The Ralph E. Wahl Photographs and Papers
comprise photographic materials and textual records reflecting Wahl’s
activities and interests as a photographer and fisherman in the Pacific
Northwest. The collection contains a substantial number of prints, slides,
negatives and proof sheets documenting the sport of Fly fishing, as well as
regional landscapes, rivers and wildlife. The collection also includes diaries,
correspondence, clippings, notes and written materials relating to Wahl’s
fishing activities and publications.
Funding for preparing this
finding aid was provided through a grant awarded by the National Historical
Publications and Records Commission. Funding for encoding the finding aid was
awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The Ralph E. Wahl Photographs and Papers chronicle several decades of
fishing excursions taken by Wahl and his fishing compatriots throughout the
Pacific Northwest in the early and mid twentieth century. These excursions are
beautifully documented and reflected through the eye of Wahl’s camera.
Ralph Wahl, born in 1906, was the son of Joseph and Anna Wahl. The
Wahl family owned and operated J.B. Wahl department store and the Grand Theatre
in Bellingham, Washington. When his father died in 1937, Ralph assumed
management of the department store and pursued this career until his retirement
in 1971. However, his real passion was for fishing and photography, activities
that had interested him since his youth. He had, in fact, always considered
himself a fisherman/photographer with a business, as opposed to a businessman
Ralph Wahl’s early photographs (1920-35) focus on the town of
Bellingham, as well as local rural scenes throughout Whatcom and Skagit
counties, including Squalicum and Friday Creeks, the Samish River, and the
surrounding foothills. In addition, he documented several hiking, camping and
touring excursions in lowland Puget Sound and SW British Columbia. It was also
during this period that Wahl discovered his fabled Shangri-La Pool below the
estuary of the Skagit River near Lyman, Washington. It was at this site that he
developed his great passion for angling after giant Steelhead. The “secret
pool” yielded 45 years worth of fishing pleasure and culminated in Wahl’s
memoir One Man’s Steelhead Shangri-La (1989).
Wahl traveled throughout the Western United States, British Columbia
and Alaska and documented these excursions through photography. He was
accompanied by groups of avid fly fishermen including Enos Bradner, Howard
Gray, Gordon Frear, and his life-long fishing partner Les Townley. These group
trips included the 1952 Alaska excursion which centered around the Arolic River
and the Brooks River and Falls, the 1953 Ketchikan, Alaska trip with highlights
at Orchard Falls and Orchard River, the beloved September 1955 and 1956 trips
to the Kispiox River, British Columbia, as well as numerous journeys to the
lakes and rivers of Montana and Eastern Washington. Fish sought after, caught,
and typically released were the Steelhead, Sea-run Cutthroat, Salmon, Shee
Fish, and Kamloops, among others.
Many of Ralph Wahl’s images were published in magazines such as Field
and Stream, Argosy Magazine, The Flyfisher, and the Fourth Corner Fly Fisher’s
journal, Random Casts. There is also documentation suggesting that he was
published in Sports Illustrated in the 1950’s and 1960’s. In 1971 many of Mr.
Wahl’s images were published alongside the writings of his friend Roderick
Haig-Brown for the book Come Wade the River. For this achievement he was
recognized at the 1972 Governor’s Writers Day by then Governor Daniel Evans.
Ralph Wahl also enjoyed a long association with a number of groups
including the Federation of Fly Fishers, the Fly Fisher Foundation (of which he
was a Director), the Washington Fly Fishers Club, the Fly Fishers Club of
Oregon, the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers
Association of America. He was also a strong supporter of the burgeoning
American Museum of Fly Fishing in Vermont and the Fly Fishing Museum in
Ralph Wahl was as devoted to photography as he was to fly fishing and
he spent a good deal of time experimenting with a variety of development
processes as well as exploring different film and camera types. A portion of
this collection also reflects his love of the outdoors and is devoted to
landscape shots as well as nature studies. Ralph Wahl died in June 1996 at the
age of 90.
The Ralph E. Wahl Photographs and Papers contain textual materials and
images that document over sixty years of fishing and photography, two great
passions of Ralph Wahl. The Textual materials consist of correspondence and
subject files, published and unpublished writings, yearly fishing diaries and
handwritten fish data that tracked fish catches by kind, size and numbers taken
or released. This could be useful in charting the rise and fall in fish
populations over a period of decades. There is also careful note taken of
fisherman impacts to various areas as well as changes due to damming and other
hydrological projects. Subject and correspondence files are arranged
alphabetically and include correspondence between Mr. Wahl and a variety of
individuals as well as materials regarding groups and projects with which he
was associated. His unpublished works consist of short fishing accounts and
original text and photo books. Included are copies of Mr. Wahl’s two published
books, Come Wade The River (1971) and One Man’s Steelhead Shangri-La (1989).
