Thursday, April 18, 2019


Welcome to The Ella Higginson Blog! This blog is young, but ever-expanding. Be sure to check back as new poems are added and for updates on The Ella Higginson Recovery Project!

See new posts below!

This blog could not be possible without the honorable work of Dr. Laura Laffrado of Western Washington University, who recently wrote the triumphant Selected Writings of Ella Higginson: Inventing Pacific Northwest Literature (2015). Like the book on Facebook!


A special thanks to the indomitable Serena Bowen for assisting greatly in the transcription department.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

"Under the Bay"

Treadwell and Gastineau Channel in 1899. Image courtesy of the Winter and Pond Collection. Photographs, 1893-1943. ASL-PCA-87, Alaska State Library.

There is a fascination in walking through these high-ceiled, brilliantly lighted stopes, and these low-ceiled, shadowy drifts. Walls and ceilings are gray quartz, glittering with gold. One is constantly compelled to turn aside for the cars of or on their way to the dumping places, where their burdens go thundering to the levels below.
Page 125 of Alaska, the Great Country by Ella Higginson, 1908

In 1908, the prestigious Macmillan Company published Ella Higginson’s Alaska, the Great Country. A mix of Native American cultural observations, territorial history, landscape description, and personal travel anecdotes, Alaska, the Great Country is a fascinating piece with something to interest readers of all genres. In the tenth chapter, Higginson recounts her experience touring America’s largest goldmine:

Our captain obtained permission to take us down into the mine. This was not so difficult as it was to elude the other passengers. At last, however, we found ourselves shut into a small room, lined with jumpers, slickers, and caps. Shades of the things we put on to go under Niagara Falls!
“Get into this!” commanded the captain, holding a sticky and unclean slicker for me. “And make haste! There’s no time to waste for you to examine it. Finicky ladies don’t get two invitations into the Treadwell. Put in your arm.”
My arm went in. When an Alaskan sea captain speaks, it is to obey. Who last wore that slicker, far be it from me to discover. . .
“Now put on this cap.” Then beheld mine eyes a cap that would make a Koloshian ill.
“Must I put that on?”
I whispered it, so the manager would not hear.
“You must put this on. Take off your hat.”
My hat came off, and the cap went on. It was pushed down well over my hair; down to my eyebrows in the front and down to the nape of my neck in the back.
“There!” said the captain, cheerfully. “You needn’t be afraid of anything down in the mine now.”
Alas! there was nothing in any mine, in any world, that I dreaded as I did what might be in that cap.

Treadwell opened in 1882 on Douglas Island, across the Gastineau Channel from Juneau. Between 1882 and 1922, Treadwell produced $70 million dollars in gold, just over $176 million dollars in today’s money. Accompanied by the manager of the mine (who remains unnamed in Alaska) and Higginson’s friend, Catherine Montgomery (a teacher at the Washington State Normal School at Bellingham, now known as Western Washington University), they entered the Treadwell gold mine.

There were four of us, with the manager, and there was barely room on the rather dirty “lift” for us.
We stood very close together. It was dark as a dungeon.
“Now—look out!” said the manager.
As we started, I clutched somebody,—it did not matter whom. I also drew one wild and amazed breath; before I could possible let go of that on—to say nothing of drawing another—there was a bump, and we were in a level one thousand and eighty feet below the surface of the earth.
We stepped out into a brilliantly lighted station, with a high, glittering quartz ceiling. The swift descent had so affected my hearing that I could not understand a word that was spoken for fully five minutes. None of my companions, however, complained of the same trouble.

The deepest mine shaft in Treadwell was 2,400 feet below the surface. From these depths, ore (sediment containing valuable minerals or elements) was extracted and then refined in the five Treadwell stamp mills. Treadwell had the most stamps of any mining operation on the continent, housing nine-hundred stamps when Higginson toured it. Stamps are refining machines used to extract gold by crushing the ore. These gargantuan pieces of equipment endangered the lungs of the operators by constantly kicking up microscopic pieces of ore that the operators would inhale. Higginson described the noise of the stamps as such:

The nine hundred stamps drop ceaselessly, day and night, with only two holidays in a year—Christmas and the Fourth of July. The noise is ferocious. In the stamp-mill one could not distinguish the boom of a canon, if it were fired within a distance of twenty feet, from the deep and continuous thunder of machinery.

