Historical treasure trove

A chance discovery of old photographs on eBay yields a wealth of information about Juneau's past

Posted: Thursday, December 16, 2004

One day in August, local historian Jim Geraghty was browsing through the Internet auction site eBay, when he discovered and bid on a handful of early-20th-century Juneau photographs.

The pictures, taken by well-known commercial photographers Winter & Pond, were of various buildings, mills and geologic lodes in the Perseverance Basin. He and two other collectors snapped up the ones for sale.

A few days later, the seller contacted Geraghty and the two other buyers. Evidently, the photos were from an album that contained another 50 photographs.

Most of them were common Winter & Pond prints from Perseverance, Gold Creek, Sheep Creek and the Salmon Creek area, pre-reservoir. But what made them interesting was the white handwriting in the black margins.

Someone had taken the time to annotate each photograph.

"The person that made the album had picked out what they thought were the most interesting photos and carefully labeled them as to which machine belonged to whom, and the names of the mills and different geologic lodes and bodies," Geraghty said.

"We knew a lot of the photographs from seeing copies, and we knew a lot of the names from newspapers, but there really was a lot of disagreement about what name went with what picture," he said. "This was really a good chance to straighten out a lot of history."

Geraghty bought roughly 50 photos for $2,500 and has donated them to the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, which will host an opening reception for the new collection from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 17.

He has been almost entirely reimbursed by private donors, but the museum is still soliciting contributions to cover the cost. The museum has an acquisitions budget of just $3,000, which includes the cost of mounting supplies. Consequently, it was not able to afford the purchase by itself.

"Now you can hike up Perseverance, you can get in a car and drive to the Salmon Creek Dam, and you can go down Thane Road and up Sheep Creek," said Ellen Carrlee, the City Museum's curator of collections. "Back behind all of that, they had this massive state-of-the-art mining technology, and they didn't even have a road back there. These pictures show these enormous mills and big houses and these huge operations."

"I was very impressed with what I saw," said Assembly member and local mining historian David Stone, who had the chance to look at the album. Stone's book, "Hard Rock Gold," is considered one of the definitive writings on Juneau's mining history.

"Some I had never seen before, and I have a very extensive collection of copies of these kind of photos," he said. "Some are very unusual, and I think pretty rare. I would say it's an excellent addition to the historical photo collection in the community."

Stone and Geraghty believe the album dates from 1910 or 1911 and was put together as some sort of prospectus for the Persever-ance/Alaska Gastineau mining operation. One photo of the sprawling so-called "Perseverance Camp," where many of the miners bunked, bowled and ate, supports this theory. It includes structures that cropped up around 1910, but there's no sign of construction that began in 1912.

Some of the most vital photos in the collection offer annotated views of the lower slope of Mount Roberts above Ebner Falls - easily visible today from Perseverance Trail. The area was home to at least seven different mills at one point, including the Taku Union, Ebner, Johnson, Dora, California-Nevada and Webster.

"They were so close that I think you could hit six different mills with a slingshot," Geraghty said.

Stone's book, historian Willette Janes' pamphlets and former Juneau resident Earl Redman's "History of the Mines and Miners in the Juneau Gold Belt" have documented this area extensively. But there are still discrepancies as to which mill is which.

The album seems to point out the exact location of the Webster, also called "The Humbolt" for the ore it mined. Built in 1882 on Gold Creek by W.I. Webster and his son, Edward, it was the first mill in the Perseverance Basin.

"It seems like such a crucial part of Alaska history would have been well-studied and well-written about," Geraghty said. "This is not exactly a Rosetta Stone, but it's certainly very critical."

The identity of the photograph's mysterious margin author is unknown. Geraghty, Carrlee, Janes and Stone believe it's a geologist or a mining engineer because of the technical detail of the annotations. Some of the pictures are highly specialized, pointing out ore deposits or tunnel entrances - the kinds of things that wouldn't be of interest to a layman.

Carrlee hopes to identify the author by the handwriting.

"There weren't that many people and that many mining engineers," Carrlee said. "I'm hopeful that some of our volunteers can figure out who the possible mining engineer might be. If we can figure out who it was, we might be able to figure out why the album was commissioned."

The family that sold the photographs told Geraghty that their father had bought the album at an estate sale in Hawaii.

It's unclear if the mysterious engineer died in Hawaii, if a descendant of his lived in Hawaii, or if the album took a circuitous route to end up in the state. What's fortuitous is that the family wanted the album to go to a museum or library, rather than a private collection.

"When photos like these get into a private collection, anything could happen, besides the tremendous risk of fire," Geraghty said. "When people die, are their descendants going to know what these things are? Or is it just a box of junk that gets thrown out?"

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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