Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/June 1897/The Silent City of the Muir Glacier

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MR. RICHARD G. WILLOUGHBY is a mining prospector and "promoter," resident in Juneau, Alaska, a man whose vocation enables him to see some wonderful things. In June, 1888, according to his statement, Mr. Willoughby beheld an extraordinary mirage from the surface of the Muir Glacier. It was the apparition of a great city of tall houses of brick and stone, plainly shown in the air under the influence of some powerful refraction. Behind the city was a river in which shipping was faintly shown. In the foreground the leafless branches of tall elm trees were clearly traceable. In the center of the city was a large edifice with several towers, and on some of these towers the presence of scaffolding showed that building was still going on. This mirage was seen by him several times from year to year, and on the unfinished building the stages in the process of erection each season could be distinctly followed.

Mr. Willoughby sent to San Francisco and secured a camera with a number of highly sensitized plates of the usual commercial sort in order to photograph the apparition. This he succeeded in doing but once successfully. The necessary exposure was a very long one, because of the unsubstantiality of the object. The one negative, however, gave a fairly clear print. Copies were at once made, and R. G. Willoughby's Silent City (seventy-five cents each) was added to the wonders of Alaska. I present herewith a copy of this picture bought by me in Sitka in 1896. The picture is not quite the same as the original edition of 1888. The scene is exactly identical, but the card has been reduced in size by the omission of superfluous sky. It has been rendered much fainter and more ghostlike than the original, and is perhaps taken from a new negative in which the lines of the houses and gravel walks have been purposely made less distinct.

The original edition has the following on the back of the card:

"The Glacial Wonder of the Silent City."

"For the past fifteen years Prof. Richard Willoughby has been a character in Alaska as well known among the whites as he has been familiar to the natives. As one of the early settlers of old Fort Wrangel, in which his individuality was stamped among the sturdy miners who frequented the then important trading port of Alaska, he has grown with the Territory and is to-day as much a part of its history as the totem poles are identified with the deeds of valor or commemorative of the past triumphs of prominent members of the tribes which their hideous and mysterious characters represent.

"To him belongs the honor of being the first American who discovered gold within Alaska's icy-bound peaks, but his greatest achievement from a scientific standpoint is his tearing from the glacier's chilly bosom the 'mirages' of cities from distant climes.

"After four years of labor amid dangers, privations, and sufferings, he accomplished for the civilized world a feat in photography heretofore considered problematic.

" It was on the longest day of June, 1888, that the camera took within its grasp the reproduction of a city remote, if indeed not altogether within the recesses of another world. The

silent city

is here presented for the consideration of the public as the wonder and pride of Alaska's bleak hills, and the ever-changing glaciers may never again afford a like opportunity for the accomplishment of this sublime phenomenon."

The picture attracted much attention and met with an encouraging sale. The skeptical bought it as an original document in the natural history of mendacity. The credulous regarded it as a wonder not surpassed by the gigantic glacier itself. The discussion arose in the newspapers as to whether some distant city, as Montreal, could have been brought into view by the freaks of the marvelous Alaskan atmosphere. Many who thought this impossible leaned to the belief that in the heart of Alaska or in British Columbia there is some great settlement of civilized men, as yet undiscovered by geographers. To those who held this opinion neither the nearness of the houses to the observer nor the
PSM V51 D173 The silent city alaska.jpg

The Silent City. Juneau Alaska

peculiarities of the vegetation (leafless elm trees in midsummer) nor the tiles on the chimneys offered any difficulties. The obvious but commonplace explanation was that of the few only. Even now, every summer, some account of the marvel goes the rounds of the newspapers. I am told that in 1896 a company of people encamped for some time on the glacier, in hopes of seeing this great wonder of Nature.

They did not see it, unfortunately, but others had better success, and these lucky ones have recently substantiated their account by their affidavits. An affidavit in Juneau costs but a drink of whisky, the usual price along the Northwest coast, a fact of which one great nation of our day has not been slow to profit in connection with an International Tribunal of Arbitration. As the sale of photographs declines, more persons will probably be granted a sight of the Silent City, and there will arise anew series of affidavits and newspaper stories.

It is hardly necessary to call the attention of the intelligent reader to the absurdities involved in Mr. Willoughby's story and in the photograph which is its financial justification. But there are many persons, not without education and culture, who believe without the least question any tale which is uncanny or which seems outside the ordinary run of things. In vain does Science protest that the natural order is the only order there is, that all contradictions to it are either so in appearance only or else are deceptions or frauds.

An interest in human psychology led Dr. Charles H. Gilbert, then acting as naturalist on the Albatross, to investigate Mr. Willoughby's methods of photography. He learned from Mr. Willoughby that the plates used were of the ordinary sort, but that the mirage required a very long exposure to set the picture. Mr. Willoughby had had no previous knowledge of photography, and had never tried to reproduce anything except mirages. The chemicals used in developing the negative he would not describe. It was a secret process. The exposed plates had to be soaked for three months in the secret compound before the picture would be fixed. This soaking took place in the open daylight, no dark room being required, nor did Mr. Willoughby seem aware of the ordinary function of the dark chamber in photography.

The original negative, examined by Dr. Gilbert, was a very old, stained, and faded plate, apparently a negative which had been discarded because underexposed.

Prof. William H. Hudson, of Stanford University, who lived for a time in Bristol, England, recognizes the picture as a view of that city from Brandon Hill, above the town. The picture must have been taken some twenty years ago, because Prof. Hudson distinctly remembers the scaffolding around the towers of Bristol Cathedral at that time while the building was being repaired. The hotel and the church to the left of the cathedral are also recognized by him.

A more transparent fraud could hardly be devised, but its very imbecility assures its success. We may be certain that for many years to come the "Silent City" will be the "wonder and pride of Alaska's bleak hills," and tourists eager to "pierce the veil" will speculate on the probability of its being "perhaps altogether within the recesses of another world."

Thus it comes about, as I have elsewhere said, that "there is no intellectual craze so absurd as not to have a following among educated men and women. There is no scheme for the renovation of the social order so silly that educated men will not invest their money in it. There is no medical fraud so shameless that educated men will not give it their certificate. There is no nonsense so unscientific that men called educated will not accept it as science."