The Silent City

This is the story of a scientific fake. It was skillfully done, so that many were fooled for a long time.

Excerpted from the 1909 book,Through the Yukon and Alaska, by T. A. Rickard

This is the story of a scientific fake. It was skillfully done, so that many were fooled for a long time. The perpetrator was Richard G. Willoughby, known to his friends as Dick and to the public as the Professor. He came to Alaska from South Carolina, where he had been a Methodist preacher. This was an avocation for which he was well fitted by the possession of a long white beard and a resonant voice. The Professor was a good talker and, among other accomplishments, he was a ventriloquist. When he left the South he went northwestward to the Cariboo and the Cassiar mining districts, and finally reached Juneau in 1881. 

In 1885 Dick Willoughby brought news to the people of Juneau that he had discovered a wonderful mirage; it was to be seen above the Muir glacier. He described the vision as that of a modern city, with church-towers, large buildings, vessels in the docks, and people moving in the streets. The wonderful mirage had been seen by him on several occasions, but especially on June 21, the longest day of the year, when the sunlight was particularly strong. This story was repeated by him at intervals on his return from various prospecting expeditions, until 1889, when a sensation was caused by the statement that he had actually succeeded in getting a photograph of the "silent city." Great was the excitement at Juneau and throughout southeastern Alaska. 

An association of local men was formed at Juneau for the purpose of exploiting the discovery and of selling the prints struck off Willoughby's wonderful negative. It was decided to investigate the phenomenon and to get more photographs of it. In June 1889 an expedition was organized. At the head of it were the Professor himself and a man named Minor W. Bruce. Bruce represented the Omaha Bee and other newspapers. He was an enterprising journalist of the irresponsible kind and made an excellent second to Willoughby. Bruce had come to Alaska to 'write up' the country and some of the business men of Juneau thought that he was well qualified to advertise both the Silent City and, incidentally, the mineral resources of the region. 

Even those residents of Juneau who were skeptical as to the mirage were alive to the fact that the story served as a good drawing card to attract the people from 'below,' that is, the dwellers in the States. Under these auspices an expedition was equipped to observe and photograph the mirage, which, so said the Professor, was due on or about the longest day of the year, known to astronomers as the summer solstice. 

The expedition set sail, proceeding down Gastineau Channel, around the southern end of Douglas island, up Chatham strait, and thence to the inlet leading to the Muir glacier. A few weeks later an excursion steamer, the George W. Elder, returning from a visit to the glacier, brought news that a member of the Willoughby expedition had come aboard in Glacier bay and had stated that on the day previous Bruce had gone forth over the glacier with his camera to take a shot at the Silent City, which, so Willoughby said, was about to appear. 

A fog had settled over the ice, and although Bruce's camera was found, he was missing. Not far away from the spot where his camera lay, there was a wide crevasse, and it was feared that Bruce while wandering in the fog had fallen into this crevasse. The young man who brought this news to the captain of the excursion steamer asked for ropes and grapnels wherewith to explore the crevasse. He also requested some provisions. These requests were met, with assurances of sympathy and interest on the part of the excursionists; and when the George W. Elder arrived at Juneau the news of the mishap created much excitement, not only in Alaska but also in the States, the fellow journalists of Bruce doing their duty nobly. This stimulated the demand for photographs of the Silent City; "they went like hot cakes." 

Nearly a month later the expedition returned to Juneau and as it disembarked it was seen that Bruce had been found; his head was heavily bandaged and a boy was needed to lead him to his cabin. Evidently he had suffered. All the town was agog to hear the news. He was interviewed. His story was that when the fog enveloped him while crossing the glacier, he had tried to reach the camp, but wandered in the wrong direction, so that when the sun finally broke through the fog he found himself isolated from his party. While trying to find his way back, he became snow-blinded. 

To be blinded by the glare from sunlit snow is painful, as those who have suffered can testify. Bruce had to stop ; he sat down on the ice under the shadow of a large hummock, where he was found next day. His companions had searched for him and had heard his call. This was a fine yarn. The expedition brought Bruce to Juneau in order that he might get medical attendance. Willoughby explained that it was then too late in the season to get a new photograph of the mirage. But the sale of prints from his first negative proceeded in a lively manner and the tourists came to Juneau to hear all about the wonderful phenomenon seen by the Professor.

As a matter of fact Bruce really was snow-blinded, but he soon recovered. About this time, in July 1889, another steamer, the Ancon, went to Glacier Bay and many of the passengers saw the mirage of a single spruce tree above the Muir glacier. The 150 excursionists returned to testify to this fact and the news stimulated interest in the Willoughby legend. More prints of the Silent City were purchased. In the following winter Willoughby sold the original negative for $500 to a photographer at San Francisco. 