The stamps and operators of Treadwell in 1908. Image courtesy of Through the Yukon and Alaska, Mining and Scientific Press, San Francisco, 1909

Higginson was touring the mine for research for Alaska, the Great Country, and relentlessly questioned the manager:

No one has ever accused me of being shy in the matter of asking questions. It was the first time I had been down in one of the famous gold mines of the world, and I asked as many questions as a woman trying to rent a forty-dollar house for twenty dollars. Between shafts, stations, ore bin, crosscuts, stopes, drifts, levels, and winzes, it was less than fifteen minutes before I felt the cold moisture of despair breaking out upon my brow. Winzes proved to be the last straw. I could get a glimmering of what the other things were; but winzes!
The manager had been polite in a forced, friend-of-the-captain kind of way. He was evidently willing to answer every question once, but whenever I forgot and asked the same question twice, he balked instantly. Exerting every particle of intelligence I possessed, I could not make out the difference between a stope and a station, except that a stope had the higher ceiling.
“I have told you the difference three times already,” cried the manager, irritably.
The captain, back in the shadow, grinned sympathetically.
“Nor’-nor’-west, nor’-by-west, a-quarter-nor’,” said he, sighing. “She’ll learn your gold mine sooner than she’ll learn my compass.”
Then they both laughed. They laughed quite a while, and my disagreeable friend laughed with them. For myself, I could not see anything funny anywhere.
I finally learned, however, that a station is a place cut out for a stable or for the passage of cars, or other things requiring space; while a stope is a room carried to the level of the top of the main crosscut. It is called a stope because the ore is “stoped” out of it.
But winzes! What winzes are is still a secret of the ten-hundred-and-eighty-foot level of the Treadwell mine.

Miners work the overhead portion of stope on the 2300 ft. level in Treadwell. Image courtesy of the Harry F. Snyder Photograph Collection: Treadwell, Alaska, 1916-1918. ASL-PCA-38, Alaska State Library.

When Higginson toured Treadwell, they were still in the practice of using ‘pit ponies’ to haul tram cars of ore in the mines. Though most American mines that used equestrian labor used donkeys or mules, Treadwell followed the British method of using small horses, usually no more than twelve hands high due to the low ceilings of the mines.

A pit pony and miner in a mine at New Aberdeen, NS, in August 1946. Image Courtesy of National Film Board of Canada/Library & Archives Canada/PS-116676.

A pit pony being lowered into a mine. Image courtesy of "Ghosts of the Coal Mines."

Higginson, a lover of horses herself, clearly was affected by the sight:

Tram-cars filled with ore, each drawn by a single horse, passed us in every drift—or was it in crosscuts and levels? One horse had been in the mine seven years without once seeing sunlight or fields of green grass; without once sipping cool water from a mountain creek with quivering, sensitive lips; without once stretching his aching limbs upon the soft sod of a meadow, or racing with his fellows upon a hard road.
But every man passing one of these horses gave him an affectionate pat, which was returned by a low, pathetic whinny of recognition and pleasure.
“One old fellow is a regular fool about these horses,” said the manager, observing our interest. “He’s always carrying them down armfuls of green grass, apples, sugar, and everything a horse will eat. You’d ought to hear them nicker at sight of him. If they pass him in a drift, when he hasn’t got a thing for them, they’ll nicker and nicker, and keep turning their heads to look after him. Sometimes it makes me feel queer in my throat.”

A miner and a pit pony, undated. Image courtesy of "Ghosts of the Coal Mines."

Thanks to later innovations, horses were eventually replaced with mechanical tram cars. The last recorded group of working pit ponies was in Queensland, Australia; they were allowed to retire in 1990.

If you have read Higginson’s poetry, you are well aware of her fascination and devotion to Bellingham Bay, Puget Sound, the ocean, and most all bodies of water. It was here in the Treadwell mine that she got to experience water in an entirely different way.

