Over the course of his lifetime, much of it spent on the water, Joe D. Williamson (1909-1994) documented a wide swath of Northwest history with his camera, yet he did not consider photography his primary vocation. Photography was the means to an end, and that end was spending as much time as possible on and around boats. Williamson did everything from delivering photo orders by motorcycle to running a darkroom to patrolling for fish pirates off the coast of Alaska. He traveled throughout the Northwest, wherever water could take him. He took a lot of photos and collected others. For 25 years he also held court at a small photography shop on the Seattle waterfront. In 1948 he spearheaded the launch of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society (PSMHS) and in 1980 his vast collection of maritime photography transformed that society into a valued resource for West Coast maritime history.
Joe Williamson was born in Seattle's north end on March 28, 1909. His given name was Joe, not Joseph, and he never used his middle name, Dudley, preferring to go simply by Joe or J.D.
While in high school Joe developed an interest in both photography and boats, themes which carried through to the end of his life. Like many boys of the era, he liked to hang around the waterfront and chat up the crew of any passing boat.
In 1979 intrepid newspaperwoman Lucile McDonald interviewed Williamson for an article that appeared in that December's issue of the The Sea Chest, the quarterly journal of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society. Williamson provided her with insight into the beginnings of his passion:
"I'd hang around the Cary-Davis tugboat office and yearn to go out with the boats on their jobs. I'd ask the dispatcher to let me go along for the ride. The Creole was the first tug they let me board. It was going to tow a barge to Port Angeles and one of the fellows said, 'Come along if you want.' That was the beginning of my bumming rides on Puget Sound towboats, sometimes having to play hooky to do it. The skippers let me work as a deck hand, but they kept telling me I was crazy to put my efforts into something like that. That was the reason I got a little folding 116 camera and took pictures of the vessels we towed, work aboard the boats ... anything that had a marine angle."
Young Joe developed his film in his mother's bathtub and sold some prints to the sailors he knew.
Shipping Out and Back
In 1928 Joe graduated from Ballard High School but skipped the ceremonies in order to ship out to Sitka, Alaska, where he'd lined up a job as a deckhand with the U.S Coast and Geodetic Survey (later renamed the National Geodetic Survey). The survey ship was the Explorer, a coal burner. "The highlight of every day was holystoning [a laborious process of scrubbing down the wooden boards with a lump of sandstone or firebrick] the deck, no matter how the weather was, it went on rain or shine" (McDonald, "The Famous ...").
With a dose of reality under his belt, Williamson headed back to Seattle and obtained a job as a marine clerk for the Seattle Merchants Exchange. That job didn't last long either, and Williamson was laid off when the Great Depression hit Seattle. His next job was as a motorcycle courier. A friend of his, Al Price, had a photo-development service and offered Williamson work picking up film from businesses such as Bartell Drugs if he would obtain his own motorcycle. According to a 1976 article in The Sea Chest by Gordon Jones, Williamson made $13 a week to begin plus a $4 expense account. After a couple of years he had earned enough to marry girlfriend Evelyn Soames (1909-1960) in 1932. The job also gave him the opportunity to learn more about darkroom work.
In 1935 Joe and Evelyn headed to Alaska, where he worked for Ordway Photography in Juneau and Schallerer's Photography in Ketchikan developing film, printing postcards for the tourist trade, and carrying out the occasional photography assignment. Evelyn helped out -- for no pay! After returning to Seattle, Williamson worked for Bartell Drugs as assistant manager of its darkroom service before launching out into his best-known venture -- the Marine Salon.
Shops and Ships
By 1937 Williamson, then in his late 20s and with a baby at home, had accumulated sufficient skills and confidence to open his own photo shop on Seattle's waterfront, where he proposed to sell his prints. To make a living he soon added darkroom and contract work to his offerings. The first location for his Marine Salon was a small space on the upper level of the viaduct connecting the Grand Trunk Dock (also known as the Canadian National Dock) with the Colman Dock. The location was strategic: According to Williamson's daughter, Joanne Williamson Hunter, workers coming to town on the ferries could drop their film off with him and pick up the photos on the way home.
Williamson and his shop soon became fixtures on the waterfront, alongside the likes of Ivar Haglund and his aquarium and Acres of Clams, the Pilot House novelty shop, and Ye Olde Curiosity Shop.
Williamson continued to operate the Marine Salon from 1937 until 1962, moving it several times, but always staying right on the Seattle waterfront.
Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society Research Coordinator Karl House recalled patronizing Williamson's shops as a youth in the 1940s:
"I first met Joe Williamson because I used to buy pictures of tugboats from him when I was a young boy in elementary school, maybe 8 or 9 years old. I knew where it was, 'cause you could go there on the bus. Well, I knew the shop because I’d been in with my dad before, and I knew it cost 50 cents to buy an 8-by-10 picture of a tug. Their photo salon was on the little viaduct that goes from First Avenue over the railroad tracks into the Colman Ferry Dock. That was the first Joe Williamson shop I was in. Subsequent to that he moved to a larger shop in the ferry dock itself and I bought a number of pictures over the years there.
"He was courteous and he would pull out pictures of various tugs, even though I only had enough money usually to buy one at a time. I'd pick out a picture and he'd sell it to me. If he wasn't there, his wife would wait on me. She knew about everything that was in there, where the things were filed and so forth. Everybody on the waterfront pretty much knew a lot about what Joe did."
Ron Burke, long-time editor of the PSMHS journal The Sea Chest, also described fond memories of visiting the Marine Salon.
"I grew up in Bremerton and whenever I came to Seattle [on the ferry], I would walk past Joe Williamson's Marine Photo shop on the Marion Street pedestrian viaduct from the ferry dock. As a teenager and a Sea Scout in the 1940s, I got interested in maritime history and I used to drop by his shop and talk to him about it. One Christmas my grandmother gave me five dollars. I took it to Joe's shop and started to order photos and told him to stop me when I reached the five dollar limit. As I recall, I was able to buy eight photos, all of which I still have and [some of which I] have used in The Sea Chest.
"Later, during my college summers, I worked on eight different ferries and ships and bought photos of each of them from Joe. Also, in that work, I needed Coast Guard endorsements which required current photo ID cards and I always went to Joe to take my photos."
A Creative Entrepreneur
Williamson's work extended beyond simply taking pictures and selling them. He was a creative entrepreneur, turning pictures of ships into Christmas cards, selling photos to various newspapers and periodicals, and collaborating with historians Jim Gibbs and Gordon Newell on several pictorial books. His shop was always more than a collection of prints; it grew into a sort of gallery of maritime artifacts, including model ships, ship name plates, and other "relics and souvenirs," as the daily paper described it. According to The Seattle Times (April 30, 1938), Williamson had on exhibit "a miniature three-masted bark made by R. A. Kidd, steward of the steamship Alaska, from the breastbone of a turkey," as well as gear from the luxurious steamship Islander, which had sunk in 1901 off the coast of Alaska with great loss of life.
One noted relic surfaced in Williamson's trove in 1947: part of the whistle from the beloved Bailey Gatzert, a sternwheeler that had plied the waters of Puget Sound from 1890 to 1926. The familiar Bailey Gatzert whistle consisted of four chimes (some say five), one of which Williamson holds in a 1947 Seattle Times photograph.
Williamson was always willing to try a new venture. During World War II he worked part-time taking photos for the Seattle Port of Embarkation, the military presence on the waterfront. Toward the end of his retail career on the waterfront, he opened a small gift shop alongside his photo business on the Colman Dock. Evelyn and the Williamson children helped run the gift shop while Joe continued to operate his photo shop. "Joe's Wheelhouse: The Nautical Nicknack Nook" lasted from 1959 through the 1962 Century 21 World’s Fair.
Williamson was no landlubber. While operating the Marine Salon he also managed to find time for many excursions by boat. According to Austen Hemion, a friend and co-founder of PSMHS, Williamson vowed to "photograph anything that would float." His fellow boat nuts were more than willing to help him fulfill his pledge, as Hemion described:
"A group of us planned several one-day excursions to Vancouver, B.C., the Olympic Peninsula, and Portland, Oregon, to cover marine scenes, including the shipwrecks of the British freighter Temple Bar and the Russian Vatzlav Vorovsky."
Joanne Hunter recalled that her father would accompany Ivar Haglund when that famous waterfront character went out looking for specimens for his aquarium. Haglund would fish while Williamson snapped pictures of passing ships.
Karl House remembered Williamson's boats:
"He had two different boats from which he took pictures. The first one was called PhotoShip and I'd say it was maybe a 30-foot boat. Then he bought a larger boat, called PhotoQueen, which was probably 50 or 55 feet. He could stay out on that boat for longer periods of time because it had all the cooking and live-aboard facilities that you needed on a boat that size. So he'd go as far out as the San Juan Islands and do some photo shoots there. Anyplace there was a photo opportunity."
The ships were available for hire and Williamson was willing to take on any type of work that would allow him to take his camera along. He told Lucile McDonald:
"I'd go on any errand that had to do with boats. I was becoming known for my ship pictures and lawyers and surveyors got to calling me for jobs. That was my specialty. It was in my blood. I'd take any kind of waterfront pictures that were wanted. I remember one day I went aboard a boat and the crew found out I was there on a legal case. They were going to dowse my camera and tripod, but a friend who was with me saw what they were about to do in the nick of time."
