Published in The Seattle Times online on Dec. 1, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Dec. 4, 2022
Treasure and mystery set sail in yard-sale images from 1933
By Clay Eals
When unexpected photographic treasures arise, sometimes they bear more than a modicum of mystery.
John Gerhard, a retired Boeing intellectual-property manager who lives in West Seattle, went on one of his usual prowls last summer, combing yard sales for finds. On a table at a house bordering Admiral Way, spilling out of an envelope was a set of 12 thin items, tiny and shiny.
They were medium-format photo negatives from long ago. Squinting while holding each one skyward, he discovered a negative with an airborne perspective of downtown and boat-packed Elliott Bay, backed by the West Seattle peninsula.
The seller, Caty Burt, had purchased the negs at a Georgetown sale years earlier but knew nothing about them. Gerhard asked her if he could donate them to University of Washington Special Collections, where he has volunteered for six years and which has a ships collection. Sure, she said.
The images centered on the 1797 warship USS Constitution, better known as Old Ironsides because, while it sank a British vessel during the War of 1812, its thick, oak hull survived a barrage of cannonballs. Restored, it toured 76 ports for three years starting in 1931. Its Seattle visit from May 31 to June 14, 1933, drew an astounding 201,422 visitors. Today, it’s on permanent exhibition at the Boston Naval Shipyard.
Of the 12 negatives, only one had the helicopter view, having been taken from the West Coast’s then-tallest building, the Smith Tower. Seen looking east down Yesler Way, the 2,200-ton, 175-foot, three-masted USS Constitution stands out among fishing boats, tugs, small craft and even a ferry.
Gerhard had no prior knowledge of the famous frigate. But he got up to speed after spotting, in another of the negatives, the ship’s name on its stern.
Six of the images depict Old Ironsides hosting tours while anchored at Pier 41 (now 91) at Magnolia’s Smith Cove, where cruise ships dock today.
One even reveals, in the distance, the remains of West Seattle’s Luna Park Natatorium, destroyed by fire in 1931.
But riddles remain: Who took the photos?
The negatives are unmarked. They include four images of a model sailboat. One of them shows a man examining a camera, seemingly about to photograph the model. Did he take the other 11 photos? He’s standing in front of a Spanish-style, stucco home near a bluff. Where was this house?
Gerhard speculates the guy was an engineer, interested in the mechanics of vessels. Perhaps, like Gerhard, he worked at Boeing?
“There’s a story here,” says Gerhard, a determined sleuth.
Can any of you come aboard with more details?
Special thanks to Lisa Oberg and John Gerhard for their help with this installment!