“I suppose,” he said, sighing, “you wouldn’t care to see the—”

I did not catch the last word, and had no notion what it was, but I instantly assured him that I would rather see it than anything in the whole mine.
His face fell.
“Really—” he began.
“Of course we’ll see it,” said the captain; we want to see everything.”
The manager’s face fell lower.
“All right,” said he, briefly, “come on!”
We had gone about twenty steps when I, who was close behind him, suddenly missed him. He was gone.
Had he fallen into a dump hole? Had he gone to atoms in a blast? I blinked into the shadows, standing motionless, but could see no sign of him.
Then his voice shouted from above me—“Come on!”
I looked up. In front of me a narrow iron ladder led upward as straight as any flag-pole, and almost as high. Where it went, and why it went, mattered not. The only thing that impressed me was that the manger, halfway up this ladder, had commanded me to “come on.”
I? to “come on!” up that perpendicular ladder whose upper end was not in sight!
But whatever might be at the top of that ladder, I had assured him that I would rather see it than anything in the whole mine. It was not for me to quail. I took firm hold of the cold and unclean rungs, and started. When we had slowly and painfully climbed to the top, we worked our way through a small, square hole and emerged into another stope, or level, and in a very dark part of it. Each man worked by the light of a single candle. They were stoping out ore and making it ready to be dumped into lower levels—from which it would finally be hoisted out of the mine in skips.
The ceiling was so low that we could walk only in a stooping position. The laborers worked in the same position; and what with this discomfort and the insufficient light, it would seem that their condition was unenviable. Yet their countenances denoted neither dissatisfaction nor ill-humor.
“Well,” said the manager, presently, “you can have it to say that you have been under the bay, anyhow.”
Under the—”
“Yes; under Gastineau Channel. That’s straight. It is directly over us.”

A picture of miners in the shaft that extends beneath Gastineau Channel in 1916. Image courtesy of Frank and Frances Carpenter collection, Library of Congress.

This concluded her tour of Treadwell: “We immediately decided that we had seen enough of the great mine, and cheerfully agreed to the captain’s suggestion that we return to the ship.” It remains unknown on which trip to Alaska Higginson went to Treadwell, for she took several tours of Alaska in the years shortly before the publication of Alaska, the Great Country.
“The Treadwell is the pride of Alaska.” Higginson declares in the book. “Its poetic situation, romantic history, and admirable methods should make it the pride of America.”

Douglas Island and Treadwell as seen from Gastineau Channel, c. 1896-1913. Image courtesy of the Paul Sincic Collection. Photographs, ca. 1898-1915. ASL-PCA-75, Alaska State Library.

Friday, September 7, 2018

"The Wreck of the Premier"

The Premier, a passenger steamer, after its deadly collision with the collier ship Willamette. Image courtesy of Wright, E.W., ed., Lewis & Dryden Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, Lewis & Dryden Printing Co., Portland, OR 1895

Ella Higginson's poem “The Wreck of the Premier” recounts the October 8, 1892 collision of the collier ship the Willamette and the passenger steamer the Premier on Puget Sound that resulted in six deaths and many more injuries. Ella Higginson, who escaped unharmed, was on the Premier heading south to Seattle when the vessel reportedly entered a thick fog near Port Townsend. The Willamette was carrying 2,400 tons of coal at the time, and the Premier roughly 70 passengers. Shortly after the Premier departed from Port Townsend, where it docked briefly for passenger boarding, they were struck on their portside by the bow of the Willamette across from Bush Point. The Willamette impaled the Premier’s pilot house, dining room, smoking room, saloon, and the sleeping quarters of the crew.

Captain C. K. Hansen of the Willamette realized after the collision that if he were to put his vessel in reverse and pry them apart, the Premier would immediately flood due to its gouged portside and sink in the middle of the channel. The passengers were then instructed to gather the dead and wounded as best they could and transport them from the nearly-destroyed Premier to the Willamette. Captain Hansen then plowed across the channel, driving the Premier through the water, and beached her on Bush Point. A tugboat called the Goliah, hauling a vessel north, passed by a little while later and was flagged down by the Willamette. The Goliah abandoned its task and instead loaded the passengers and raced to Seattle, where the wounded were admitted to Providence Hospital. 

