From the U to the Pacific Ocean
Botanist Josephine Tilden, the U’s first female scientist, established the Minnesota Seaside Station on Vancouver Island in 1901. The station was short-lived, but Tilden’s legacy endures.
Wet to the skin, her skirt soaked, breathless with excitement, Josephine Tilden first scrambled ashore on Vancouver Island’s Botanical Beach on August 4, 1898. The swells of the open Pacific Ocean almost swamped her rowboat. She had little food, no shelter, no means of contacting the outside world. Tilden couldn’t have been happier. She remained on the rocky, exposed beach for four days in the pouring rain, avidly collecting marine algae from the intertidal zone and the deep, brilliant tidal pools pockmarking the sandstone. Here, she had discovered a beach exceeding her wildest dreams.
To reach this remote destination, 29-year-old Tilden (B.S. 1895, M.S. 1896) traveled by train from Minnesota with her mother—young women rarely traveled alone at that time. They stayed in Victoria, British Columbia, where Tilden sought advice from ship captains and fishermen. She heard of a distant beach glowing with fabulous tidal pools on the far-flung west coast of the island, and decided to see for herself.
She and her mother disembarked from a small steamer at the settlement of Port Renfrew, about 60 miles northwest of Victoria. Local settler Tom Baird rowed them along the treacherous coastline to land at Tilden’s coveted shore where, on a stretch of coast famed for shipwrecks and storms, she decided to establish a seaside research station for students from the Midwest.
Tilden never feared a challenge. This determined botanist from the University of Minnesota—its first female scientist—had already overcome opposition from her department in declaring she would pursue the little-known study of Pacific marine algae. She then convinced the U to allow her to establish the Minnesota Seaside Station on the Pacific coast, some 2,000 miles away, to rival similar stations on the Atlantic coast.
Her powers of persuasion must have been astonishing. Remarkably, the U agreed—but only to provide instructors and equipment, no funds. Money came from Tilden herself, from her staunch supporter Professor Conway MacMillan, head of the Department of Botany, and from fees paid by students. Tilden’s determination also greatly impressed Baird. He gave Tilden four acres of his newly acquired land at Botanical Beach for the research station—an extraordinary gesture. Set in virgin rainforest, the patch of land overlooked a wide sandstone beach pitted with countless tidal pools—some large enough to bathe in. A rocky headland bordered the property, with a large natural amphitheater where students staged plays and ceremonies and attended talks.
Construction of the Seaside Station buildings began early in 1901: first a large log building with a kitchen, living area, and dormitories; then a small laboratory near the shore. A two-story botanical laboratory later completed the station. Given the immense difficulty of access, with small boats only sometimes able to land near the site, the logistical challenges of construction were immense. Photographs show huge stumps standing on Tilden’s property; the wood was likely used in construction, accomplished with the assistance of Baird and other locals.
Each summer from 1901 to 1907, groups of students and instructors ventured to Vancouver Island from Minnesota, Ohio, Nebraska, and elsewhere. They traveled by train, marveling at the vast landscapes and high mountains. Many had never seen the ocean before arriving in Seattle, where they caught a boat to Victoria. The steamer Queen City bore them farther northward, where the groups usually disembarked at Port Renfrew. They then trekked for hours over an appallingly rough, muddy trail, carrying their gear.
In total, some 200 people attended the Minnesota Seaside Station; significantly, female students often made up half of each year’s participants. Most of the women studied botany, then the most readily accessible and acceptable science for them, due to a long tradition of women excelling as amateur naturalists. From the late 18th century, women adept in collecting, classifying, and illustrating specimens became increasingly active in botanical studies. A noteworthy number of talented women—usually without any formal training—wrote influential papers and even books about botany. However, they rarely identified themselves as scientists, even when doing highly original and serious work.
Tilden was different. She stood with a new generation of educated and influential female scientists emerging in many disciplines. She had high expectations of her female students, giving them firm instructions about clothing so they could function effectively in the field. They were instructed to bring “a short skirt, about 12 inches from the ground … bathing suit with high neck and long sleeves, for warmth, to be worn for bathing and in collecting on low tide days, [and] one pair of heavy-soled, 10-inch-high bicycle shoes with hobnails.”
The monthlong stay at Botanical Beach offered a clear schedule of courses, while actively encouraging the unconventional fun of station life. Each morning, there were classes on the beach. Accustomed to inland botany, students peered awestruck into glowing tidal pools alive with brilliant algae in myriad colors, with huge sea anemones waving bright tentacles, and with snails, hermit crabs, and countless other creatures hiding in the depths. Laboratory work occupied the afternoons, as well as outdoor classes in zoology, taxonomy, and geology.
After supper, everyone gathered around beach bonfires for songs and storytelling, saltwater taffy made over the fire, or mussel bakes. They heard informal evening lectures, some later published in Postelsia, the journal of the seaside station. Many students slept in driftwood shelters on the beach, on mattresses of evergreen boughs, lulled by the continuous roar of the waves.
It was too good to last. The Seaside Station foundered in bitter disputes with the U about funding and equipment. For years, MacMillan and Tilden poured their hearts, and their own salaries, into maintaining the place, believing the U would eventually lend more support. This proved a vain hope, and in 1906, MacMillan resigned in protest. Tilden kept the station open the next year, but could not continue beyond that financially.
She went on to lead many research expeditions, taking students, many of them women, to Tahiti, New Zealand, Tasmania, Australia, and Hawaii, breaking down barriers and defying convention wherever she went. Despite further disputes with the U, she remained on the faculty until her retirement in 1937. Tilden gained international recognition for her pioneering research into marine algae, and for her many publications.
In 1948, she sold her Botanical Beach property. She had not been there in over 40 years, but hated to give up the place where she arose at dawn to gaze enraptured into tidal pools. Tilden died in 1957. The station buildings gradually collapsed into the coastal rainforest; only dim traces remain. The beach is now a provincial park, accessible by road and footpath, and groups of students still visit regularly for fieldwork.
Margaret Horsfield writes for a variety of publications and is the author of six books. She lives in Nanaimo, British Columbia. A version of this article originally appeared in Hakai magazine.