“YOU CAN’T GO home again” was a sentiment my great-grandfather would have echoed. Ole Andreas Ringseth (“Daddy Andrew” to his extended family) was part of the Norwegian diaspora between 1860 and 1910, emigrating in 1902 from tiny Liabygda on Norway’s west coast to Tacoma, never to return.
One of his enterprising countrymen, 19-year-old Anders Beer Wilse, had arrived in Minneapolis 18 years earlier. As a civil engineer with the ever-expanding railroads, he soon rolled to the Pacific Northwest.
Uniquely, Wilse began documenting his surveying and cartography with photography, at which he became increasingly skilled. In 1897, he quit his day job and opened a photo studio in Seattle, fortuitously just as Gold Rush fever infected the city. Over the next three years, he captured the booming city and its environs.
In our evocative “Then” photo, snapped from a wharf at the foot of Pike Street on a sunny afternoon, a half-dozen pedestrians belie an increasingly active waterfront. At least five train tracks run along Railroad Avenue in front of Schwabacher’s Wharf, where the USS Portland, bearing a ton of Yukon gold, docked in July 1897.
Diamond Ice and Storage, founded in 1893, advertised its product as “The Best Ice — No Core in It,” available for home delivery. The Hotel Diller, still standing today at the southeast corner of First and University, can be seen behind the crisply whitewashed ice-plant smokestack, across the street from its northern neighbor, the Hotel Vendome. On the skyline, past an oddly tall waterfront light standard, the King County Courthouse tower peeps out.
Wilse’s Seattle Photographic Company soon became profitable, hiring three assistants, including Ira Webster and Nelson Stevens, founders of the renowned Webster & Stevens photographic studio.
In spring 1900, Wilse sent his young family back to Norway for what was intended to be a short visit. By summer’s end, however, his wife, Helen, sent word that she had no interest in returning to Seattle. With no small regret, Wilse left his adopted country — and camera equipment — behind, opening a second photography studio in Oslo in 1901. But Helen’s instincts proved sound.
On the verge of regaining independence from Sweden in 1905, Norway provided an ideal subject for a talented photographer. Wilse dedicated himself to documenting its emerging cultural identity, recording more than 200,000 photographs until his death in 1949.
Today, his iconic images adorn Norwegian postage stamps and currency. Late in life, he expressed what might be a photographer’s credo: “I sought to capture for eternity the beauty of Norway’s landscape … something I believe can be of meaning to our descendants.”