Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Deep Focus, Part I: The Joe Williamson Photographic Collection

Joe Williamson: sailor, photographer and collector. 
Photo, circa 1940; photographer unknown.

Joe Williamson is a name often associated with the photographs of the Puget Sound Maritime Collection, but who was Joe, what is his collection, and how did it transform the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society?

Wikipedia labels Joe “Sailor and Photographer.” In his lifetime, much of it spent on the water, Williamson documented a wide swath of Northwest history with his camera, yet he does not garner the name recognition of Darius Kinsey, Joseph Scaylea, or the Curtis brothers. Perhaps this is because he himself did not consider photography his primary vocation. Photography was the means to an end and that end was spending as much time as possible on and around boats.

In his lifetime Williamson did everything from delivering photo orders by motorcycle for Bartell Drugs to running a darkroom to patrolling for fish pirates off the coast of Alaska. He traveled throughout the Northwest, wherever water could take him. And he took a lot of photos. In later days, he held court at a small photography shop close to the Seattle waterfront.

We’ll have more on Williamson’s storied and multifaceted career in future posts. Today we will focus on his photo collection and what became of it.


Joe collected maritime images and by the time of his retirement had amassed a collection of more than 60,000 prints and negatives. Exact numbers are hard to obtain, but it appears that about half the collection consists of photos Williamson took himself and the other half is made up of images purchased from other photographers or outlets. The sum includes 3,000 glass plate negatives acquired from the Webster & Stevens commercial photography company. A number of the images in the collection date to the late 19th century.

Williamson was aware of the value of his collection. In fact, he had set himself a very specific dual life-goal: to document maritime life and to build an asset that would serve to help fund his retirement. In 1979, at the age of 70, he offered the entire collection up for sale. The asking price: $50,000 ($163,000 in today’s dollars.) The San Francisco Maritime Museum was quick to make an offer, but Williamson hoped to conclude a sale with Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, the organization he had helped found in 1948.

Board vice president (soon to be president) Jim Cole remembers vowing aloud that the collection would not leave Puget Sound. The board had had enough of the better funded and more pro-active San Francisco Maritime Museum cherry-picking maritime artifacts from their backyard. Cole soon realized that his statement meant he was volunteering to lead the effort to raise the funds needed.

For the first time in the life of the Society the board jumped into the deep waters of fundraising to raise the $50,000 purchase price. Because of his close personal association with the group, Williamson allowed the group a year to reach this goal. Led by Cole, the board reached out to their membership and beyond, contacting old friends in the maritime trades and sending letters to businesses and foundations in the area.

Jim Cole remembers the challenge:

We talked about how we were going to do this. I had never done this kind of thing. We did send letters out. There was a lot of word of mouth activity. My late wife, Myrna, typed 180 letters to companies here.

A promise of $5,000 from H.W. McCurdy lent impetus to a campaign that was slow gaining momentum. Several companies made sizable donations, but the vast majority of the 476 gifts received came from individuals. It took nearly the entire year, but the group made their goal with enough to spare to purchase filing cabinets to house the collection.

Williamson's photo of a "Tugboat Annie" race, probably the 1940 event in Tacoma Harbor held in conjunction with the premier of the second Tugboat Annie movie, Tugboat Annie Sails Again.


As PSMHS zeroed in on its goal in the spring of 1980, the Museum of History and Industry, the Society’s partner and home base, showcased the collection in its Maritime Gallery (aka the Joshua Green-Dwight Merrill wing). The exhibit included 60 images along with ships models and other maritime artifacts. Jim Cole recalls that the exhibit opened with ceremony:
‘Mac’ McCurdy was going to cut the ribbon and he wanted Myrna to assist him. I said I’ll talk to her. She said “No, I’m not doing that.” I reported to him, and he said “She’ll do it!” I asked her a couple more times. She still said no. Well the night of the opening Mac makes this nice speech. There was a crowd there. And then he says “I would like to ask Mrs. Cole to help me cut the ribbon,” and that woman said “I would love to!” 


The huge Williamson Collection became the centerpiece of the PMSHS archives, which to that date had owned only a few small photographic collections to supplement its ships plans, models, and books. Acquisition of the wide-reaching collection transformed the PSMHS archives from a little known resource to an important and recognized repository of maritime history.

It transformed the Society in other ways, as well. Collection management became more than an abstract concept. Once PSMHS had taken possession of the thousands of prints and negatives, the real work began. 

-- Eleanor Boba


The corporate records of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society; interview with Jim Cole, 2/23/15; McDonald, Lucile. “The Famous Williamson Photo Collection.” The Sea Chest Dec. 1979; Hemion, Austen. “Joe D. Williamson.” The Sea Chest June 1994; The Seattle Times Historic Archive. Special thanks to Karl House and Judy Kebbekus, PSMHS volunteers.


  1. Always wondered why this collection is kept so well hidden. Just think of the books that could have been published.

    1. Fortunately, Joe did publish a couple of books in his lifetime, but, yes, there's so much more that could be done.

  2. My Dad knew him and I have a photo that my Dad must have bought from him. I've never seen it in any of the sites that show his photos. Where would I find the largest, most inclusive display of his photos ?

    1. Not sure if I already answered this, so here goes (the memory is the first thing to go). Puget Sound Maritime owns the bulk of Joe's photos; in fact it is the basis of their full collection. Many of them can be seen on a website called King County Snapshots: Once you get to the site, you need to scroll down and pick Puget Sound Maritime from the list of historical societies. Puget Sound Maritime has plans afoot to make more images available on its own website, but that may not happen for a while.