Geoghegan, James Theodore (1869-1953)

  • By Harold Lentzner and Edrie Vinson
  • Posted 12/15/2014
  • Essay 10997

James Theodore Geoghegan (pronounced "Gay-g'n") was Orcas Island's most prolific photographer during the first half of the twentieth century. Much of what we know visually about Orcas, the largest of the San Juan Islands that make up San Juan County, comes from his body of work. From 1914 to 1941, Jim Geoghegan took more than 2,500 photographs of islanders at home and at work and play, their homes and villages, and the beautiful island landscape. Geoghegan's photography was only part of his life story; he was a gold miner and innkeeper in his younger days in Alaska; a farmer, full-time single parent, and active community leader on Orcas; and late in life during World War II a contributor to the war effort as an electrician in aircraft assembly plants in Seattle and southern California. A collection of his photographs is housed at the Orcas Island Historical Museum and has been made available online.

Early Years: England to Orcas Island

James Theodore "Jim" Geoghegan was born in 1869, the third of the seven children of Richard Taylor Geoghegan and Bessie Gertrude Willis. Jim's siblings included Richard, called "Harry" (1866-1943); Frederick (1867-1945); Nina (1872-1946); Gertrude (1875-1955); and Christopher, called "Jack" (1877-1953). Their father was Irish, a surgeon who trained and practiced in Dublin before moving his family to Liverpool, England, where Jim was born.

Jim was only 11 when his father died; his mother raised the large family by herself while teaching kindergarten. Jim's eldest brother, Richard, studied linguistics at Oxford and later in life made significant contributions to the study of aboriginal languages while he lived and worked in Alaska. His older brother Fred studied medicine and eventually became a well-known dentist in Bellingham and the San Juan Islands.

Jim attended a private boys' school in Liverpool, and then took an extension course in electricity from a polytechnic in London. In 1889, at their mother's request, Jim and Fred left England for Orcas Island where their uncle Charles Willis had settled a few years earlier. The brothers homesteaded on a barren piece of property outside the small village of Eastsound, located at the head of East Sound, the island's long central bay. They built a two-story, nine-room house where, two years later, they welcomed their mother and the rest of their brothers and sisters.

Life in Alaska: Picking Up a Camera

Jim Geoghegan's life of adventure was just beginning. In the aftermath of the depression known as the Panic of 1893, Orcas Island provided few employment opportunities, so Geoghegan moved to Seattle, where he worked as an optician and repaired watches.

Then in 1897 Geoghegan joined the Klondike Gold Rush, like many young men who were lured there with tales of great wealth. He packed his bags, loaded up with supplies, and sailed for the Yukon. With the exception of two relatively brief return stays in Seattle in 1901-1902 and 1909, his home was the Yukon and Alaska for the better part of two decades.

Geoghegan went to Alaska with the hope that he would strike gold and become a wealthy man. Although that didn't happen he did find adventure and, what's more, his "photographic eye." He started taking photographs in the Yukon and Alaska, often using a delayed timer, a device he would employ over the years that enabled him to be in the photograph. An early photo shows him holding a second camera in a tent with a group of fellow hunters. Even in these harsh conditions he managed to do his own developing, using ice-cold streams for his water bath. Unfortunately, pictures taken before 1906 were destroyed in a cabin fire, but many remain from his later years in Alaska and are archived as part of the Geoghegan Family Papers in the Alaska and Polar Regions Collection at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.

