In July of 1911, Hiram Bingham raced to climb to the top of South America’s tallest mountain before a 60-year-old schoolteacher named Annie Smith Peck beat him there.
Bingham, an ambitious, 36-year-old Yale lecturer, wanted fame as an explorer. His rival, a Rhode Island native, was already famous. Five years earlier she had climbed Peru’s tallest mountain, Huascarán, the first woman to do so.
Little did Hiram Bingham know he would not achieve fame for a mountain-climbing feat. Instead, his celebrity could come from rediscovering Machu Picchu, the lost citadel of the Incas. He probably had no idea of the unwelcome notoriety that lay before him in a later career.
And little did Hiram Bingham know he’d be portrayed by Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones 25 years after his death.
The Race to Coropuna
Bingham came of age during the Heroic Age of Exploration. By 1911, Roald Amundsen crossed the Northwest Passage. Aleistair Crowley scaled the second-and third-highest mountains in the world, K2 and Kanchenjunga.
In 1909, the world watched as Robert Peary raced Dr. Frederick Cook to the North Pole. A week after Peary sent a telegram announcing his victory, Robert Falcon Scott announced his expedition to reach the South Pole.
Annie Smith Peck
During that period, Annie Smith Peck won fame for her mountaineering exploits.
She was born in Providence, R.I., in 1850, the daughter of a wealthy congressman. She taught Latin for a while at Providence High School, then decided to attend Brown. The college wouldn’t admit her because of her sex, so she moved west and earned a B.A. and a master’s degree from the University of Michigan.
While studying in Europe she discovered mountaineering and began to climb – the Theodul Pass, the Matterhorn, Pico de Orizaba and Popocatepetl. She made headlines, partly because she wore pants when she climbed mountains.
Annie Smith Peck climbed Mount Huascaran in 1909. The next year, at age 60, she set her sights on another mountain that had never been climbed: Coropuna in Peru, the tallest mountain in South America.
On the boat to Peru, Annie Smith Peck met Hiram Bingham. He, too, wanted to climb Mount Coropuna. She didn’t make a favorable impression. He described her in a letter as “a hard-faced, sharp tongued old maid of the typical New England type.”
He wanted to be as famous as she was, maybe more. Their rivalry made news. The Boston Post ran a story headlined ‘Miss Peck Is Racing Yale Man.’ “It is an open secret to [Bingham’s] friends that he has been chafing under his routine work ever since he heard that Miss Peck had started on the first lap of the race,” reported the Post.
Hiram Bingham III was the son of a well-known missionary to the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii). Born in 1875, he earned a Ph.D. from Harvard and married an heiress, Alfreda Mitchell, granddaughter of Charles Lewis Tiffany. He lost part of her fortune in the stock market, got a job at Yale teaching Latin American history and chafed under the oversight of his strong-willed mother-in-law.
In 1906-7, Hiram Bingham went exploring in South America, following Simon Bolivar’s route through Colombia and Venezuela. He returned in 1911 to climb Mount Coropuna.
Annie Smith Peck had sent Hiram Bingham a letter offering to fill him in on the details about Mount Coropuna. He replied that it would be more sportsmanlike for her to postpone her climb until he’d gotten there first.
She beat Hiram Bingham to Coropuna – sort of. Coropuna has multiple peaks, and Annie Smith Peck climbed the easternmost one, which isn’t the highest.
Just one newspaper reported she reached the summit. While there, she planted a sign that said, ‘Votes for Women.’ But then Annie Smith Peck went silent about her feat, realizing she’d climbed the wrong summit.
“No wonder she doesn’t talk about it much,” wrote Bingham.
On July 17, 1911, Hiram Bingham set up camp on a sugar plantation while on his way to Coropuna. His host suggested he visit some ruins above the Urubamba Valley. Hiram Bingham took him up on his suggestion, climbing to 8,000 feet above sea level and found, under dense jungle vegetation, the lost citadel of Machu Picchu.
The Incas built Machu Picchu, an entire city in the clouds, 450 years earlier. It encompassed the Temple of the Sun, terraced gardens, a ritual stone, the Room of the Three Windows, a massive tower and 200 buildings for living and worshiping.
The stonework shows superb Incan workmanship. Though the Incas used no mortar, a knife cannot penetrate cracks between the rocks.
Archaeologists believe the Incan emperor Pachacuti ruled over the citadel, abandoned at the time of the Spanish conquest. The Spanish didn’t know about it, though. Machu Picchu remained unknown outside the region and undisturbed except for the terraced gardens, which were cultivated by local farmers.
Hiram Bingham, anxious to climb Coropuna, spent one afternoon at Machu Picchu. He took some measurements and then told his assistants to stay behind and take some artifacts.
“The notes he took then gave no hint that he was excited by what he saw,” wrote Nicholas Hasluck in Somewhere in the Atlas: The Road to Khe Sanh and Other Travel Pieces.
Hiram Bingham did climb the highest summit of Coropuna, and returned to Machu Picchu in 1912, 1914 and 1915 on expeditions sponsored by Yale and National Geographic. The magazine devoted an entire issue to Bingham’s 250 photographs of the ruins, and it created a sensation. The New York Times Magazine opined,
…’one member of the daredevil explorers’ craft has “struck it rich,” struck it so dazzlingly rich, indeed, that all his confreres may be pardoned if they gnash their teeth in chagrin and turn green with envy.’
Hiram Bingham on his return visits took thousands of artifacts from Machu Picchu, including silver statues, jewelry, human bones, ceremonial knives and ceramics. He took them to Yale to study them for a year and a half, but never returned them. Yale eventually agreed to return the artifacts.
In 1917, Hiram Bingham became an aviator and taught aviation in France during World War I. He was elected lieutenant governor of Connecticut in 1922, and two years later became the junior U.S. senator from the state.
While serving as ‘the Flying Senator,’ Bingham earned another kind of fame. He paid a lobbyist for the Manufacturer’s Association of Connecticut to serve as his staffer and attend closed meetings of the Senate Finance Committee. When other senators found out, they investigated Hiram Bingham, but didn’t propose any punishment.
Hiram Bingham, however, ranted against the investigators, claiming a partisan witch hunt had victimized him. It was a big mistake. The Senate voted to censure him for actions “contrary to good morals and senatorial ethics” that tended “to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute.”
Bingham lost his Senate seat in 1932, wrote a bestseller called Lost City of the Incas and went into banking. His wife divorced him, claiming he’d come home and greet his two dogs enthusiastically and greet her with a grunt. He announced his engagement to another woman three months after the divorce.
Hiram Bingham died in 1956 at his home in Washington, D.C.
The first Indiana Jones movie was released in 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark, starring Harrison Ford as a character based on Hiram Bingham. At the time his son, Jonathan Brewster Bingham, was serving the eighth of his nine terms as a Democratic congressman from Connecticut.
Macchu Picchu is now a major tourist attraction. In 2007, it was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Images: Panoramic view of Machu Picchu ruins by Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43170416; terraced fields by By Christophe Meneboeuf – XtoF – Personal work. More photos related to Peru & Bolivia on my photoblog: http://www.pixinn.net, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4367068; Inca building By Martin St-Amant (S23678) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8125457; Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33372079TH.
With thanks to Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams. This story was updated in 2023.