Inclining ourselves through the stages of research grief

(Click and click again to enlarge photos)

Here is one of the photos of an inclined coal railway whose location had been identified as in south Bellevue but whose true location has been confirmed by the Newcastle Historical Society. It’s 100 miles north along the southeast shore of Lake Whatcom, five miles southeast of Bellingham. This is the “looking down” photo described below. (Eastside Heritage Center, L90.24.10)
Actual site of ‘Newcastle’ photos is
100 miles north of Lake Washington

(Editor’s note: For this blog post, we invite two guests from the Newcastle Historical Society to contribute a lesson in historical research!)

By Matt McCauley and Kent Sullivan
Newcastle Historical Society

As embarrassing as mistakes can be, in the realm of historical research it is particularly important to correct the record when one inevitably goofs. Here is our journey through the stages of grief:

In the case of research on Seattle’s first railroad, constructed in the early 1870s by Seattle Coal & Transportation Co., our ad hoc group of historians had as the centerpiece of its research two beautiful 19th century photographs of the inclined railway that the company constructed in today’s south Bellevue, the location of which was known at that time as Bensonville.

Coal cars were lowered down the steep incline to a wharf, where they continued their journey, in the finest Rube Goldberg fashion, up Lake Washington to today’s Montlake neighborhood, then across another short stretch of rail, then on another barge ride across Lake Union, and then down a final stretch of rail to another incline at the foot of Pike Street, upon which the cars were lowered then dumped into coal bunkers at the company’s salt water wharf.

The coal was then loaded onto ships for transport to San Francisco and other distant markets.

Here is the second of two photos whose true location has been confirmed by the Newcastle Historical Society. It’s 100 miles north along the southeast shore of Lake Whatcom, five miles southeast of Bellingham. This is the “looking up” photo described in this post. (Eastside Heritage Center, L90.24.09)

These two photos of the incline are quite striking, though their provenance was a bit hazy. A local family had brought prints to the old Marymoor Museum in 1990. The prints previously were in the possession of a family ancestor who had been involved in 19th century coal mining in the Newcastle area.

The family did not want to donate the prints to Eastside Heritage Center, so the prints were photographed on the spot, which was the best-available method in 1990 for quick reproductions, and they were filed away with sparse notes.

Much later, the old Marymoor Museum’s collections were transferred to the then-new Eastside Heritage Center, and it was from the Eastside Heritage Center that the Newcastle Historical Society learned of, and became keenly interested in, them.

In fact, it was the re-discovery of these images that prompted the formation of our ad hoc Seattle Coal and Transportation Co. research team, which brought together people who previously did not know each other and are now good friends — an unexpected but happy outcome.

Our team of eight — Robert Boyd, Harry Dursch, Gary Dutt, Mike Intlekofer, Eva Lundahl, Russ Segner as well as the two of us — did years of research and collected considerable information, including a major, unsuccessful effort to locate the original prints.

We eventually went public a few years ago with our findings by giving several presentations, which led to Jean Sherrard and Clay Eals inviting us to collaborate on this “Now & Then” column from September 2019.

(Our team also provided deep background research on the 1850s-1870s mining era for the recent revision of the classic local history book “The Coals of Newcastle.”)

Shortly after the release of the “Now & Then” column about our research, we heard from Andy Valaas, a local resident with an interest in history whom we did not previously know. He first came across these images in an online presentation by Jane Morton of Eastside Heritage Center and did not believe the two images of the incline were of our incline.

A few things struck Andy:

  • First, as a long-time downhill skier, he thought the incline in the photos was too high and too steep to have been along the southeastern shore of Lake Washington.
  • Andy also believed the type of steam donkey engine seen in one of the photos would have not yet been in use while the Newcastle incline was in operation (1872-1878).
  • In addition, he believed the shape of the Mercer Island shoreline did not match closely enough what could be seen in the “looking down” photo. (Of note: Matt had previously taken several “today” photos and studied early shoreline maps, the upshot of which was that a match seemed possible, although not iron-clad.)

Andy gently brought these concerns to our attention, and, as experienced historians do, Andy also did a bit of research to try to establish where the pictured incline was actually located.

Prompted by a well-known picture of coal cars on a barge on Lake Whatcom, some five miles southeast of Bellingham, Andy focused his research about 100 miles north of Lake Washington. Andy’s research pointed to the Blue Canyon Coal Mine on Lake Whatcom’s southeast shore. This incline was constructed circa 1891 and had much more of a drop (820 feet vs. 175 feet at Newcastle).

Needless to say, Andy’s input sparked much discussion among our group.

