This post is by Ted O’Reilly, Curator & Head of the Manuscript Department
William Sulzer is now remembered, if at all, for being the only New York governor to have been impeached. Despite his nickname, “Plain Bill” was a bit more interesting, especially if you believe a rambling typescript autobiography that survives in his papers. Regardless, one thing is for certain: he was passionate about Alaska.
Though he would describe himself as a conservationist, and did contribute to the passing of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act shortly before his death (more on that at another time), his chief interest was in mining. In fact, he’s an inductee in the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame and his brother, also with mining interests, served as a Congressman for Alaska before his premature death in 1919.
Of the many aspects of Bill Sulzer’s life of interest are the photographs that he gathered from his visits to Alaska. They appear to be a mix of either his own, or one of his travel companion’s shots, and commercial photographs that he purchased, almost exclusively from Frank H. Nowell. In some cases, Nowell’s identifications are even obscured as if Sulzer wanted to pass them off as his own.
Either way, the photographs are remarkable and thought provoking, presenting the many facets of Alaska in the first decade of the 20th Century. Perhaps most notably they contrast the beauty of the Alaskan landscape, and its indigenous population, with the rigors of frontier life and the impact of mining. It is a visual reflection of two cultures meeting that recurs over and over in America’s history.