The mystery of Seattle and the Titanic's filmmaker
Talented filmmaker goes down with the ship, and the mysteries surface.
YOU MIGHT guess that Seattle film history and the sinking of the Titanic would have nothing to do with each other.
But you would be mistaken.
When the ship went down in the North Atlantic 100 years ago on April 15, a certain W.H. Harbeck was on board as its official filmmaker. And with his death at age 45 (or thereabouts), one of the most industrious and promising figures in the early movie-making industry was lost. So, too, were some answers to the many questions he left behind.
In the five years before that disastrous voyage, Harbeck had based himself in Seattle. Between 1904 and 1912, he had branched out all over the western United States and Canada. Among his enterprises in the Northwest, he filmed climbers on Mount Rainier, the railway trip between Seattle and Tacoma, the 1911 Golden Potlatch (a precursor of Seafair) and the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, for which he was the official cinematographer.
He worked for the Miles Brothers in San Francisco and likely was involved in making the now-famous Market Street film, shot just days before the 1906 earthquake. He was also on the spot to shoot some of the first footage of the quake's aftermath.
His greatest accomplishment may have been his Alaska films of 1911, described in detail in The Moving Picture World in early 1912.
"Utilizing his knowledge of trick photography," the magazine's reporter wrote, "Mr. Harbeck very ingeniously showed on the Alaskan map the positions of the principal towns, rivers and railroads. These appeared and disappeared on the map as the lecturer described them. The navigable portions of the rivers and bays were illustrated by forms representing vessels; a novel idea and one that can be used to great advantage in the preparation of educational films."
Ten weeks later, the magazine was mourning his loss, calling him "a pioneer in the moving picture business."
While his colleagues were lauding his film talents, his family was confronting some surprises about his personal life. Early accounts reported him boarding the Titanic with a "Mrs. Harbeck" — interesting news to his real wife, Catherine, who was in Toledo, Ohio, at the time.
When Catherine Harbeck went to claim her husband's body and personal effects, she was thought at first to be an impostor. It seems the "Mrs. Harbeck" who perished with the filmmaker was 24-year-old French model Henriette Yrois or Ivois. And she turned out, within months, not to be the only unofficial "Mrs. Harbeck" in the picture.
The confusion suggests a lot about Harbeck's personality. And a dive into the archives confirms the filmmaker was at least two or three sizes larger than life.
WILLIAM H. Harbeck was born in the mid-1860s in Toledo. In "The Titanic and Silent Cinema," author Stephen Bottomore notes that Harbeck was "successively a bookkeeper, journalist, inventor, traveling book agent, baker and owner of a steam laundry." The first sign of him in our area comes in an ad he placed in The Seattle Times on May 4, 1904: "Want lady partner for treasurer of best 10-cent family theatre proposition in state; must be able to contribute $1,800 toward construction; will clear $700 per month."
His presence at the filming of the Rainier expedition in 1905 can be pieced together from two articles in the Tacoma Daily News. The account reveals that "a bioscopic photograph consisting of 3,200 exposures" was made of "a snowball battle which took place above the clouds . . . near Camp Muir."
The newspaper's later obituary for Harbeck adds some colorful detail about the trek: "On this trip he made films of Olof Bull of Tacoma playing the violin on the top of the mountain, while members of the Mazama club snowballed him." It also mentions Harbeck's cycle of films, "The Life of a Tree," which "bids fair to become a classic," and says he had film contracts in the Pacific Northwest worth $100,000. If that figure can be trusted, it's indicative of just how successful Harbeck was.
By 1907 he had moved his base of operations to Seattle and was well into a career that would keep him on the move until his death.
"I have just returned from an extended tour through Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Colorado," he told a motion-picture trade journal in early 1907, "where I exposed 8,000 feet of moving picture negative, mainly railroad scenery . . . I leave tomorrow for a trip through Old Mexico, where I will again expose 10,000 feet of negative on railroad scenery and Mexican attractions. These films will be used to supply the demand of tour cars in this section during the early spring and summer."
