Photographs of Puget Sound’s Past

When everything was looking up

The 1925 Northwest Indian Congress. Photo by Asahel Curtis.

I have called three places home. Connecticut is my home now, and before that it was Seattle. I went back there in 1971, the summer The Last Whole Earth Catalog was published, containing Gurney Norman’s folk tale about a young man returning to his family home place (Divine Right’s Trip). Some of the Catalog people went on later to have found a magazine the title of which implied its interest — place. Other people followed the Catalog’s example with a regional focus. Dave Sucher did this with Puget Sound Access, and a group of us published minding the store in our region of Connecticut.

demanding the patrimony of tradition that their immigrant and pioneer forefathers had lost

I returned to Seattle last summer to find an antique-buying craze that was unparalleled even in New England, turn-of-the-century waterfront warehouses changed into restaurants, and Pioneer Square — the old center of the city that had been abandoned to the famed Skid Road and had long been thought an eye-sore by the Urban Renewal team — had become the new magnetic center replacing the hip enclaves of the University district. The attention had turned from place to time. The sons and daughters of the mobile suburban culture that had made their Volkerwanderungen in station wagons across De Tocqueville’s America-without-a-past were demanding the patrimony of tradition that their immigrant and pioneer forefathers had lost in the congenial sludge of this country’s melting pot.

It is happening all across the country. Tom Wolfe calls it “Funky Chic” — all those kids in their sons-of-the-pioneer lumberjacks and Can’t-Bust-‘em-prole-of-the-twenties overalls — and Earl Hamner, Jr. is giving it to television in Apple’s Way. For some it was and is not doubt chic, but my Seattle friends used the Islamic term barakah. There is a quality that resides in things made by hand, into which someone has woven his life, that is lacking in its manufactured equivalent. It is barakah, and it may exist in white-haired elders, in homes that are built by one’s own hands, and in a familiar pair of jeans.

The difference between barakah and chic is the difference of consciousness behind all of America’s flirtations with time and which separates the movie American Graffiti from television’s Happy Days. It is a difference that can be intuited between The Way We Were or The Walton’s and the barakah of the folk in Maurice Sendak’s and Lore Segal’s Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm or The Asahel Curtis Sampler.

THE ASAHEL CURTIS SAMPLER: Photographs of Puget Sound Past. Edited by David Sucher. Puget Sound access. (Box 1400, Seattle 98104). 74 pp. $4.95.

“Sampler” is a word — to rephrase another antiquarian from the Northwest, Richard Brautigan — “that went out of style like an idea or lampshade or some kind of food that people don’t cook any more, once the favorite dish in thousands of homes.” The photographs of Asabel Curtis that Sucher has assembled, along with prose passages from magazines and pamphlets of the era 1900 to 1915 are like that, and this book appeals not so much to the people who have been a part of the Puget Sound region but the attraction to a time in this country’s history. It is an answer to the literate despair of Wallace Steven’s “Postcard from a Volcano”.

Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill.

The Curtis brothers photographed what was left. Edward, under the sponsorship of J. Pierpont Morgan, photographed what was left of Indians of North America in his celebrated twenty volumes. Asahel was a commercial photographer and a leg man for Seattle’s manifest destiny a la Chamber of Commerce. He photographed the future, what was left for us.

These are photographs primarily of people; so may fresh youths in fact, heightened by visions of opportunity and progress, that the pictures swell way beyond The National Geographic’s dictum that 85 per cent of all photos must be domesticated by human presence. This is no Sierra Club collection with color plates of those terrifying infinite spaces that dramatize the choice between John Muir’s purism and the bulldozer. Asabel was decidedly on the side of the bulldozer, and his black and whites capture the time precisely as The Last Picture Show and without any of the pathos for the past that is found in Edward Hopper’s paintings.

Sucher’s choice of prose to accompany the photos, from Harper’s Weekly and other newspapers and magazines of the time has its fitness and is not without a pointed humor at times. Those were the days the rural counter-culture dreams of, when “a man with nothing save an axe and a frying pan” could live well and a “little work will pay for . . . the other small necessities. The woods and the sea provide food in unlimited abundances.” They were the days when people like H.A. Smith would trade information, as they do now in Sucher’s Puget Sound Access, about land reclamation.