This was far from Williamson's only adventure on the water. He and the PhotoQueen were once hired by Pinkerton detectives to help track down pirates raiding the fish traps set by Alaskan salmon canneries:
"It was the most exciting thing I ever did. We patrolled in the Ketchikan area night and day and I took hundreds of pictures of fish traps and pirate boats. We carried guns but we never knew what we had a right to do. We had no authority, but the pirates didn't know that. I've chased a dozen of their boats out to sea" (McDonald, "The Famous ...").
Founding the Historical Society
Williamson and his friends often talked of finding a permanent home for the nautical relics they all collected, most of which were gathering dust in attics and basements. In 1948 a group of men gathered at Ivar's Acres of Clams and voted to form the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, toasting their achievement with clam nectar. Williamson was the first president and continued in that role for three years.
Much of the early work centered on finding storage for all the artifacts, many of which had been obtained through clandestine "moonlight requisitioning" from abandoned vessels. In 1954 the society began its long partnership with the newly erected Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) and the rest is history!
Evelyn Williamson passed away in 1960 and soon thereafter Joe Williamson, in his early 50s, decided it was time to close the Marine Salon and move to a home he had built near Winslow on Bainbridge Island. His large collection of photographs went with him. In 1962 Williamson married Alice Murphy, who had become acquainted with Joe and Evelyn while staffing the information booth at the ferry terminal.
Williamson's move did not mean retirement. For the remainder of the 1960s he worked as a photographer for Lockheed Shipbuilding (formerly Puget Sound Bridge and Dredging). By the early 1970s, Williamson was back on the water, ferrying tourists around for Seattle Harbor Tours (later Argosy Cruises).
Karl House again:
"He went to work for a man named Lynn Campbell who had a couple of harbor tour boats and a water taxi service where he would take people to and from ships out in the harbor [Seattle Harbor Tours]. Like maybe the customs people wanted a ride out there or maybe the ship's crew wanted to come ashore or the ship's agent wanted to go aboard or the public health service in the case of quarantine. Lynn Campbell expanded his business, when there were fewer ships anchored in the harbor because there were more docks available, and built his first bona fide tourist boat called the Good Time. Joe worked for him part-time driving one of the water taxis or on the Good Time. Then Lynn Campbell got the contract for the passenger service to Blake Island when the longhouse was opened over there and he built another boat called Good Time II. Then Joe and Lynn each captained one of the boats and that went on for a good while."
While ferrying tourists may have seemed like safe, dull employment for a man in his late sixties, there were exceptions. A 1977 article in The Seattle Times tells how Williamson and his co-skippers on the Goodtime II were given a unique assignment which took them into deep water:
"They were to proceed 120 miles to Neah Bay, pick up 21 replacement crewmen and deliver them to an oil rig standing 20 or more miles offshore. Then they were to return to Neah Bay with 22 homebound men off the rig. 'The scariest part of it all was when a 150-foot crane lowered the men, four per trip, in a net-like cage to the Goodtime's foredeck, ' Williamson said. 'Then four would scramble aboard the net to be lifted up onto the rig. All this time, the Goodtime was bouncing like a cork in some pretty steep seas.' But the on-off transfers went well. Then the 22 men, accustomed to the weeks-long stability of the huge oil-drill rig, got seasick in the rollicking Goodtime as she proceed at 10 knots to Neah Bay. 'Darndest harbor-tour run we ever made,' Williamson said" (Carter).
Word has it that Williamson also did some work for the competition, Gray Line Water Sightseeing Tours, skippering its flagship Sightseer.
Throughout this period, Williamson continued to run his photo business out of his home. He had a fully equipped darkroom installed, as well as a fire-proof vault for the photos. In 1977 he told Seattle Times reporter Tom Swint that he received letters from all over the world requesting prints of particular boats. Fortunately, he filed all his photos by ship name.
The Williamson Collection
In 1980 Williamson officially retired. By that time he had amassed a collection of more than 60,000 prints and negatives. Exact numbers are hard to verify, but it appears that about half the collection consists of photographs Williamson took himself, while the other half is made up of images purchased from other photographers or outlets. The sum includes 3,000 glass-plate negatives Williamson acquired from the Webster & Stevens commercial photography company in the 1940s. A number of the images in the collection date to the late nineteenth century. Joanne Hunter, Williamson's daughter, recalls that some of the glass-plate images were the work of Eric Hegg (1867-1948), a photographer who documented the Klondike Stampede during the late 1890s.
