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John E. Thwaites Photographs of Alaska, 1905-1920

Passengers on shore beside wreck of steamer MARIPOSA, Fitz Hugh Sound, British Columbia, October 8, 1915
Wreck of steamer MARIPOSA, 1915

John Edward Thwaites was employed in Alaska by the federal government as a clerk for the Railway Mail Service during the early part of the 20th century. From 1905 to 1912 he settled into life onboard the wood hulled mailboat S.S. DORA owned by the Northwestern Steamship Company and traveled the route from Valdez to Unalaska delivering mail to the coastal communities. He was also an amateur photographer, who by using a Kodak camera, documented his experiences in Southeastern Alaska. Although not trained as a professional photographer, he quickly took advantage of the burgeoning postcard market selling thousands of photographic postcards depicting Alaska scenes. This collection includes his images of: the aftermath of Aleutian chain volcanic eruptions; maritime disasters including the famous Farallon shipwreck in 1910; Aleutian Natives and Eskimos, including an Aglegmiut shaman in costume depicting what is believed to be the only images of an actual shaman wearing these ceremonial costumes; Alaska industries including fox farming, whaling, codfish salteries, copper mining; glaciers and scenic wonders; and small towns and daily life encountered en route.


John Edward Thwaites, son of sailor and shipwright George Thwaites, was born in Eastwood, Ontario, Canada in 1863. About 1871, the family migrated to northern Michigan in search of better farm lands. As a young man he worked the family farm and attended a local college. In 1885 he married a local girl named Carrie Warne. The pair became employed in Michigan as public school teachers. Poor health eventually led Thwaites to settle in the warmer climates of Bowling Green, Florida. Unfortunately, his pursuit of a teaching career and investment in a drugstore did not serve to establish a very good livelihood for Thwaites. By good fortune, the Florida Southern Railroad had a depot in the town of Bowling Green and it was through his contact with them that he decided to apply for a position as a federal Railway Mail Service clerk in 1895, a job that would ultimately lead him far north to Alaska. In 1901 he was transferred to the Rocky Mountain Division of the Great Northern Railway where he was stationed in Spokane, Washington. Working for the railroad was, however, dangerous work. Due to his unfortunate involvement in numerous train wrecks and derailments, he decided to apply for a position in Alaska. He was assigned the "ship service" mail route from Valdez to Unalaska in 1905, serving mainly on the Northwestern Steamship Company's steamer the S.S. Dora. His office officially was designated as the "mail closet", a stateroom on the port side of the boat. It was here that he conducted the business of delivering the mail in monthly visits to the people of Southwestern Alaska.

Eskimo fishing cache, Bering Sea, ca. 1912
Eskimo fishing cache, Bering Sea, ca. 1912

Thwaites was an amateur photographer with no formal schooling in the art or technique of photography. His camera was a Kodak 3-A Special, a popular camera for producing postcards. Using this minimal equipment, he enthusiastically captured scenes in the Aleutian Islands, the Unga Peninsula, Kodiak Island, Prince William Sound and Bristol Bay. Salmon packing plants, codfish stations, Aleutian natives, Eskimos, maritime accidents, and small coastal towns and the details of Alaska life were often the subjects of his camera.

Alaska is known for its extreme weather conditions. Storms and foul weather often led to shipwrecks and maritime disasters in coastal waters. On January 5, 1910, Thwaites was aboard the S. S. Farallon, a wooden steam schooner, when it was wrecked at Illiamna Bay, Cooks Inlet. He and thirty others survived for one month on the beach by retrieving supplies from the grounded ship and scavenging the brush for fuel. His photographs document the harsh conditions of the shipwrecked passengers providing a chilly portrait of their primitive survival conditions. They were rescued eventually by the S.S. Victoria. He also documented the grounding of the Mariposa (which he was aboard) on June 8, 1915, when it struck a rock in the Fitz Hugh Sound, British Columbia stranding 95 passengers on the shore. Thwaites's own vessel, the Dora, was often damaged throughout its career. A standing joke among the locals was that the ship had somehow managed to hit every rock between Seattle and Seward.

Thwaites was transferred to the Seward-Seattle mail route in 1914. He began operating his photographic business out of his home in Seward, making at least two runs by dogsled to deliver the mail to the Yukon-Kuskokwim region. He remarried in 1915 and in 1919 he retired from the Mail Service and opened a small photography and curio shop on Dock Street in Ketchikan, where he and his wife specialized in hand coloring photographs. He moved his business to the Ingersoll Hotel in Ketchikan in 1924. He eventually sold his business to his assistant in 1932 and moved with his wife to Mercer Island, Washington, where he died in 1940.

About the Database

The information for the John E. Thwaites Photographs Collection was researched and prepared by the UW Libraries Special Collections Division and Cataloging staff in 2003. Not all the photographs from the collection were included in this database: the database consists of 396 digital images chosen from a group of approximately 1300 photographic prints. The images were scanned from photographic prints in grayscale using a Microtek Scanmaker 9600L and saved in .jpg format. Some manipulation of the images was done to present the clearest possible digital image. The scanned images were then linked with descriptive data using the Contentdm software suite. The original collection resides in the UW Libraries Special Collections Division as the John E. Thwaites Photographs Collection no. 247.

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