They were short-lived days as the Chamber of Commerce proclaimed the city’s manifest destiny. As a seaport and the hub of five transcontinental railways, the city fathers explained, “Seattle is the link at the western extremity of the new world that will bind and complete the chain [Berlin, Liverpool, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and the Twin Cities] after a growth of five centuries with the original link in the heart of China.” Almira Bailey in a Whitmanesque mood catalogued the city’s energy — “Detroit automobiles for the Orient; apples for Europe; fresh loganberries, in ice, for London; and salmon for the world!” — and she saw the future: “It is the machine age. And [Seattle] is already flirting boldly flirting with her lover — Industry!” The men in motorcars with jaunty caps were already threading their way through gigantic Douglas firs past Makah Indians cutting whale meat.

It was the age when factories were no more than machines made bigger, and businessmen made expeditions to Alaska to buy the city a totem pole. The port became outfitter for those leaving for the Klondike and looked eagerly for their return with gold. Negroes and Chinese handled the labor and laundry. Women were gals working in the salmon canneries for pin money and some at night were suffragettes. These were days of growth and of the novelty of the first biplane’s arrival, which the citizens cheered with the slack-jawed amazement of the inhabitants of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo (One Hundred Years of Solitude) welcoming the arrival of ice. They were just the days for a civic “booster” like Asabel Curtis.

But after the time of growth and novelty, the city settled into an era of consolidation. While steam shovels were at work in the Panama Canal, in Seattle they were digging a shipping canal and engaged in regrading the city’s hills, using the dirt to fill in the tidelands for a railroad yard. Schoolmarms like Alice Pratt were gathering orphans together to make them “a little bunch of good citizens.” There was a rage for order not only at home (where socialism took the form a municipal-owned electric company because of the incompetence of the vested interests), but in the world at large, where President McKinley would depend on local shipyards (“We hear but few protests against ‘imperialism’ The people like it and are not bashful about saying so”).

This rage for order would leave a legacy for the future, and Sucher reminds us of that by accompanying Curtis’ photograph of the Ku Klux Klan marching in a Potlatch Parade with a quote from The Exploitation and Industrial Bureau of the Chamber of Commerce: “Always a hospitable city, and with a welcome waiting for every visitor all year around. . .” Beneath a photograph of a golf course we hear the conviction of Seattleites that this is the real America. It might require detectives to prevent employee fraud and “do secret service work in general,” but it nevertheless was. Boeing might supersede the shipyards or John Wayne might become the new Pinkerton playing a dismissed Seattle cop carrying on his vigilante righteousness in the movie “McQ,” but the legacy of America and Seattle was firmly being created.

What seems odd in the retrospect was that there was so little of Natty Bumppo’s pastoral dread at the sound of the approaching axes. The romance of the logger overshadowed the fears of denudation of the forest, and pollution was only troublesome insofar as it affected the salmon industry. The Indians still made a “merry picture” in bright calicoes and though they worked for the breweries gathering hops to “spend their money on red cloth and trinkets,” their “wild and jolly faces” were still striking in “their queer camps on the edges of the fields.” Asahel Curtis and his fellow boosters had bulldozed roads into a wilderness that they cold domesticate with their after-dinner camp sings.

The Asahel Curtis Sampler, consequently, is far more than a coffee-table book, and Sucher includes a bibliography and a list of places where more can be learned of the history of the region by those who have gone beyond chic to seek and feel the barakah. The consciousness behind the book is sound, but as Wes Uhlman, Seattle’s Mayor adds, it requires an equally proper consciousness on the part of the reader. Barakah is not something that can be bought or owned like a funky pair of pants made of others’ recycled denims. It is something earned which one stands in relation to, “the tradition which is the true mythology of the region” — Wallace Stevens says in his essay “Connecticut” — which “we breathe in with every joy of having ourselves been created by what has been endured and mastered in the past.”

This essay originally appeared in The Nation (May 11, 1974).

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20. January 2017 by
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