In a letter to The Dalles Daily Chronicle of Oregon, Ella Higginson recounts her experience:

The best description of the disaster which we have seen was written by Ella Higginson. She says that all her life she has had a desire to be in an accident, preferably a water accident, because the waves always curl up so soft and caressing that it seemed to her it would be a good place to lie down beneath them and rest. "Well, I have had my desire, and I am bound to confess that when I stood on the guard of the Premier with the whole side of a bedstead in one hand, a pillow, yes a feather pillow, in the other, my cloak under my arm, and a life-preserver around my waist, and realized that in a moment I might be struggling with those same waves for my life, there was nothing soft or caressing in their appearance. I was flung on the floor several feet from my chair, and men, women and pieces of furniture were swept violently past me. I heard groans and moans of anguish, and low murmers of prayer, but not one scream. Not for an instance did I lose my presence of mind."

However, in attempting to find a life-preserver for herself, she was met with unexpected difficulty, particularly from the other male passengers:

I ran to four different staterooms to get a life-preserver, but every door was locked. Then I ran out on the rear guard, and I found men climbing down from the upper deck, and up from the lower. They all swarmed around me, and all shouted at once, 'Now madam, keep cool! Don't get excited!' In two seconds I realized that the flutter of a petticoat had the effect on every man of jerking his mouth open and forcing out the words: 'Keep cool! Don't get excited!' Exasperated, I exclaimed: 'I am cool! But in the meantime, we may as well be thinking of life-preservers. We needn't be too cool for that!' 'Life preservers!' wildly ejaculated a man. 'Why, madam, we are on Puget sound! A boat can't sink on Puget sound!'
Even in that awful moment I was struck with the grim humor of his reply. What an advertisement for Puget sound! Then a lady with a solemnity that puts me into convulsions of mirth now whenever I think of it: 'Young man, don't you tell us that if it ain't so!'

Frustrated with the gendered chaos on board, Higginson concluded her letter by mounting her soap box and calling for reform:

I want to lift up my voice for better laws concerning life-preservers. I want them out in plain sight, easy of access―I don't want them under berths in staterooms with the doors locked, I want them labeled. They may not be pretty ornaments for finely furnished cabins, but let me tell you, Mr. Law-Makers, that after you have been in a shipwreck, they will be beautiful in your own eyes under any and every circumstance. Another thing, make a law that the name of each passenger shall be taken. The man who jumped overboard is unknown, and may always be. We don't want to vote, but take our advice sometimes on a new law.

Quotes from "The Premier Collision: A Visit From One of The Survivors---Ella Higginson's Account---Some Suggestions." The Dalles Daily Chronicle. 25 Oct. 1892. 

In her poem "The Wreck of the Premier," Higginson only references one specific casualty, that of thirteen year-old Frank C. Wynkoop of Tacoma, WA who was traveling with his family. Two places in the poem a mother is referenced, once in the first stanza with, “One poor mute mother by her dead,” and again in the seventh stanza with, “The mother stirred, and her pale lips/Prayed now above her dead.” The mother here is Mrs. D. J. Wynkoop, young Frank Wynkoop’s mother, who Ella Higginson later recalls having spoken to earlier in the voyage. Frank Wynkoop’s head was “smashed almost to a pulp” and “Mrs. Ella Higginson, the poetess, of New Whatcom, assisted in laying out the body of the boy” ("Disaster in Dense Fog" The Seattle Post Intelligencer. 9 Oct. 1892).

"The Wreck of the Premier" as it appears in Ella Higginson's When the Birds Go North Again (1898).

Monday, August 13, 2018

"A Fiendish Malediction"

To this day, Dr. Laura Laffrado has only found one negative review of Ella Higginson's work since she began the Ella Higginson Recovery Project. However, for years Dr. Laffrado was unsure what exactly the review said, as the only reference to it was in a 1935 letter Higginson wrote to Alfred Powers (1887-1983, an Oregon author and journalist). It was not until a few months ago that the actual review was located.

