THERE ARE LITERALLY hundreds of thousands — millions, likely — of these amazing images just waiting for you.
And you can have a high-resolution digital copy for free, or for a fee of $8 to $30, which goes to defray the cost of maintaining the astounding national, regional and city collections housing them. From these downloaded images, you can create your own home art gallery with renowned works.
So, on your desk or living room wall, you could display … oh … how about one of the most-requested photographs in the entire National Archives?
Noon, Dec. 21, 1970: Elvis, dressed in a purple velvet suit with a huge gold belt buckle and amber sunglasses, visits President Richard Nixon at the Oval Office in the White House. He gifts the president a Colt .45 pistol mounted in a display case. Looking at the photos from this unlikely meeting, it’s as if the cosmos had reset.
For this story, except for Elvis, I’m sticking with Pacific Northwest images.
They’re the ones that archivists told me are the most-requested, although some images are included because they’re just plain remarkable, even if not widely known.
The Mighty Columbia touches our souls
You know that feeling when you drive on Interstate 90 across the river at Vantage Bridge? Doesn’t matter whether it’s the first time or the 100th.
“We have wrestled inside of ourselves emotionally and intellectually for 100 years, and even those driven by the desire to get every kilowatt out of falling water, even those individuals get overwhelmed by the majesty of the river,” says Bill Lang, professor emeritus in history at Portland State University and an expert on the Columbia River Basin.
This photo of Kettle Falls was taken in May 1938 on a field trip by the Spokane Camera Club. The caption from the National Archives says, “Preliminary to the trip, club officers had stressed that the occasion would probably provide the last opportunity to photograph the falls before clearing work preparatory to the flooding caused by the backwater from Coulee Dam.”
Writes Cassandra Tate in HistoryLink about Kettle Falls, “The sound of the river, plunging nearly 50 feet in a series of cascades, could be heard for miles. It was said that the salmon ran so thick here that it was impossible to throw a stick into the water without hitting a fish. … Today, the noise at Kettle Falls comes not from rushing water but from nearby Highway 395.”
The Golden Stairs to disappointment
It was freezing, combined with snow, blizzards and avalanches. But the promise of riches was too tempting during the Klondike Gold Rush.
This photo was taken in the winter of 1898, as packers were climbing up to the summit of Chilkoot Pass between the Alaska-British Columbia border just north of Skagway. It was in Canada’s Yukon Territory that gold was discovered.
The Canadians enforced that the gold-seekers had to have 3 pounds of food per day for a whole year, according to a U.S. National Park Service history. That was nearly 1,100 pounds. Add clothing and equipment, and you were at “a ton of goods.”
The trail went up 1,000 feet in the final half-mile. To carry that much cargo meant several trips up and down the slope.
Some entrepreneurs carved a series of 3-foot-wide steps — estimates ranged from 1,100 to 1,500 steps — into the ice and snow, and charged a fee for unlimited use for one day.
Of the some 100,000 Klondikers set off for the Yukon, with only 30,000 completing the trip, “ … few were prepared for how difficult it was,” says a University of Washington history. “Some men reportedly also went insane on the trail. Many suffered malnutrition and/or died along the trails.”
A man is said to have died for this image
Back in 1992, Bill Zoller, 79, of Woodinville, visited Chernobyl.
He was a University of Washington chemistry professor who studied the Earth’s atmosphere. The International Atomic Energy Agency asked Zoller, now professor emeritus, for his assessment of what was going on with the Ukrainian reactor meltdown that had taken place on April 26, 1986.
Uranium, steel, concrete and sand had melted to form a radioactive, glasslike lava that melted through several floors, eventually solidifying in the basement. Because of its shape, it was called the Elephant’s Foot.
The KGB, says Zoller, stopped him from going into the reactor.
But he says his Ukrainian host gave him a photographic slide. It was of the Elephant’s Foot. (There is another Elephant’s Foot image on the internet that has also received wide publicity.)
“Go ahead; pass the image around the West,” Zoller says the man told him. “I don’t have any way of getting it out there.”
If the image is grainy and appears damaged, says Zoller, it’s because the film was bombarded by radiation.
He also tells this story that was relayed to him: “A man was sent down there to take pictures with a roll of fast film. An hour or two after he came back, he went to sleep and died. That image cost a man his life.”
Mount St. Helens: The big bang that turned daylight into darkness
Among the most-requested images at the National Archives are these photos of Mount St. Helens.
There is an idyllic 1936 picture of the mountain and Spirit Lake.
Then there is a photo taken May 19, 1980, one day after Mount St. Helens erupted.
