Once upon a time, a journalist borrowed some photos...

Posted: Thursday, November 18, 2004

This is the story of a circle that took 54 years to complete. The story begins and ends in Britain. The plot revolves around a member of the Explorers Club who loved travel, a man who bought the explorer's house in Juneau, and 37 photographs borrowed from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

The inveterate traveler was Amos Burg (1901-1986). The man who bought his house is Charles Campbell, 79.

Probably in 1948, Amos Burg traveled to London and borrowed 37 original black-and-white photos from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

"Amos was a responsible guy and a delightful man," Campbell said. "He had written a lot of articles for National Geographic, and I think he intended to use these photos in that way - and then return them. But something intervened, and he did not write the article."

Burg loved life on the water. At age 15, he spent his summer vacation working as bellboy aboard a passenger ship cruising between his home town of Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles.

Sea-struck, he never returned to school. He was taken on as an untrained junior hand on a ship and crossed the Pacific. In 1920, he was on a ship carrying timber to Manchester, England, when he was swept off the deck by a huge wave in darkness off the Irish coast. However, he caught a lifeline and was able to haul himself back on board. On another occasion, he survived a typhoon.

That was the way Burg's life went - one adventure after the other, once paddling a canoe single-handedly for thousands of miles. He became a photographer for National Geographic. He survived a charge by a bear while filming on Admiralty Island. In 1938, he was first to take an inflatable raft down the Colorado River, filming all the way. During World War II, he worked as a secret agent in Argentina and Chile. He made a series of 30 films for Encyclopedia Britannica.

In 1958, Burg went ashore long enough to marry Carolyn. Every day he was away from home, he wrote to her. With this marriage, Burg acquired a stepdaughter, Nancy Ferrell.

"He had great insight into himself," Ferrell recalled. "He used to say he lived his life backward. He retired when he was 15 and then didn't get a steady job until the 1950s. He lived in a time when you could just step aboard a freighter and get a job, or get a job with National Geographic. People loved hearing his stories. Both he and Mother enjoyed entertaining, and she didn't mind being a backdrop to his stories."

A letter to the editor of the Juneau Empire by Fred Cook of Juneau, published shortly after Burg's death, described him as "a superb photojournalist ... (who) would absolutely captivate everybody with his tales of monarchs, millionaires, soldiers of fortune, French Foreign Legionnaires, assorted spies and various river rats."

"In 1977, I had the pleasure of floating the Yukon River with Amos, Whitehorse to Dawson. It was like a guided tour through history," Cook wrote.

Campbell moved to Alaska in 1979 when he became the state's director of Corrections. He built a house on the banks of Gastineau Channel and became friends with Burg, who lived next door. But the Burgs moved away about 1980.

After Burg's death, his widow donated most of his films and papers to the Oregon Historical Society. In 1996, Campbell acquired the Burgs old property, which included three shacks on the beach. The outbuildings were stacked high with thousands of documents, logs, notes and other memorabilia.

"Carolyn did not know anything about these cartons on the beach," Campbell said. "Everything was systematically numbered. There were even No. 10 coffee cans with numbers. But I never found the index. Then the roof failed and moisture came in and ruined some things. I knew I needed to take care of them. Ed Ferrell (Nancy's husband and an inveterate researcher and writer) and I looked over things, and Ed threw up his hands after a day."

As a penal historian, Campbell realized the value of Burg's papers. He decided to do the right thing, setting to work in the summer of 1997. He spent three months sorting.

"On nice days I put up a plywood table on sawhorses on the beach and used a burn barrel. I ended up with 50 boxes of flotsam and jetsam. Very late in the process, a Coast Guardsman who was helping me found these photos, taken between the 1890s and 1948, all stamped on the back 'property of Royal National Lifeboat Institution.' "

Campbell decided to return the photos personally.

"There was no way I was going to mail them back," he said, chuckling. "They were interesting because in the last century the lifeboat society went from rowing boats to new motorized boats capable of going 100 miles out in the ocean."

In the years since Burg borrowed the 37 photos, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the Royal Navy had restructured to produce something like the U.S. Coast Guard, Campbell said. Furthermore, the lifeboat institution had moved from London to Poole in Dorset. When Campbell and his wife, Ellen, arrived in England in October 2002, he phoned the lifeboat institution.

"They really didn't understand what I was talking about, but they said to come down," he said. "When they saw the photos, they were amazed and delighted. It was a real pleasure to see their reaction."

A British writer, Edward Wake-Walker, saw the recovered photos as the nucleus of a book. He consulted the National Maritime Museum, mariners, officials and crews of lifeboat stations and even a model shipwright in order to flesh out the stories of each rescue.

He also traveled to Wales and other wet and windy spots and took additional photos of his own. Lastly, he found a press willing to issue the book, Sutton Publishing Limited in Gloucestershire. Less than two years after the Campbells brought their prize to Poole, "Lost Photographs of the RNLI" is available to all those who love stories of heroism and the sea.

And the 50 cartons of miscellaneous flotsam and jetsam? Campbell turned them into 15 cubic feet of papers, which he donated to the Alaska State Library. The library is seeking funds to have the papers cataloged and processed, said Gladi Kulp, curator of collections.

"It's important to state the disposition of your papers in a will," Kulp said. "We sometimes lose out on valuable records because their disposition is not firmed up.

"For example, we had a person of renown who said he wanted his photographs to go to the state library. But nothing was in writing, and the collection has been divided up among relatives. It's hard for a niece or nephew to know if things are just family photos or what to do with personal diaries.

"We save more and more all the time because you never know what a researcher will want. If it has to do with Alaska history, we save it."

Kulp is eager to find someone to write the definitive biography of Burg. Nancy Ferrell has written many books, including a biography of writer Barrett Willoughby, but feels she is "too close" to Burg to undertake the task.

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