by Melinda Pillsbury-Foster
Erika, from the Ketchikan Museum, emailed me using our contact form to ask about some of the images in their collection from the Gold Rush years in Alaska. The museum had, she told me, a number of images from Arthur C. Pillsbury, who had passed through the town on his way up to the mining fields with his cameras, including the circuit panorama camera he had designed and built while a senior at Stanford in 1897. He paused to record images of the totem poles and native people, as they worked and carried out their every day lives. These shots show the inside of native homes with the mixture of possessions of their own making along with objects manufactured elsewhere.
These images fascinate people today, showed a world now lost, and many of them have survived as post cards. While postal cards were in use from around 1851 the one penny post cards, privately printed, were only authorized by Congress on May 19, 1898.
The City of Ketchikan sponsors two museums, one for the largest existing collection of native totem poles and another for the history of their community stretching back to its founding in the 1880s to process the abundant salmon in the offshore waters.
The most southern town in Alaska, Ketchikan is also the earliest town, boasting a population of around 8,000 people, making it the tenth largest town in Alaska.
Today the Totem Heritage Center serves the town as a cultural center, a resource for appreciating and continuing the artistic traditions of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people.
Grandfather went to Alaska to record the opening of the mining fields. Once there, he became fascinated by its native population, caught in a transition enforced on them by the overwhelming influence of Western culture. Those images which remain are still compelling today.
As Grandfather traveled through Alaska he would sometimes leave a supply of glass negatives with a local merchant, starting a Pillsbury Studio to print more cards. Purchased and mailed, these traveled around the world.
His originals were lost on April 18, 1906 in the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. So, when one of his images turns up from places you would never expect each one is precious. And even now the number of images rediscovered is steadily increasing. I never know what to expect when I open an email. But it can be wonderful.