PULLMAN, Wash.— Long overshadowed by his older brother Edward’s fame, Asahel Curtis (1874–1941) produced some 40,000 images chronicling a broad swath of early 2oth-century life in the Northwest. In Developing the Pacific Northwest: The Life and Work of Asahel Curtis, the first full-length biography of the photographer/booster/mountaineer, scholar William H. Wilson takes an in-depth look at Curtis and corrects some longstanding misconceptions. As he researched, Wilson discovered a series of letters Asahel’s daughter Betty wrote to biographer Archie Satterfield. The correspondence helped answer many questions and now resides in the Satterfield collection at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
The Curtis brothers came to Seattle when it was little more than a frontier town, and participated in its transition to a large city. As a young man Asahel worked in Edward’s successful Seattle photography studio. After a conflict over Klondike gold rush photographs led to a lifelong estrangement, he opened his own business. His work captured apple harvests, loggers, the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle streetcars and regrades, the First National Indian Congress, and more. Although he earned his living as a commercial photographer, his major focus was elsewhere.
Asahel Curtis had an enduring passion for Mount Rainier, serving on the Rainier National Park Advisory Board for almost two decades. He was a founder of the Seattle Mountaineers Club and the Washington State Good Roads Association. The adventurer organized mass hikes and trail-building expeditions, led other climbers to the peaks of his favorite mountain, and promoted economic development and increased tourism. He and W. Montelius Price are credited with the first ascent of Mount Shuksan, part of the North Cascades range.
Asahel married and had four children. He purchased a farm in the Yakima Valley, became involved in apple marketing, and joined the Washington Irrigation Institute, promoting large-scale reclamation projects for the state’s central and eastern regions.
The new book from Washington State University Press offers comparisons to work by his brother and other contemporaries. It examines Asahel’s family and business relationships, his involvement with eastern Washington irrigation and cooperative marketing, and his beliefs about resource development.