Story last updated at 1/8/2014 - 4:43 pm
A while ago, local historian Jim Geraghty was bidding on a set of previously unknown historical photos of prominent Juneauites. He won the bid for the collection by only $5 and figured a person who would bid almost as much as he had on pictures of Juneau figures from decades past must have some kind of a local tie, so he looked up her buying history — and realized she was bidding on “pictures of doggies.” (In one of the pictures, Flora Rudy is holding a dog.) Had he lost that bid, Juneau likely would have lost this piece of its history forever. It’s something that makes Geraghty, a man constantly on the lookout for missing pieces of Southeast Alaska’s historical puzzles, shake his head in consternation.
Geraghty spent his early childhood in the Mendenhall Valley. After Back Loop Road was widened and paved, he and his family moved to Prince of Wales Island. He returned to Juneau in the 1980s, and now he and his wife own Maritime Alaska, a business they started in the early 1990s.
He’s Scandinavian, and grew up telling stories about things that happened before he was born. It wasn’t until about ten years ago, however, that he discovered his gift for history and the detective work that goes along with it.
He was 45 when his mentor, Willette Janes, asked him to work on his first project. He realized when someone presented him with a picture of an “unknown” mining camp and he could immediately see it was merely a different view of a known one that he might have a gift for history. The positive feedback on his first public presentation didn’t hurt, either.
It was Janes that showed him “how to actually retrieve real information, instead of just the local rumor mill,” he said. “It was so much more interesting… to have the actual facts.”
Now, he gives talks at the City Museum, at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, at the University of Alaska Southeast, and other places. He focuses on the history of Juneau and Southeast Alaska, as well as a few other subjects.
“I’m interested in everything,” he said. Because of that, he’s always juggling research projects.
He’s amassed an enormous collection of historical photos — from donations, from detective work, from postcards, from eBay. Sometimes, he collects “subscriptions” from Juneau residents to purchase photo collections. More often, he pays for them himself.
He’s got photos of the six dairies in the Mendenhall Valley. He’s got photos of Charlie and Flora Rudy’s fox farm. He’s got pictures of the glacier before the Visitor Center was built. He’s got pictures of old mills, of miners, of things you’ve never even heard of.
“People bring me things. They say, ‘I’m moving out of town. My husband and I are retiring. Forty years ago they were tearing down this building and I got this box of photos. It should stay in Juneau, so here, take it,’” he said. He goes through those photos, ensuring those of interest go to the right place – the City Museum, the State Archives, the Forest Service.
He finds history in old postcards, in government archives, in old newspaper articles, in shoeboxes. “It’s real common for people to be holding things and not even know what it is,” he said. “It’s rarely what’s in the history books.”
He looks at photos in depth, sometimes retaking them to see what has, or hasn’t, changed.
“What I really enjoy is just to find something that’s a unique type of view that you don’t normally see,” he said. “And sometimes it’s a really mundane photo but there’s a certain angle or something, or you can see something in the background that’s just been lost to history.”
A project that may seem straightforward can turn into hundreds of hours of research and take him surprising places.
A while ago, he was looking for a picture of the “Idaho,” the steamship that gave Idaho Inlet its name.
There were other steamships named the Idaho, and he had to rule out photos of those. When he finally found a grainy, poor quality picture after two years of searching, he realized the photo looked familiar. He dug through his files and found the exact same picture. He’d had it all along, but it had been mislabeled before he received it.
One of his pet peeves is what he calls “commercial history” — when an organization or group promoting, say, tourism in a certain city rewrites or twists history so that it matches the story it wants to tell. He’s adamant about sticking to the facts. Once, for example, he was researching a huge “wind event” in 1883, in which winds were estimated at 200 miles per hour.
That year was also the year the volcano Krakatoa erupted, changing weather all over the world. The correlation was an exciting possibility. Then he discovered the volcanic eruption happened after the windstorm, and the false correlation “went in the trash can.”
“A lot of people would obscure that,” he said. “They would say ‘Oh, the same year.’ It makes a good story.”
He’s helped in his pursuits by the fact that he doesn’t need much sleep.
“Most people sleep and watch TV and stuff. I like to read, I like to research. And I like the network of people (gained in research,)” he said. “I really do think everybody has talents. I didn’t know mine until I was 45 years old.”
• Contact CCW Staff Writer Mary Catharine Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.