Writer gives historic photograph albums to Alaska State Library

Posted: Friday, August 15, 2003

Early in the 20th century, John Edward Thwaites, a mail delivery man based in Ketchikan, recorded in photographs the landscape of Alaska coastal towns from Ketchikan to Dillingham.

This spring, a woman who also has traveled the coast of Alaska, this time in search of Thwaites' photographs and information about the man who created them, published a book on his life.

"Nobody ever knew much about him," said Pennelope Goforth, the author of "Sailing the Mail in America." "But his pictures have turned out to be pretty important. The Smithsonian has used some of them to identify artifacts they have in their Native American museum."

Hearthside Books is hosting a book-signing event for "Sailing the Mail in Alaska" at their downtown location from 5 to 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 18.

Thursday, Goforth presented photo albums and 8 mm films from the 1930s that contain photos of Thwaites, and pictures he took, to the Alaska Historical Collections division of the Alaska State Library.

"I'm donating all of the things that were given to me in the research of writing this book," said Goforth, a former Juneau resident who now lives in Anchorage.

The donation includes two albums: one put together by Thwaites' great-nephew, Dr. Edward Morse, who lives in Maine, and another assembled by Thwaites' wife, Isabelle Thwaites. The albums date from 1930 and 1925, respectively.

The 8 mm film contains footage that Morse took of Thwaites in his home in Ketchikan in the 1930s, Goforth said.

"This stuff has been given to me by the family, fully with their permission, to give over to the historical library," she said. None of Thwaites' family still lives in Alaska.

Historians believe Thwaites was born in Michigan around 1863. He came to Alaska in 1905 and worked as a mail clerk aboard the S.S. Dora, which made monthly runs to Alaska villages. He lived in Sitka, Seward and Ketchikan, before retiring to Washington in 1932. He died in 1940.

The material will be a welcome addition to the historical collections, which already contain between 130,000 and 140,000 images, said Kathryn Shelton, the chief librarian for the collections. Researchers frequently use the library for months at a time looking for specific details about Alaska's history.

"It's really wonderful when something like this comes along because you know it's going to add to our knowledge," said Shelton.

Though the staff of the Alaska Historical Collections normally would catalogue and index the information for each photo in the albums, Goforth, in the course of her research, already has done that, Shelton said.

"We want to hug her for that," Shelton said.

A former photojournalist who now works for the state of Alaska in Anchorage, Goforth first became interested in Thwaites' life in the 1980s. She was working on a historical project collecting family photographs from early settlements in the Aleutians.

"I kept coming across this guy's photographs and I kept wondering about him," she said.

In 1994, the interest became a full-fledged project, when Goforth was given a copy of the obituary for Thwaites' wife, who died in the 1960s. The obituary listed Morse as a survivor. Goforth called information in Maine and found Morse with the second number she called.

When he learned of Goforth's efforts to write about his great-uncle, Morse donated the albums. The albums provided a good portion of the 100 photos in Goforth's book. Other photos in the books took a bit more effort to dig up.

"I'd find them in drawers," Goforth said. "I found some in a safe with an album in Atka. There were some sort of in between the leaves of books in people's bookshelves in the Pribilof Islands. It was quite the adventure."

• Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.

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