The diaries and fish data span approximately 52 years of fishing and
associations with fishing organizations. They document all of the Wahl fishing
excursions and are an invaluable resource (in conjunction with the slides) to
place images in a geographical and temporal context. The diaries and the images
are not explicitly linked in the inventory.
The Photographic materials consist of prints of varying size (though
most are 8x10”), slides, proof sheets and negatives. The images are divided
into subject categories entitled: Animals, Cars, Fish and Fishing,
Landscapes/Nature, People, and Ships and Boats. These materials are also
organized chronologically within the subject categories. Ralph Wahl provided
captions for the slides including dates and geographic names. Proof sheets and
negatives are arranged by date where known, as per their original order. The
bulk of the images detail fishing excursions in the Pacific Northwest, British
Columbia, Alaska, Eastern Washington and Montana. Many of today’s most-fished
sites are historically represented in the collection as well as some of the
most well-known fly fisherman.
Audio materials comprise reel to reel tapes and cassettes collected
by Ralph Wahl, and include copies of presentations, interviews and programs
relating to fly fishing. The Film and Artifacts consist of fourteen 8mm film
reels of fishing forays. Ten of the films are unidentified and undated. The
Artifacts consist of one ‘salmon’ leather wallet which had been manufactured
for Wahl’s Department Store in the 1950s.
Use of the Collection
Restrictions on Access :
The collection is open to the public.
Restrictions on Use :
Users of the Ralph Wahl collection must receive written permission
from Donor or an individual authorized by Donor before reproducing photographs,
slides and other images which are part of the collection for any
profit-generating use or as part of any profit-generating activity. The
termination date for this publication restriction is January 1, 2025. Also,
please contact the CPNWS in advance to arrange for use of reel to reel tapes.
Preferred Citation :
Ralph E. Wahl Photographs and Papers, Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, Heritage Resources, Western
Washington University, Bellingham WA 98225-9123.
The Ralph E. Wahl Photographs and Papers are organized in accordance
with the following series and subseries arrangement:
Series I. Textual Materials
Subseries 1. Personal and Family Files
Subseries 2. Subject/Correspondence Files
Subseries 3. Unpublished and Published Works
Subseries 4. Fishing Diaries and Handwritten Fish Data
Series II. Photographic Materials
Series III. Audio Materials
Series IV. Film and Artifacts
Acquisition Information :
Terence, Richard and Edward Wahl, the sons of Ralph Wahl, donated the
collection to the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies in December 2001. The
Wahls donated additional audio materials in April 2004.
Processing Note :
Prior to donating the records, the Wahl family organized the materials
based on photographic format. This preliminary arrangement scheme for the
photographs was generally maintained during archival processing. Jason Viers,
an intern from the Graduate Archives and Records Management Program at Western
Washington University, processed the collection in Summer 2002. In April 2004,
Center staff merged a later donation of audio material into the collection.
Related Materials :
Western Washington University Library Special Collections houses the
Paul and Mary Ann Ford Fly Fishing collection. This collection includes works
by Ralph Wahl and other authors regarding American Fly Fishing.
Detailed Description of the Collection
The following section contains a detailed listing of the materials in
Series I: Textual Materials , 1939-1992
1: Personal and
American Museum of Fly Fishing
Bradner , Enos
C ---General Files
"Come Wade the River"
Departments of Game and Fisheries
E --General Files
Federation of Fly Fisherman
Field and Stream Magazine
The Flyfisher Foundation
Fly Fisherman Magazine
Hidy, Vernon S.
"The Judge and I"
Northwest Outdoor Writers
Oregon Fly Club
Time-Life, Sports Illustrated
Washington Fly Fishing Club
Whatcom County Sportsmen Club
X, Y, Z
3: Unpublished & Published Works
'One Man's Shangri-La'
'Camera on the Kispiox'
' Gone Fishing'
General File of Unpublished Works
Come Wade the River
One Man's Steelhead Shangri-La
General File of Published Works
4: Fishing Diaries and Handwritten