The author of the review is unknown, but since it was printed in The Washington Standard of Olympia, Washington, it can be assumed they were local. The object of the review was Higginson's poem "Hate" which appears in the collection of her poetry When the Birds Go North Again (1898). The review, titled "A Fiendish Malediction" and published August 24, 1900, reprints "Hate" and goes on to critique the piece and its author. Transcription below:

"Hate" as it appears in Ella Higginson's When the Birds Go North Again (1898).

To those who have attributed to women those gentler instincts which mould the actions of humanity into deeds of kindness and love, the foregoing quotation from a little volume published by Ella Higginson, of New Whatcom, entitled "When the Birds Go North Again," gives a rude shock. It causes a chill of horror to run down the spine at the sudden realization of the fact that even the better half of humanity may be as destitute of character as the bloodthirsty savage; assuming of course, that poets always portray their heart-throbs when they take the world into confidence, and that Truth twangs the strings of their empassioned lyres.

Such hatred as the fair authoress professes is not creditable, and it is not fair to ascribe it to others if not seriously entertained by herself. It is not of heaven nor of earth, and can only find a habitation in the regions of the damned, and be held by those unforgiven and unforgivable creatures, who glory in a hatred so intense that they hope it will last throughout eternity.

An then temerity and irreverence manifested by taking into her defiant confidence One of all others whose nature beams with forgiveness and love; one who came on earth and died to inculcate the doctrine of love, forgiveness and fraternity, peace on earth and goodwill among men. She prays—not in His name surely—that a fellow being, on her own judgement, may be sent to the "deepest hell," and that the awful fires may "slowly do their part," so as to inflict the most exquisite, lasting and horrible torments. This seems so hellish (the proper word, dear reader,) it challenges belief that a human being could have deliberately given expression to such cruel sentiment.

It is safe to say that if good old St. Peter ever catches a glimpse of that little poem, Ella will never enter the pearly gates. She will be compelled to finish out such profound hating "to all eternity," at New Whatcom, or in Hades, for nobody with such a lump in her throat will be allowed to enter the kingdom of heaven.

It's little wonder that Higginson would recall this over three decades later due to its damning nature. The review is fraught with ideas from the culture of domesticity, perpetuating the concept that women are inherently more moral than men (“the better half of humanity”) and that it is their duty to be moral guardians of the household and society. In a single column, the author of the review has attacked Higginson’s femininity, accused her of personally harboring “hellish” hate for a woman in her community, claimed that she could not possibly pray to the Christian God, and will ultimately be barred from heaven upon her death.

The review as it appears in The Washington Standard on August 24, 1900.

However, the review points out its own flaw: the reviewer has confused the narrator of the poem with the author of the poem (“assuming of course, that poets always portray their heart-throbs”). The narrator is the author’s own construction, just as the lines of the poem are. Another review of “Hate” does not make this mistake, declaring that When the Birds Go North Again is worth owning for this poem alone, but agrees that if the poem were inspired by the genuine hatred of real person Higginson knew, then to publish it would be “improper” (pg. 430, The Book Buyer, vol XXV, 1903).

In her letter to Alfred Powers, 35 years after the publication of the review, Higginson finally addresses it: “I have never publicly answered a criticism of my work; but I wish now to answer many bitter and ignorant criticisms of one of my poems—"Hate," in my volume "When the Birds Go North Again." How any one could read in that poem that it is I speaking is entirely beyond my understanding.”

The letter explaining "Hate" written to Alfred Powers by Ella Higginson, 9 June 1935. A full transcription is available at the bottom of this post.

Higginson reveals to Powers the origin of the poem, writing how she was inspired after seeing actress Fanny Davenport (1850-1898) in her most famous role as the Queen of Egypt in the English translation of French playwright Victorien Sardou’s Cleopatra:

Many years ago, in Chicago, I saw Fanny Davenport play "Cleopatra." There was a scene in which, lying prone upon a couch, she watched through a screen, a love-scene between Antony and Octavia. Her portrayal of a woman consumed with jealousy was so powerful that I was deeply impressed thereby, and the poem formed itself in my mind; and upon my return to my hotel, I made the first rough draft of it at once. It was first published under the title of "Cleopatra."