Holy-moly. The scene aptly was described as a moonscape.
In three minutes, 230 square miles of forest was scorched as the blast traveled at more than 300 miles an hour. All the birds in that zone died. Towering trees snapped. Elk burned. Fifty-seven people were killed. The mountain got its top chopped off by 1,300 feet.
But it didn’t stay a moonscape.
A May 2005 Smithsonian Magazine story said that ecologist Virginia Dale from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who has studied the site, had counted more than 150 species of wildflowers, shrubs and trees, with an average of 10 new plant species gaining a foothold every year.
Boeing’s 314 Clipper flying boat — astounding elegance
That’s the Clipper, majestically flying by Mount Rainier in a 1938 photo commissioned by the justifiably proud former state Department of Commerce & Economic Development.
There were only 12 Clippers made, from 1938 to 1941, most flown by Pan American Airways. None exists today. But there is a reason they still capture our imaginations.
“Clipper passengers looked down at the sea from large windows and enjoyed the comforts of dressing rooms, a dining salon that could be turned into a lounge, and a bridal suite. The Clipper’s 74 seats converted into 40 bunks for overnight travelers. Four-star hotels catered gourmet meals served from its galley,” says a Boeing company history. “President Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled by Boeing Clipper to meet with Winston Churchill at the Casablanca Conference in 1943. On the way home, Roosevelt celebrated his birthday in the flying boat’s dining room.”
It wasn’t cheap to book a flight. A round-trip airfare — from New York to Southampton, England — was $675 in 1939. That’s $13,700 in today’s dollars.
World War II brought the end of the Clippers — for one reason: Many new airports were built, and water landings were not needed.
You can buy the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse for $6.5 million
A bit less than an acre in size, this rock rises 100 feet from the sea between Seaside and Cannon Beach in Oregon. It has one weird history.
This photo helps explain why Oregon’s only offshore light station has been called “Terrible Tilly.”
It operated as a lighthouse from 1881 to 1957, during which time the duty meant isolation and punishing storms with winds over 100 miles an hour that sent boulders crashing into the buildings, says an Oregon Historical Society paper.
Declared surplus, Tillamook Rock was sold several times. Its current owner is real estate developer Mimi Morissette, who purchased the property in 1980 for $50,000.
What to do with a structure that has no fresh water, sewer or lights?
Morissette had a vision: Eternity at Sea, a repository for up to 300,000 urns for ashes of loved ones.
But only about 30 urns ended up placed there, including Morissette’s parents’, before the state yanked the columbarium’s (the structure that holds the urns) license in 1999.
Morissette says the last time she visited the lighthouse was in September 2019.
“We had a little problem with the sea lions. They broke in through the front door because of all the rust. We won’t have that problem anymore. They’ll be replaced with titanium,” she says.
In a phone interview from her home in Cascade Falls in Oregon, she says a cemetery consulting firm has the listing: asking price, $6.5 million.
“I expect a bidding war,” she says.
She is 77, and when it’s her time, she plans to have her ashes join her folks’.
When Seattle Black Panthers stood on the state’s Capitol steps
In the middle of this photo, at the front, is Elmer Dixon, now 72 and living in Port Orchard. He and his brother, Aaron Dixon, now 73, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, were founding members of the Black Panthers here. They grew up in Seattle’s Central District.
On Feb. 28, 1969, the two brothers led half a dozen members to Olympia.
They had come to protest a bill that would make it a crime to exhibit firearms “in a manner manifesting an intent to intimidate others,” says the caption from the state archives.
The bill was similar to one passed the previous year by the Seattle City Council after Panthers with unloaded weapons went to Rainier Beach High School and “displayed rifles and shotguns on the school grounds in defense of black students who had been attacked and threatened by white students,” according to HistoryLink.
The trip to Olympia had been postponed by a day, remembers Elmer Dixon. Their younger brother, Michael Dixon, was still in high school and working as a page for the Legislature. He warned them what was awaiting that day.
According to HistoryLink, “A contingent of 45 state troopers, dressed in helmets and combat boots and carrying nightsticks, patrolled every entrance and exit of the Capitol … A machine gun was mounted on top of the building.”
When the Panthers didn’t show, says Elmer, the lawmen “took their weapons and toys and went home. We showed up the next day and caught them off guard.”
While Aaron Dixon went inside and delivered a short statement, Elmer Dixon and others from the group stood outside with shotguns, a State Patrol captain observing them.
“I showed the cop that there was not a round in the chamber, so the weapons were not loaded, not ready to fire,” says Elmer.
Elmer says about the image’s popularity, “It’s a symbol of defiance of racism and oppression in this country.”
