H. V. Radford.” The Adi­rondack Museum and the Adiron­dack Collection of the Saranac Lake Free Library have issues of Woods and Waters, along with yellowed newspa­per and magazine clippings and a few pieces of correspondence. Historians in North Creek were surprised to hear he’d lived in their town and have found no record of his farm. His most lasting memorial is Castor can­adensis, the numerous descendants of the beaver whose cause he so ardent­ly championed.

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