A long, strange trip for Dawson mystery photos

Bill Morrison, from New York, has produced a film about the silent movies found in permafrost in Dawson almost 40 years ago.

Bill Morrison, from New York, has produced a film about the silent movies found in permafrost in Dawson almost 40 years ago. He has expanded his fascination to the strange discovery of old Hegg glass plate negatives in the walls of an old Dawson cabin. I’m wondering, he asked my wife Kathy and me, if either of you have turned up anything about this?

Photographer Eric Hegg was 29 years old when he left for the Klondike in 1897. Instead of pick and shovel, he brought with him cameras, glass plates, chemicals and photographic paper.

Accompanying Hegg on his journey were three other men: Hegg’s younger brother Charlie, Per Larss, and P.B. Anderson. Anderson’s young daughter Ethel was featured in a number of photographs taken by Hegg in Dawson City.

In 1921, Ethel Anderson made a wager with Hegg that she would gather together all of the negatives and photographs dealing with the Klondike and Alaska.

“Can’t be done,” he said, “they are scattered far and wide.”

But she persevered; it was a pledge that took decades to fulfill.

Hegg left a trail of glass plate negatives everywhere he went. Some of them were acquired by Dedman’s Photo Shop in Skagway. Others were sold to E.J. Hamacher, who established a photo studio in Whitehorse. Hegg established a photo shop on Front Street in Dawson City which he left in the hands of P.E. Larss while he travelled the United States the winter of 1898/99. Larss, started labelling the photos Hegg and Company, then later, Hegg and Larss. The short-lived partnership dissolved as did their friendship. Neither kept in touch after Hegg left Dawson for Nome in 1899.

After Hegg’s departure, Larss formed a partnership with Joseph Duclos, but sold out to Duclos in 1903. In 1912, Duclos sold his studio to Erling Ellingsen. The chain of custody of the negatives is not clear here, but it is likely that Duclos acquired the negatives as part of the deal and perhaps passed them on to Ellingsen.

Many of Hegg’s glass plate negatives remained in Dawson City. Hegg shipped other negatives he produced in Nome back to Seattle. When his marriage to his wife Ella ended in divorce, she retained custody of these, eventually selling them to the Seattle firm of Webster and Stevens, who removed his credit line from the negatives and replaced it with their own.

Hegg’s prediction that his widely scattered collection would never be reunited seemed accurate. But Ethel Anderson, by this time Ethel Anderson Becker, came into possession of 150 glass plates that were found in a box outside a Seattle house that was being demolished. She then purchased the Hegg negatives from Webster and Stevens.

Becker made a trip to Dawson City in 1951, where she claims she came across 2,000 more Hegg negatives. They were, she reported, found in the sawdust insulation in the walls of an old cabin by a young woman who worked in a store in Dawson. The young woman saw this as an opportunity to install glass panes in a greenhouse, once the images were washed off. Her employer intervened and acquired the negatives. According to Murray Morgan, author of the book One Man’s Gold Rush, Becker tried several times to purchase the negatives, but the owner wasn’t willing to sell.

One day, a young couple contacted Becker inquiring about a collection of old glass plate negatives they had inherited. Becker purchased them, and her collection was complete.

Kathy turned to a Dawson-born resident, now living in Whitehorse, Irene Crayford. Irene was able to confirm that she was the young lady who found the negatives buried in sawdust in the walls of an old cabin that had belonged to Fred Envoldsen. It was 1947, and she and Will, her future husband, were planning to reassemble Envoldsen’s cabin at Rock Creek.

Her employer, Dick Diment, who owned the Dawson Artscraft store in Dawson intervened and purchased the negatives for $100.

I spoke to Bill Diment, Dick’s son, who recalled the glass plate negatives, which filled several powder boxes. Fortunately, the elder Diment recognized the historical value in these rare images. For a while, he produced post cards that were contact-printed from the negatives, but the post office complained about these oversized post cards and put an end to that venture.

Bill remembers that his father sent some of these negatives to the national archives in Ottawa. Perhaps these were the two hundred images referred to by film director Colin Low that inspired the classic film documentary City of Gold.

When the Diments left Dawson City in 1951, Bill was a lad 14 years old. He remembers that some of the glass plates came with them to Victoria, where his father set up shop manufacturing jewelry. Unfortunately, the shop was destroyed by a terrible fire, and the negatives were reduced to large globs of glass.

The story of these famous negatives remains a mystery in many ways. In each of the published accounts that I have read about them, the details have varied. The biggest mystery of all is the chain of custody for these glass plate negatives. Those that were left in Dawson when Hegg departed for Nome probably remained with Larss, who took many of them in the first place. But when he left Dawson, did he hide these glass treasures in the walls of an old cabin, or was it Duclos, who bought the business, or Ellingsen, who bought it from Duclos? Or was it someone else?

Another question: when Dick Diment acquired these, what happened to the ones that weren’t taken to Victoria? Did someone else buy them? Were they left somewhere for safe keeping? Could these have been the ones that were later sold to Ethel Becker? Bill Diment remembers that the negatives eventually went to the national archives in Ottawa, but there is no online record that confirms this. Are they there, buried amidst the millions of items held in that repository? Who were the mysterious young couple that later sold a collection of Hegg negatives to Becker?

The search continues. Clearly, this is a story that hasn’t reached its conclusion. Further research into historical records may help to clarify the story of the priceless glass plate negatives. Is there someone reading this who holds the answer? If so, I would like to hear from you.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing as book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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