We had not really questioned the basic location of the incline up this point. Our work had mainly focused on finding the location of it “on the ground” today, which we were successful in doing and is not doubted. This led us, as a group, to exercise just enough confirmation bias to explain away things that didn’t quite fit:

  • The shoreline in the distance of the “looking down” photo wasn’t a 100% match for Mercer Island.
  • The steam donkey visible in the “looking up” photo was from a slightly-later era.
  • The length and steepness of the incline seemed too extreme for the topography in today’s south Bellevue.

Mike Intlekofer on our research team had raised the donkey concern previously but we had explained it away as a “pioneering use,” while we rationalized that the apparent length and steepness of the incline was due to the photographer using a wide-angle lens of some sort.

Grieving, our Seattle Coal and Transportation Co. research group got through the “denial” and “anger” phases fairly quickly. Then Harry Dursch on our team contacted retired Western Washington University geology professor George Mustoe, who, at first, questioned whether the images were at Blue Canyon — which gave us a brief sense of hope, as being in the “bargaining” phase often does.

The Blue Canyon incline, looking down. (Whatcom Museum X.4001)

We then reached out to photo archivist Jeff Jewell of the Whatcom Museum. Jeff sent us straight to “depression” because he was able to quickly provide us with several images of the Blue Canyon incline, including views we had never seen before, along with much-crisper versions of the images we had previously obtained from Eastside Heritage Center.

Another view of the Blue Canyon incline, looking down. (Whatcom Museum, 1996.10.3301)

The presence of the same four trees in the Eastside Heritage Center and Whatcom Museum “looking down” photos made it unquestionably clear that the photos were not taken along Lake Washington. (See A–D in the accompanying comparison image.) The same Whatcom Museum image also made it clear that we were not looking at the east shore of Mercer Island.

These two annotated crops make it clear that the images that Newcastle Historical Society members obtained from Eastside Heritage Center were of the Blue Canyon incline rather than at Newcastle. (Left: EHC L90.24.09; Right: WMPA X.4001. Graphic assistance: Noel Sherrard)

No historians worth their salt would deem a painful lesson of learning and enlightenment to be complete without arriving at “acceptance,” which we did in fairly short order, although some of us may or may not have drowned our sorrows first at the Mustard Seed Too in Newport Hills.

We have since embarked on the mighty challenge of locating a sketch, drawing, photo or painting of the Bensonville incline, the one the Seattle Coal and Transportation Co. built circa 1872. Unfortunately, the corporate records of Seattle Coal and Transportation Co. appear to have largely been discarded by a successor company, so sketches and drawings that must have existed at one time likely no longer exist.

What makes finding a photo a substantial undertaking is the state of photography in the 1870s. At that time, photographers used the “wet plate” method. This means:

  • Prior to making an exposure, the photographer needed to use a light-free environment to coat a glass plate with liquid emulsion.
  • That “wet” plate was then placed into a light-free magazine that was slid into the back of a wooden box camera.
  • The light block was removed and the camera’s lens cap pulled away to allow the image to be exposed onto the glass.
  • The light block was replaced, the magazine removed from the camera, taken back into the dark area, removed from the magazine and immediately immersed in liquid developer and fixer to create a glass plate negative from which prints could be made.

Needless to say, any photographer taking images of outdoor features needed a literal wagonload of equipment: an unwieldy camera and tripod, liquid chemicals (in fragile glass bottles) and some kind of tent or other means for a portable darkroom.

Given this complexity, it is understandable why most 1870s-era photographers chose instead to do portrait work inside of studios, with adjacent darkrooms and chemicals.

We had assumed that the extraordinary effort it would have required to make these images was due to the company documenting the large sums from its San Francisco owners and investors were being spent wisely.

We recognize that the odds of us finding images of the Bensonville incline are vanishingly remote, But we will keep looking. One never knows. Historical research is full of unexpectedly delightful discoveries!

2 thoughts on “Inclining ourselves through the stages of research grief”

  1. My Grandfather, Thomas Paul Hoban, worked on the Northern Pacific Railroad (East Lake Washington RR) where he was a section foreman. He lived in Kent and took the train to work. Later he and his four children lived in a boxcar on what is now called the Burke-Gilman Trail. By this time, his wife had died and he had a sister-in-law take care of the children. His duties were to have his crew build the tracks, pounding spikes and keeping the tracks clear. I learned this from his employment record from NPRR. Would there be any photos from this time/collection? Loved the story.

  2. L. Heath who photographed the animals on a Lake Whatcom barge near Blue Canyon mine took other lumber camp photos c1899-1900, UW Spec Col has four (Ports Gamble & Ludlow). No bio details. Those lakeside hillsides do go vertical quickly! Been there. Look into WWU archives for more perhaps.

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