Mystery photo album discovered at Seattle estate sale

Mar 24, 2021, 5:06 AM | Updated: 9:30 am

A Seattle man purchased an old photo album a few years ago at an estate sale on Queen Anne Hill and stashed it away on one of his shelves. Now, local historians are excited about the rare images discovered inside.

Gordon Macdougall is an English teacher. He loves local history and, prior to the pandemic, he was a devoted attendee of weekend estate sales, where he often arrived early and sought out books, maps, pamphlets and other artifacts of Northwest history for his own edification.

One find in particular has sent something of a shockwave through the local history community.

“I don’t remember the exact sale,” Macdougall told KIRO Radio. “I have an idea which sale it was, but I can’t be sure. It was on Queen Anne, I think, about three years ago, that had some really, really interesting items – a lot of historic items.”

What Macdougall purchased that day was an old leather photo album, full of one-of-a-kind black and white photographs that appeared to be at least a century old, and that appeared to be the work of a skilled photographer using a sophisticated camera.

“This album, I knew right away that it was interesting, because the photos in it were just fascinating,” Macdougall said. “And with an album like this, with photos like this, you know that each photo is unique, and I thought that some of them might have some historical value.”

“And also, they’re very beautiful,” Macdougall said. “They’re this kind of gold-tone print that’s just lovely.”

Gordon Macdougall is a busy guy, and the album ended up on one of his shelves to be examined at some point in the future. That moment arrived a few weeks ago, when he shared some of the more interesting images on Facebook.

That’s where historian and author Matt McCauley first spied them. He knew right away this wasn’t any routine estate sale find, especially because of one set of images in particular.

“He had photos of the ‘Log Ditch’ that predated the Montlake Cut,” McCauley told KIRO Radio, referencing the concrete-lined canal that currently divides the Montlake neighborhood from Husky Stadium, and that was originally dug to connect Lake Washington to Lake Union and Puget Sound through the Ballard Locks. Montlake Cut was formally dedicated in 1917.

The Log Ditch was long before all that. It was dug by hand by Chinese laborers in the 1880s, and was meant for moving only raw timber – floating logs, harvested along the shores of Lake Washington – into Lake Union.

The Log Ditch “was slightly south of the Montlake Cut, and was originally built over the rail grade from the 1870s that was used to portage coal cars across from Lake Washington to Lake Union,” McCauley said, describing the many layers of history present in that area, which was also important to indigenous people for millennia.

McCauley’s interest in the photos is understandable. He’s done research and gives presentations on the coal activity in the area, and he’s aware that while the old Log Ditch is well-known among historians and fans of long-gone infrastructure, nobody really remembers what it looked like. And images are pretty scarce.

“Pictures of the Log Ditch are fairly rare,” McCauley said. “And usually when you do find photos, it’s at one end or the other [of the ditch], but this person had taken some shots in the middle.”

Those shots taken in the middle show an area very much unlike how Montlake Cut, State Route 520, and Montlake Boulevard looks now. There are no homes or other structures, only plenty of trees and otherwise undisturbed soil along the banks of the Log Ditch.

The album also includes photos of Snoqualmie Falls, and a few rare images of the bicycle path, bicycle bridge, and a path-side restaurant believed to be in the Capitol Hill and Ravenna Park areas of Seattle. There’s also a series of images from Victoria, B.C., and the nearby British Navy installation at Esquimalt, also on Vancouver Island.

One other non-Seattle photo that also caught Matt McCauley’s eye showed a blockhouse, or wooden defensives structure, likely built in the 19th century during the treaty wars of the 1850s. But it wasn’t one that he recognized from visits to English Camp on San Juan Island or any other similar structures he was familiar with.

“I started just crossing possibilities off the list,” McCauley said. “And so far, the one that looks most like it, to me, is one down in Centralia that is called the Borst Blockhouse that was located on the property of a family named Borst down there.”

And sure enough, when McCauley reached out to the City of Centralia last week, Hillary Hoke, assistant director of the city’s planning division, verified that the photo is indeed of the Borst Blockhouse.

Hoke told KIRO Radio the historic structure has been moved a few times from its original location, and is now located within Borst Park. She says the city is working to raise about $125,000 to perform much needed restoration and repairs to the 165-year old blockhouse. So far, about $25,000 has been raised; Hoke says contributions are welcome, and information about contributing is posted online.

While McCauley and other volunteers have solved some of the mysteries of Gordon Macdougall’s photo album, the identity of the photographer remains unknown. However, McCauley says that researchers were able to narrow down the date of the images to sometime around July 1901.

This part of the mystery was solved, says McCauley, by closely examining one photo in the album that was taken at the intersection of Third Avenue and Cherry Street, former location of the Seattle Theatre.

“The Seattle Theatre had a [poster] out front with two different shows and it also had a couple of American flags draped out in front of it,” McCauley said. “So we really zoomed in on those posters advertising upcoming shows. And the one that was the matinee for the Fourth of July – we went back through the Seattle Times database – and sure enough, that particular show was advertised at the Seattle Theatre on that day.”

“So we figured with the decorations and the extra flags out, it was probably taken that day – Fourth of July 1901 – and then that sort of lined up with everything else,” McCauley said, including the timing of the visit of a particular ship to Esquimalt.

McCauley was able to examine the photos thanks to high-resolution scans made by Seattle photo historian Ron Edge, who also generously provided selected images for the gallery included with this piece.

As for the actual photo album and original prints, Gordon Macdougall’s famous shelf will soon have a bare spot. He told KIRO Radio late last week that he’s decided to donate it to the University of Washington Libraries’ Special Collections.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Mystery photo album discovered at Seattle estate sale