Seattle Now & Then: The Yakima Canyon by Asahel Curtis, 1932

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: From his perch in 1932 above the Yakima River Canyon Road, Asahel Curtis looks wistfully into the Yakima Valley, in the direction of his lost family retreat. Our auto informant Robert Carney identifies the solo car as a 1929 Buick sedan.
NOW: While today’s State Highway 821 hews close to its earlier path, it was widened and regraded in the early 1960s to accommodate huge trucks loaded with produce. BNSF trains continue to roll through the canyon, although automotive traffic, moving and idle, accents this view. A very shy Mt. Adams peeps over the canyon shoulder center-right.

(Published in the Seattle Times online on Nov. 5, 2020
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Nov. 8, 2020)

Light – and a legendary photographer – carom through the canyon
By Jean Sherrard

On a recent early fall day, I once again scrambled after a hero. From La Push to the Columbia River, from Mount Rainier to the Denny Regrade, renowned photographer Asahel (pronounced “EH-shell”) Curtis (1874-1941) has led me on a decades-long, merry chase.

With boundless energy and ambition, Asahel explored every corner of our fair state with a visual imagination that, to my mind, surpasses the artfully composed photos of his more famous brother Edward (noted for his 20-volume masterwork, “The North American Indian”).

In contrast, Asahel hauled his battered camera through every environ and season to snare serendipitous scenes that crossed his lens. Eschewing fussy studio portraits, his “slice-of-life” photos document the quotidian, from Makah whalers to wheat farmers, loggers to factory workers. A founder of the Mountaineers Club, he also captured breathtaking vistas of our highest peaks.

This week’s “then” photo, taken by Asahel in 1932 at the south end of the Yakima River Canyon, is a picturesque joy. The ribbon of highway — with its single lonely car headed north, the empty railroad alongside the river, cradled by basalt hills — offers a haunting portrait of a singular landscape.

Gazing into the fertile Yakima Valley, Asahel would have conjured a lost paradise. In 1907, he had purchased a 9-acre orchard near Grandview as a family retreat from the hurly burly of Seattle city life. After the 1929 stock-market crash, Curtis forfeited his farm and deeply regretted it.

Inarguably, the 25-mile canyon is a photographer’s dream. Light plays over tawny hills around whose roots the Yakima River winds like a verdant green fuse. Driving the canyon road 20 years ago, I assumed wrongly that the water had eroded a path through the basalt.

Counterintuitively, the river came first, says Central Washington University geologist Nick Zentner, perfectly exemplifying an “entrenched meander canyon.” Twelve million years ago, the river twisted and curved across a flat plain, he says, while the basalt hills heaved into place 7 million years later, the result of tectonic pressures originating in what is now central California.

Today, tamed by road and rails — and the diversionary Roza Dam (erected in 1939) — the canyon drive supplies a series of spectacles that shapeshift dramatically with each season.

Asahel died in 1941 at age 66. Not until 1964 were his ashes interred at a Snoqualmie summit wayside memorial. Soon after its dedication, daughter Polly recalled in a 1988 Seattle Times interview, a lightning bolt destroyed the urn, scattering Curtis’ ashes to the winds. Her roving father would have keenly appreciated this fate.


Jean here: Several extras this week. The 360 video was taken on a Yakima Canyon slope – David Lee provided support as I shot the ‘now’ photo.

Below, a number of Yakima Canyon photos I’ve taken over the years – including, at top, recent photos of the canyon blackened by late summer fires; specifically the Evans Creek complex, which burned many square miles down to the river’s edge.

More black hills line verdant fields where cattle often graze.
The river has long been a fisherman’s paradise – even post-fire.
On the Ellensburg end of the Yakima Canyon, fire has blackened the usually golden slopes.
Howard Lev (L), founder of Mama Lil’s Peppers walks a canyon ridge just above Roza Dam. David Lee, creator of Field Roast, stands on the right. Over David’s shoulder, more fire damage.
Roza Dam, seen from above

Now, a few more photos from the canyon’s caroming light and shadow, taken over the last decade or so.

Midway down the canyon, a spectacular precipitous view – and a train!
A wider view of the ox-bow like effect of the Yakima River
I can’t resist this perspective, particularly on a day with superb if glowering clouds
Another favorite view.
The same view in evening light
Spiky precise beauty near Umtanum creek – now burned in the recent fires
A road runs through it
Gone fishing – take me there now please…
A railroad bridge on the Ellensburg side
On a winter’s day, frost covers the hillside above Roza Dam
On the ridge above Roza Dam at winter
The frozen river
Another photo I repeated for years: rock, sagebrush, and river
Rock, sage, and river again
Another view of the Yakima side of the canyon in winter

On the same day I took the ‘now’ for this column, we visited Johnson Foods in Sunnyside. The cannery has been packing Mama Lil’s Peppers for many years.

We paid a visit to Johnson Foods, the Sunnyside cannery that bottles Mama Lil’s Peppers. Manager Gary Stonemetz (R) examines goathorn peppers with Howard Lev.
Inside the cannery, bottles fly past after being labelled
At Johnson foods, unlabeled bottles of Mama Lil’s Peppers herd together



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