It's unknown exactly when Higginson saw the production, but that she saw it during a trip to the East coast in 1891. Once on tour, the show played at the Columbia Opera House in Chicago December 7-12, 1891 after a run first in New York City and then in Boston. Fanny Davenport, the daughter of two successful theatrical artists, produced, directed, and starred in Cleopatra, whose script had not previously been performed in English. The show, declared by the press as the theatrical highlight of the year, was worth $50,000 (over $1.3 million today), had a chorus of over 120 members, and used five real snakes in the performances.

Fanny Davenport as Cleopatra, New York City, December 1890.

The scene which inspired the poem was Act IV, Scene V. Cleopatra secretly listens to a conversation between her lover Antony and the young Octavia. In the script, Antony tells Octavia how he prefers her youth and chastity to Cleopatra’s maturity and sexual experience. He compares Cleopatra to a ghost in the night and Octavia to the brilliance of the dawn. The scene leaves Cleopatra “overwhelmed” and “destroyed” and she weeps furiously before exiting the stage.

“When it was included in my book, a critic advised me to name it "Hate," because it was the most powerful description of that devastating passion he had ever read,” Higginson writes of the poem. A draft of the poem kept in the Washington State Archives Bellingham branch sports the original title.

A draft of "Hate" on onionskin paper, courtesy of the Ella Higginson Papers, Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, Heritage Resources, Western Washington University, Bellingham WA. 

If Higginson had kept “Cleopatra” as the title, this misunderstanding would have been avoided and the damning yet hilarious review never written. At the close of the letter, she reiterates how foolish it was for the reviewer to assume that Higginson was writing from a place of personal truth: “I wrote a "murder" story once, also a "murder" poem, both in the first person; but have not, as yet, been accused of that crime!”


A full transcription of the letter to Alfred Powers by Ella Higginson, 9 June 1935:
If you can ever give this publicity, I'll be grateful.
I have never publicly answered a criticism of my work; but I wish now to answer many bitter and ignorant criticisms of one of my poems—"Hate," in my volume "When the Birds Go North Again." How any one could read in that poem that it is I speaking is entirely beyond my understanding.
Many years ago, in Chicago, I saw Fanny Davenport play "Cleopatra." There was a scene in which, lying prone upon a couch, she watched through a screen, a love-scene between Antony and Octavia. Her portrayal of a woman consumed with jealousy was so powerful that I was deeply impressed thereby, and the poem formed itself in my mind; and upon my return to my hotel, I made the first rough draft of it at once. It was first published under the title of "Cleopatra." I believe in "foreordination," and I think it was that which made me keep that first draft, bearing that title—and which has long been in the possession of Edith B. Carhart, head of the Bellingham Public Library.
When it was included in my book, a critic advised me to name it "Hate," because it was the most powerful description of that devastating passion he had ever read.
I wrote a "murder" story once, also a "murder" poem, both in the first person; but have not, as yet, been accused of that crime!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Ella Higginson in the Seattle Times

Dr. Laura Laffrado in front of Edens Hall at Western Washington Univeristy, beneath Ella Higginson's words: "Here is the home of color and of light." Picture by Mike Siegel for the Seattle Times.

The Seattle Times has debuted their story on Ella Higginson, detailing the work of Dr. Laura Laffrado, director of the Ella Higginson Recovery Project. In a three-part online debut, journalist Ron Judd brings Ella Higginson's forgotten fame to public attention by following Laffrado's Higginson-themed English class at Western Washington University into the Washington State Archives. The article features pictures of students working with artifacts and documents from the Ella Higginson Papers. Aside from educating the public on Ella Higginson, Judd and Laffrado hope to right a wrong by publishing a proper obituary for the gifted poet, something the Times neglected to do when she died in 1940. Higginson wrote a weekly column in the Times for four years titled "Clover Leaves."

"The backstory: the tale of an English professor and a long-forgotten Poet Laureate"

"A Western Washington University professor works to ‘recover’ the legacy of Ella Rhoads Higginson"

"Belated obituary: Ella Rhoads Higginson, 1862(?)-1940, pioneer author of Pacific Northwest literature"

The story comes out in print this Sunday (June 24th) in the Seattle Times Pacific Northwest Magazine.