What, you may ask, was a "tour car"?
It was a combination movie theater/motion simulator designed to immerse viewers in a "train-journey" experience. People sat in a rail carriage, watching filmed rail vistas unspool before them, as machinery beneath them put the whole contraption into motion.
One of the leading producers of "tour car" entertainments was Northwest Hale's Tourist Amusement Company, based in Portland. The Rose City, naturally, served as film fodder. On April 25, 1907, Harbeck mounted his camera on the front of a streetcar and headed for the city's Portland Heights neighborhood.
Two weeks later he was shooting in Victoria and Vancouver, B.C., and the extraordinary thing is that large segments of these films survive. They reached the National Archives of Canada in 1994 and, after restoration, made their debut at the 1996 Vancouver International Film Festival. In 2008, the Vancouver Historical Society released a DVD, "City Reflections," that included extensive documentation of Harbeck's career. (It's available at www.vancouver-historical-society.ca.)
Watching these films, more than 100 years later, may be the closest any of us will ever get to local time travel. Vancouver, of course, has changed tremendously. But Victoria's Government Street storefronts and the newly constructed Empress Hotel (sitting in a sea of mud) are instantly recognizable.
While newspaper coverage of Harbeck's film activities in Seattle seems to have been minimal, the Victoria Daily Colonist went all out, detailing both his routes and reactions. The paper makes special mention of a local tidal phenomenon — "the reversible water falls" beneath Victoria's Gorge Bridge: "While the vessel racked and pitched, Mr. Harbeck steadily turned the handle, and obtained a truly unique picture of the fall and the turbulent current that sweeps under the bridge."
During his trip to B.C., Harbeck shot the railroad ride up the Fraser River canyon as well. Positioning his camera on the front of the train wasn't practicable, however, so he mounted it on the caboose and cranked his film through it backwards, to create the illusion of forward travel when the film was projected.
"The only trouble," he quipped to the Colonist, "is that if you happen to pass a man on the tracks he appears to be walking backwards. Otherwise the illusion is perfect."
A writer for the Vancouver Daily Province had even more fun tracking Harbeck's activities, and debunks — for present-day viewers — the notion that the bustling street scenes preserved in the "City Reflections" DVD were natural and spontaneous.
He notes that citizens had been "suddenly stricken with kinetoscopitis" — an "epidemic" started only "when a moving picture machine confronts the person subject to the attack."
As the kinetoscope-mounted car went down Granville Street, the reporter observed, it was interesting to see how the crowds on one side of the street suddenly discovered they had business on the other side and strolled across "unconcerned-like" in view of the oncoming camera.
Such playing-to-the-camera must be true of San Francisco's Market Street film, too.
SOME EPISODES in Harbeck's career pose a total mystery; for instance, a 1908 Seattle Times ad for a "talking and singing moving picture," billed as "Harbeck's Newest Invention."
What can this have been?
Harbeck's truth-stretching abilities come into play here. In 1911, during a rough transatlantic crossing, he got the idea of showing seasick passengers films he'd taken in Vancouver, Seattle and the Canadian Rockies. "I believe this is the first time a motion picture show was ever put on for a deep-sea audience," he declared, "and I cordially recommend the method as a sure cure for seasickness."
His tales got even taller after a screening of his Alaska film in New York in early 1912. Harbeck downplayed any hardship involved: "Many people have asked me if I did not nearly perish with the cold . . . On the contrary, I almost sweltered with the heat — had to take off my coat to try to keep cool. It must be remembered that in the summertime in Alaska the sun shines for 23 hours in the day."
The climate of Alaska, he told his Manhattan interviewer, was changing and, in 25 years, would be "much the same as it is here." Not only that: Alaska's wild animals were, according to him, "much more easily tamed" than their Lower-48 counterparts.
