Local historian spreads the word about Willoughby

Posted: Thursday, October 21, 2010

Over the years, Mark Whitman has strained his eyes in the process of going through “miles of microfilm,” but for the career librarian and independent historian, each nugget of information he finds is worth its weight in gold.

Alaska State Library / Historical Collections / P87-2367
Alaska State Library / Historical Collections / P87-2367

The subject of Whitman’s current research is Richard “Dick” Willoughby. The name is one most associate only with the downtown Juneau avenue, but the history behind the man is something Whitman considers “a treasure of the community.” He will share the findings of his research to date at two storytelling presentations this weekend at the Alaska State Museum in a presentation he calls “Dick Willoughby’s Book of Claims.”

Whitman has compiled the accounts of Willoughby through years of fact-finding. He has read through scores of newspapers — all the way through, too, because a quick skim of a page or a word search doesn’t always find the information he is seeking.

Whitman calls Willoughby an “Alaskan original” and “one of the most colorful, interesting people in the history of the Northwest.” However, the man’s account is not commonly found in Juneau’s storybooks, nor does his name turn up much in an Internet search.

Originally from Missouri, Willoughby spent the mid- to late 1800s working his way up the West Coast as a gold prospector, eventually landing in Southeast Alaska. He filed more mining claims than most men of his day, but he soon realized a better living could be made in entertaining other gold seekers. Willoughby owned saloons and dance halls in Southeast towns including Juneau, Wrangell and Sitka. As a musician and dance caller he was often the center of attention with his fiddle in hand.

“His prospecting alone would have been remarkable,” Whitman said. “He was never pretentious about his wealth. Probably his most valued things were his fiddle and his stories, and to me that is impeccable.”

Willoughby also played Juneau “like a fiddle,” Whitman said. The uniqueness of his character drew people in like a magnet. Both tourists and early Juneauites alike would gather to hear his stories — tall tales of life in the frontier.

Much of Whitman’s fascination with Willoughby lies in his ability to bamboozle his audiences. At the start of Whitman’s investigation, he wasn’t quick to believe everything he read about Willoughby — he was trying to avoid being bamboozled himself.

“I thought it was all myth and legend,” Whitman said. “I thought it was exaggeration. But I started reading accounts that, sure enough, … (were) true.”

Willoughby’s biggest claim, and a favorite story of Whitman’s, is the discovery of the “Silent City,” a phenomenon appearing only on June 22 of each year. Willoughby claimed, and convinced many to believe, that on this day, a phantom city would appear on a great glacier outside of Juneau.

Willoughby was well versed in ventriloquism, a skill he used to trick those around him. He also performed “miraculous healings” for a friend who was equipped with false teeth and a glass eye. Willoughby lived several lives, the accounts of which deserve a special place in history, Whitman said.

“In the age of the Internet, video games and things like that, I think it’s neat to have a hero who played his own music, made his own stories and just got the laugh on everyone,” Whitman said. “If we lose that in the digital age, it would be a sad thing.”

Whitman’s presentation will be accompanied by Bob Banghart on fiddle and Jack Fontanella on banjo. Parental discretion is advised, as the performances will contain raucous historical content suitable for mature audiences.

• Contact Libby Sterling at libby.sterling@juneauempire.com.

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