Saturday, February 19, 2011

Photographic Evidence: The Silent City of Alaska

Silent City - Willoughby, 1885-1888The Silent City of Alaska is one of the most celebrated hoaxes in American history, but its legend is not the open and shut case many skeptics would have you believe. Mirages are known to be inexplicably realistic according to eyewitnesses, and the one Prof. Dick Willoughby claimed to have seen was just that. Replete with well-defined rooftops, trees, and streets, Willoughby claimed the modern-era cityscape that arose from a misty haze on the Muir Glacier's horizon lasted only a few minutes before dissipating, but he managed to snap the accompanying photograph, "proving" he had seen something in Alaska in 1889.

America bought the state of Alaska from Russia just 20 years earlier, and few Americans had any idea of what to expect from the area, except cold. When San Francisco papers picked-up the story in 1889, it exploded throughout the popular culture, and papers as far away as New York and Ottawa carried the story and picture.

The article is overly flattering of Prof. Willoughby, establishing his expertise in mining and "Artic" History, as well as his elevated status amongst natives throughout the territory. Willoughby was the first American to discover gold in Alaska and claimed to have seen numerous, bizarre mirages during his expeditions -- particularly, the Silent City, which he said appeared every year from June 21st to July 10th on the Muir Glacier.

According to some sources, Willoughby sold the negative he sent to the San Francisco Chronicle for about $500, and by all sources, Willoughby sold copies of the photograph for 75¢ in gift shops throughout Juneau. He even chaperoned paid tours of the area where he claimed to have photographed the mirage, which some said was the reflection of either a French or German city thousands of miles away. Others suggested Montreal, which quickly became the forerunner even though Montreal experts and officials refuted it. Eventually, it was determined to be the reflection a Russian city thousands of miles away.

Others labeled the photograph a fake from the start, including a photographer quoted in the original San Francisco Chronicle article, who said it was the result of a badly exposed plate. "I regard it as a trick." He also discounted it as a mirage, noting all the mirages he'd seen were of islands and landscapes, not cities -- and absolutely none featured people. The idea had captured the public's mind.

The dating of the photograph remains in question. Some sources indicate the picture was taken in 1885, though it was later asserted that Willoughby sent to San Francisco for photography equipment in 1888. Willoughby was no photographer, though some accounts regard him as an "amateur;" he had no prior experience and never photographed anything else. When a San Francisco Chronicle reporter asked to see the negative, Willoughby could not produce it, and claimed the chemicals and process he used to develop the picture were "secret."

On October 11th of the same year, The San Francisco Chronicle published an article that identified the Silent City in the photograph as Bristol, England. Soon, the story emerged that Willoughby had either received an overexposed plate of the city when he purchased a box from a store or paid a down-on-his-luck English photographer for the plate some years before. Willoughby faked the photograph. Sources say the Professor died a mere two years later, but I could not confirm this. What I can confirm is that there is a Willoughby Ave. in Juneau, AK.

But the story does not end there.

© C Harris Lynn, 2011

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