Despite or maybe because of his hyperbolic excesses, his film-trade colleagues were very fond of him — and worried about the risks he took. A Moving Picture News item from 1911, headlined "W.H. Harbeck: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed," says it all:
"Has anyone any knowledge of where our good friend W.H. Harbeck has landed? We received a letter from Seattle, way back in December, saying he was on his way to New York City . . . Willie, Willie, where art thou? Letters get no reply. Wires are as bad. And if you only knew the anxiety concerning your welfare, you would answer and hasten your visit."
Maybe they had a premonition that his luck was bound to run out.
IN JANUARY 1912, Harbeck left Seattle for Europe, where he visited London, Brussels, Paris and Berlin. During his month abroad, he filmed the sights, sold his films to European outlets and made professional connections.
The marital mysteries surrounding him begin with his arrival on British shores. A London writer noted that Harbeck, accompanied by his wife, arrived from the U.S. in early March. However, the real Mrs. Harbeck was still in Toledo.
His initial plan had been to continue on through Russia and Siberia to Alaska. But when the White Star Line offered him $10,000 to film the maiden voyage of the Titanic, he changed his itinerary.
To one of his colleagues, he wrote: "I am going to get some pictures that will make your mouth water."
He left Southampton on April 10, again with his "wife." No details survive concerning what happened to him and his mistress during the sinking.
Henriette's body was never found, but Harbeck's was among the 328 recovered. He was identified by his union card. Other effects found on his body included a gold watch, a fountain pen, false teeth, a diary and a "lady's bag" containing 10 shillings and some jewelry.
It's at this point that a "Mrs. Brownie Harbeck" enters the picture and presents a puzzle that's apparently unsolvable. She contacted the American consul in Halifax on July 23, 1912, asking after Harbeck. A Nova Scotia official wrote back to her, saying Harbeck's effects and his body had been shipped to his family in Toledo.
Brownie Harbeck, in an Aug. 31 letter displaying a shaky command of English, replied: "Referring to ladys articles among Mr Harbecks effects, I knew the lady well. I understand she was allso lost on the Titanic. her name was Henriette Yvois. do you know if such Persons ever been picket up and being brought to Halifax."
This query was written on Harbeck stationery emblazoned with an ad for his Alaska films: "Watch for Harbeck's Latest Motion Pictures EXPOSING THE GUGGENHEIM INTERESTS IN ALASKA and THE CONTROLLER BAY GRAB. Films that will worry Congress and startle the whole United States and probably change the present political map." (Harbeck's Alaska footage, it seems, didn't just portray the territory's natural wonders, but had a muckraking agenda.)
How did Brownie know Henriette's name? How did she come into possession of official Harbeck stationery? Could she perhaps have been Henriette Yrois/Yvois or some other mistress of Harbeck?
No one, it seems, has any answers.
But Harbeck's son, John, in correspondence with the Halifax authorities, read them the riot act: "This so-called Brownie Harbeck . . . is no relative and any correspondence relative to the recovery of the effects and body of Mr. Harbeck has been and should be carried on with my mother."
Harbeck's colleagues, if they were aware of any of this, didn't mention it in print. Instead, they paid eloquent tribute to a man they deeply admired. The Tacoma Daily News wrote: "He was known for his courage. He would go anywhere at any time to obtain negatives and obtained wonderful results."
The Moving Picture World's tribute deemed Harbeck's Alaskan film "by far his greatest work," and lamented that it now lay "at the bottom of the sea, negative and all."
What's left is a paper trail filled with riddles, plus films of Victoria, Vancouver and the Pendleton Round-Up. Other surviving film fragments may well have been shot by him. The Seattle Municipal Archives has a compilation of A.Y.P. footage and early Denny Regrade footage that could be his.
We should be glad of what we have. But let's hope more Harbeck footage surfaces in the same unlikely way the Victoria and Vancouver films did. Wouldn't it be grand to "ride" the interurban from Seattle to Tacoma? To attend the Golden Potlatch? To see Denny Hill being washed away to nothing?
Michael Upchurch is a Seattle Times arts writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.