Greta Thunberg, time traveler?
This image went viral in November 2019. For a time, the University of Washington Libraries’ Special Collections was getting 100,000 hits a day on the digital image, says Lisa Oberg, interim director. Now, she says, “It’s a few hundred a day.”
It all started when Allison White, of Tempe, Arizona, and friends visited the Seattle waterfront.
At Miner’s Landing on Pier 57, White’s attention was caught by historic Klondike Gold Rush images on the walls.
“This is Greta!” she exclaimed about one of them. She meant Greta Thunberg, the Swedish environmental activist, now 19.
A girl in the historic image did look like Greta. It had been taken around 1898 of three children operating a rocker — which separates gold from sand and gravel — at a mine along Dominion Creek, Yukon Territory.
In a phone interview, White says she posted the image on her Facebook page. That led a friend to share it on Facebook with Alien Star Group, which has 126,000 members interested in “ancient aliens” and “strange discoveries.”
“Greta Thunberg ‘time traveler’ ” took off. Even “Star Trek” alum George Takei tweeted about the image. That got 451,000 views.
White says, “I’m incredibly pleased that there was increased traffic to the library.”
‘Lost to the World,’ a classic 1909 Mount Rainier photo
We have an insatiable appetite for images of Mount Rainier, says Margaret Wetherbee, head of collections for the Washington State Historical Society.
Yes; many of us see it every day at a distance. Why not in our homes, too? The mountain is part of what we are in the Northwest.
The personal collection of 60,000 mostly nitrate negatives from Asahel Curtis, who died in 1941, is at the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma. He was one of the region’s most prolific photographers, and the mountain was a favorite subject.
A Mount Rainier ice cave long melted away
One more highly requested image by Asahel Curtis, taken Aug. 17, 1923.
The photo is likely of the Paradise Ice Caves, under the Paradise Glacier, which by the 1980s had melted away because of climate change.
Green Lake diving board: Not in today’s Seattle
Some major differences from when this image was taken June 25, 1936, at Green Lake:
● Outdoor diving boards now top off at 12 feet because of water depth. This one was 16 feet at the top.
● It’s made out of wood, and wood always evokes nostalgia.
● Kids are crowded at the top platform. Now only one person at a time is allowed to climb the ladder to the top.
Says Rob Zisette, chair of Friends of Green Lake, about the image so popular with the Seattle Municipal Archives: “It’s an era that we miss. Kids having a blast. We can’t do that anymore. It’s lawsuit heaven.”
Yes; these women mountaineers are wearing bloomers
Another Asahel Curtis photo. These three women mountaineers pose in 1909 at a meadow on Mount Rainier. Says the caption, “They wear hats, bloomers, hiking boots and gauntlet gloves, and hold alpenstocks.”
Bloomers, sometimes called Turkish trousers or pantaloons, were revolutionary back then, an alternative to uncomfortable full skirts. Alpenstocks are walking sticks.
Says Peggy Luce, the Ballard resident who in 1989 was the second U.S. woman to reach the top of Mount Everest, “Actually, I was expecting them to wear dresses. They’re wearing sort of pants. I like the fact that they had decent boots. It’s always wonderful that women are going against the grain.”
An instant poster for your kitchen
It’s not only photographs being requested from the archives. For image downloads, it’s everything from posters to apple carton labels.
This is the cover of a 32-page guide to help you grow vegetables from The Washington Water Power Co. The 1943 guide is a nostalgic marker from World War II. Nearly two-thirds of American households participated in some form of national harvest, according to a New York Times story. The country was united back then, maybe another reason the image gets requested.
Next time you’re stuck in Snoqualmie Pass traffic, remember how it was
This photo shows men on a car trip across Snoqualmie Pass, August 1910.
Just making the journey was worth news coverage, such as this Seattle Times Sept. 4 story from that year: “ … We were eight hours negotiating 6 miles of almost impassible road,” James Esary was quoted. “It was a great experience, but once is enough for me.”
In the 1850s, goods were shipped across the pass to mines in the Colville region in Eastern Washington, following trails that had been used by Native Americans, according to Yvonne Prater’s “Snoqualmie Pass: From Indian Trail to Interstate.” Then, goods going from Seattle to the mines were carried “on the backs of horses, mules and men.”
Over the years, private toll roads were built for wagons. In 1884, the cost of taking a horse and buggy from the Cle Elum-Ellensburg area to North Bend was $2 (around $61 in today’s dollars).
By 1905, writes Prater, the first motorized traffic went across the pass. By 1934, the first paved road through the pass was dedicated.