The Webster & Stevens photographs were among the first Williamson collected. Lou Miller, who had bought out the venerable Seattle photo studio, offered Williamson the opportunity to pay for the collection in installments despite having a check in hand for $2,500 from the San Francisco Maritime Museum. To come up with the down payment of $600, Williamson turned to fellow maritime enthusiasts Ivar Haglund, Arthur Foss of Foss Tugboats, and shipbuilder Horace (H. W.) McCurdy, each of whom contributed $200 on the spot. Decades later, Williamson was able to pay Miller's favor forward by allowing Puget Sound Maritime a year to come up with the purchase price of his entire collection.
Williamson was aware of the value of his collection. In fact, he had set himself a very specific dual life-goal: to document maritime life and to build an asset that would serve to help fund his retirement. In 1979, at the age of 70, he offered the entire collection for sale. The asking price: $50,000 (about $163,000 in 2015 dollars). The San Francisco Maritime Museum was quick to make an offer, but Williamson hoped to conclude a sale with the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, the society he had helped found in 1948.
Jim Cole, then vice president of the society, vowed aloud that the collection would not leave Puget Sound. The PSMHS board had had enough of the better-funded and more proactive San Francisco Maritime Museum cherry-picking maritime artifacts from its backyard. Led by Cole, the board reached out to its membership and beyond, contacting old friends in the maritime trades and sending letters to businesses and foundations in the area.
Jim Cole remembered the challenge:
"We talked about how we were going to do this. I had never done this kind of thing. We did send letters out. There was a lot of word of mouth activity. My late wife, Myrna, typed 180 letters to companies here."
A promise of $5,000 from Horace McCurdy, Williamson's old friend, lent impetus to a campaign that was slow gaining momentum. Several companies made sizable contributions, but the vast majority of the 476 donations came from individuals. It took nearly the entire year, but the group made its goal with enough left over to purchase filing cabinets to house the collection.
As PSMHS zeroed in on its goal in the spring of 1980, MOHAI, the society's partner and home base, showcased the collection in its Maritime Gallery (the Joshua Green-Dwight Merrill wing). The exhibit featured 60 images alongside ship models and other maritime artifacts.
The huge Williamson Collection became the centerpiece of the PSMHS archives, which until then had had only a few small photographic collections to supplement its ship plans, models, and books. Acquisition of the extensive collection remade the society into an important and recognized repository of maritime history. In 1993 Williamson's collection of some 500 fish-trap photos, taken on his Alaskan adventures, were accessioned by the society.
Williamson at MOHAI
MOHAI Curator of Photography Howard Giske met Williamson shortly after his collection was acquired by PSMHS and conveyed to storage at MOHAI's Montlake building. In his early 70s at that point, Williamson traveled from his home on Bainbridge Island to lend a hand in the darkroom:
"He lived in Winslow, not far from the ferry dock. He would walk down to the ferry dock, get on the boat, gab with old pals and cronies, I'm sure -- he knew a lot of the ferryboat people. He would walk off at Colman Dock and would walk from there to MOHAI ... to Montlake! He always had interesting stories, charming tales to tell about his walk to the museum that day: just a chatty, lively fellow to have on the team."
PSMHS board member Pat Hartle recalled that Williamson would also walk from the ferry dock to the Yankee Diner in Ballard for dinner meetings of the historical society. Each of these jaunts was a walk of about five miles -- one way!
Williamson's darkroom equipment came along with the accession of the photos. Howard Giske, who worked jointly for MOHAI and PSMHS at the time, said:
"He had always been a pipe smoker, so we really had to work hard to get those lenses and condensers and things all cleaned up. He loved the darkroom work, he said. He really wasn't all that interested in the photography and the camera work, but he'd smoke his pipe back there [in the darkroom.] A cloud of smoke! You couldn't catch anything on fire really, but he would kind of pollute the air with that old pipe. In a lot of the pictures taken of him you see him with his pipe."
Jim Cole, who led the charge to obtain the Williamson Collection, recalled Williamson at MOHAI:
"Of course, the collection was his child. He wanted to make sure everything was done right. It was probably hard to let go."
Williamson passed away on February 26, 1994, at the age of 84, from complications of a broken hip. His wife Alice died nine months later. Williamson was survived by his son Rondel Williamson (1937-2011) and daughter Joanne Williamson Hunter (b. 1940). Ron Williamson served as president of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society in 1985.
Joanne Hunter described a special trip the family took on the steamer Virginia V on National Maritime Day, May 19, 1994. Three slow blasts from the ship's whistle marked the scattering of Joe Williamson's ashes off of Myrtle Edwards Park on Seattle's waterfront.