A print from the original negative of the Silent City was given to me by a friend at Sitka, and is reproduced here, together with the portrait of the perpetrator of this colossal fake. The Professor is shown in the act of shooting at Nature in one of her wonderful moods. 

The Silent City looks like a large English town; the negative has been over-exposed and the outlines are dimmed. The trees in the foreground are leafless; evidently it is not midsummer, and yet the Professor claimed that he had obtained the photograph on June 21, for only on the longest day of the year was the mirage perfect. This little discrepancy escaped general notice. The negative was on glass, 8 by 10 inches; it had been poorly developed and it did not fit Willoughby’s plate-holder, nor could it have been taken by his lens, which was a portrait lens. 

These facts were ascertained by my informant early in the game, and if he did not hasten to expose the fraud, it was because he liked the old Professor, he saw that the myth helped to bring tourists to Alaska, and he could not see what harm was being done to anyone, the credulity of the public being scarcely worthy of any particular protection. At Juneau people used to stand in a row waiting their turn to buy one of the photographs of the Silent City, and the demand occasionally exceeded the supply. 

The truth is that in 1887 Willoughby happened to be at Victoria, on Vancouver island, and while strolling on the dock he saw a young tourist from Bristol, England, who was in the act of selling a photographic outfit, including a box of plates all of which had been exposed. The negatives, together with the outfit, were bought by Willoughby for $10. Among them was an over-exposed and badly developed picture of the city of Bristol. It probably reminded him of a mirage and of the optical effects seen above the glacier. His imaginative mind came to the aid of his loose morality and from the union of the two arose the idea of the photograph of a Silent City vibrating in the tenuous air of Glacier Bay. 

During the excitement that followed the events in 1889, the American consul stationed at Bristol, while on a visit to San Francisco, happened to see one of the photographs of the Silent City on exhibition in a store-window and recognized it as Bristol. This fact was not generally known. Upon sending a print to my cousin, J. C. Hurle, at Bristol, he was kind enough to make enquiries concerning the date of the building operations at the cathedral, the towers of which are readily seen to be undergoing construction in the photograph of the Silent City, otherwise the City of Bristol. The Clerk of the Chapter testified that "the western towers of the cathedral were completed in 1888, when the capstone of the pinnacles was laid by Mrs. Norris." It was in 1887 that Willoughby got hold of the photograph, which evidently was taken before the work on the cathedral towers had been finished, probably in the winter of 1886. Willoughby used to say that as he saw the mirage in successive years the church-towers appeared taller, but he never explained why the trees were without leaves in June. 

On the back of the photograph of the Silent City is the following inscription, which is well calculated to stir the somnolent intelligence of a tourist: 

The Glacial Wonder or '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 post of Alaska, he has grown with the Territory, and is today as much a part of its history as the totem poles arc 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 ice-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, privation and sufferings, he accomplished for the civilized world a feat in photography heretofore considered problematic. 

"It was on the longest day in 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 phenomena." 

This queer rigmarole was the work of Bruce. Of course, Willoughby was not the first discoverer of gold in Alaska, although he was the perpetrator of a "sublime phenomena." 

Among his other discoveries was that of "coal-oil in chunks," namely, asphaltum. He was able to scare the Indians by his tricks as a ventriloquist and he passed among them in safety by utilizing this accomplishment. On one occasion he had a companion who wore false teeth and a glass eye ; between the two of them they buffaloed the natives much in the manner of the Major in Rider Haggard's story of 'King Solomon's Mines.' 

Willoughby died two or three years ago. He made a living by selling mining claims, clearing $1,500 to $3,000 each year by quick deals, for he had a plausible manner and was an entertaining talker, with a great fund of anecdote. Among the miners he was particularly popular, for they were impressed by his smattering of learning. Willoughby was for 25 years one of the living landmarks of Alaskan development, and his memory should be preserved as a warning to the credulous. It will be interesting to separate the grain of truth from the chaff of charlatanism apparent in the story of the Silent City. 

What is a mirage? A mirage is an optical effect by virtue of which distant objects are seen out of their real position. Light, in traveling from an object to the eye of the observer, passes through the air; this air is not always of uniform density; in a hot country the layer nearest the earth will be so heated as to be rarified; in a cold country the lowermost layer over the ground is condensed by contact with the ice or snow. Above this lowermost layer will come others in succession and these may be successively rarer or denser. 

Such layers of air serve as mediums for bending the rays of light out of their straight course, so that they proceed apparently from a new position. The result is to give a magnified or a distorted image or even to bring into view an object not otherwise visible. For example, the men on the whaling ships that cruise in the Arctic are reported to have seen Nome while still north of the Bering Strait. Nome is a small town on the shore of the Bering Sea, and to the explorers in that remote corner of the world it is the outpost of civilization, a place for comforts not obtainable in the wilderness of ice and snow; in other words, Nome is as the sight of home. Sailors and fishermen that are steering for the roadstead off Nome will be astonished to see Nome pictures in the sky, real as life, while still so distant from it as to be normally out of sight. When this happens the air is still, the layer near the surface is chilled so as to be more dense than the average. 

Light normally travels in a straight line. If it passes from one layer to another of different density, it will be subject to deviation; it is possible for the variation in density in going upward to be of such magnitude that the light will follow the curvature of the earth, so that an object actually below the horizon will be clearly seen at a great distance, but in an elevated position corresponding to the direction in which the light is traveling when it enters the eye. If the distribution of density is such that the rays from the upper portion of the object cross those coming from the lower portion, the object will be inverted. Most of these effects can be observed by viewing objects through a bad pane of window-glass, that is, glass of unequal thickness, producing a result like that due to layers of air of unequal density. 

In hot and arid regions, where sandy plains stretch forth to a low horizon, the lowermost layer of air becomes rarified by the hot ground, provided that no breeze stirs the atmosphere so as to mix the layers of unequal density. A condition of atmospheric calm is necessary for the formation of a mirage. 

Under such circumstances the prospector in Western Australia or Arizona will see a lake with trees reflected along its shore, and many a man half-crazed with thirst has seen limpid water where only an alkaline waste existed. Imagination comes to the aid of refraction and the brain persuades the eye that it sees things that do not exist. The mirage is due to an inverted image of the sky appearing beyond the portion of the plain visible to the observer. This inverted sky simulates a body of water, and if any object, such as a tree, happens to break the horizon, there is the appearance of a reflection in a lake. 

In cold regions the distribution of a layer of cold air high above the ground will cause the lower homogeneous layer of air to transmit an image in its true position, while the reflection from the upper layer yields another—but inverted—image of the same object. Many strange effects are produced and the strangeness of them is heightened by the imagination of the observer. A mirage can be photographed, but a hallucination will make no impression on a sensitized plate; a mirage is a true image of a real object; a hallucination is a condition of thought in a distempered brain; one is objective, the other is subjective. 

What Willoughby really saw above the Muir Glacier we can judge from what you or I can see there today. Mirages are not infrequent; the air above the mass of ice is rendered dense and the dense layer serves as a medium for the phenomenon of refraction. On sundry occasions he probably saw the hummocks and pinnacles of ice, refracted and reflected by the overlying air until they seemed like the minarets and towers of a city not made with hands, or, by aid of his imagination, he even saw a resemblance to the church-towers and belfries of towns many thousand miles away from the Muir Glacier. 

Unloose the imagination of a man so fundamentally ignorant and so constitutionally visionary as the Professor, and something was bound to happen. The mirage looked somewhat like a city. When he bought the photographic equipment at Victoria and found a foggy picture of a city, that looked to him like the mirage. He looked at it again, and yet again, and the more he looked at the over-exposed plate the more the image upon it looked like his city of the mirage, until finally, by aid of a stimulant not unknown in Alaska, he came to the irrevocable conclusion that he had at last obtained the photograph of the silent city above the glacier. Having persuaded himself, it was easy to deceive others. The fake prospered amazingly. 

Two men knew the truth. One of them, whom we may call the Judge, measured Willoughby's plate-holder and satisfied himself that the photograph could not have been taken by the Professor. The other was Colonel Richard Dixon, a kindly old Southern gentleman who suspected a fraud; he went to the Judge on the quiet and asked him to "put him onto the game," so that he might enjoy the fun. The Judge trusted the Colonel and told him what he believed to be the truth. Thereafter these two old jokers used to meet, compare notes, and enjoy the humor of the performance, which kept Juneau in the forefront of tourist interest and newspaper notoriety for many years.  

The Yukon Sun newspaper ran an article on May 18, 1902. Excerpts:

Claimed to Have Been a Hermit of Alaska and to Have Never Seen a Railroad Train Till 1895—Great Spinner of Yarns Died Last Week in Seattle.

One of the best story-tellers who could ever claim the distinction of having been a pioneer of the Pacific coast.

It has often been remarked that with education and training with the art of the pen he would have been one of the great humorists of the age. He had a fame extending over thousands of miles, and added to that his Silent City has made him known the length and breadth of the earth.

T. A. Rickard’s Book

Yukon Sun 1902

1897 Popular Science Article

• Dave Kiffer’s article on the Silent City