Geoghegan got into the hostelry business in 1907, helping to build and run a roadhouse along the Fairbanks-to-Valdez trail. Then, in 1910, he bought and ran Donnelly's Roadhouse, located some 120 miles south of Fairbanks on the newly built wagon road to Valdez that would become the Richardson Highway. Life remained challenging throughout this period even though he had left mining for innkeeping. This was especially true in winter when the weather turned deadly cold and the trail past his roadhouse became crowded with travelers who could no longer pass through by riverboat. Geoghegan served three big meals a day to his guests in a rustic but cozy dining room. He also took care of more than 1,200 horses that were used for the stage service that worked the 350-mile winter trail from Valdez to Fairbanks. As innkeeper he had to become a jack-of-all-trades, some of which -- raising a garden and canning food, cutting and hauling in firewood, baking bread, cooking and "keeping house" -- would come in handy in later years. Geoghegan, a man of few words, summarized his life at the Donnelly this way:

"Three meals a day. Cut wood. Kept house. 3 years slipped away!" ("Sojourn Yukon and Alaska," 5)

Return to Orcas and a New Family

In 1912, Geoghegan's mother died, having never fully recovered from a 1904 fire that completely destroyed the family's Orcas home and, with it, the last vestiges of their European gentility. Geoghegan sold the Donnelly Roadhouse and returned to Orcas with his brother Richard to take care of family business.

Geoghegan's life changed rather dramatically after his return. In 1914, with funds from his mother's estate, he rebuilt the house and the farm on the old family place. Two years later, Jim Geoghegan married Lola Dumas Coffman Harrelson. Lola had three children -- Clara Bessie (1902-1983), Henry Lee (1908-1983), and Kathleen Lola (1912-1990) -- and within the next few years Jim and Lola added three more boys to the family -- James Frederick "Jimmie" (1917-1988), Richard Taylor (1919-1991), and Harold Willis (1921-1981). Then in May 1922, only one year after Harold's birth, Lola died, leaving Jim a widowed parent to care for five young children.

Father, Farmer, Photographer

Jim took on all the parental duties, becoming both father and mother to Henry, Kathleen, and his three young boys in addition to running the farm. He later reflected:

"What else could I do? Our children were one, three, five, eight, and ten years of age when my wife died. At first we were all pretty helpless together. But a man can't let his children down, can he?" (Cook, 1).

Fortunately for the community and posterity, Geoghegan retained his interest in photography even with considerable family responsibilities. It's not clear what made up Geoghegan's Orcas photographic kit in those early years and how he got it; whether he brought any of his equipment back with him from Alaska or acquired new cameras when he returned home. The Orcas Island Historical Museum has some of Geoghegan's equipment. This includes his Kodak cameras: the oldest a No. 2 Bull's Eye Model C, a Model B3 "folding pocket camera" which sold for about $78 in the first decade of the twentieth century, and a very modest 1A Pocket Camera (which sold for $12) of the same vintage. A large vintage Eastman enlarger, a delay timer, handwritten daily logs, and other miscellaneous material that Geoghegan used to develop and print his photographs are also in the collection.

Although James Geoghegan was a man of varied interests and skills, he considered himself to be first and foremost a farmer, and stated so for the U.S. decennial censuses of 1920, 1930, and 1940. And as far as is known, with the exception of some post cards of Orcas views sold at local shops, he wasn't paid for his photographic work. One might say then, that photography was his avocation. Geoghegan came to his craft around the time that "snapshot photography" came into vogue. The first Kodak snapshot camera to use roll film, the Kodak No. 1, was introduced in 1888, and by 1898 there were an estimated 1.5 million roll-film cameras in use in this country. (When the roll was finished the whole camera was sent in, the film processed, and the camera returned with fresh film). With access to their own equipment, Americans were freed from the stuffy frozen poses characteristic of early professional photographs and could document and relive their own lives through photos. Geoghegan's subject-matter interests extended from his family to friends, the greater Orcas community, and the beautiful island surroundings, and finally, as befitted a former Alaskan adventurer, to the places off-island he visited with family and friends. His subject matter may not have been unique, but he used the medium with an eye, the appetite, and the equipment of a professional.

Geoghegan kept a log of his photographs that usually included the subject matter, with the names of people in the photograph, the date the picture was taken, and notation identifying whether the shot was on glass, nitrate, or safety film. At a later date, sometime before he left the island in 1943, Geoghegan typed up his notes, adding a sequential numbering system along with some revisions in his titles, and left this record and his photographic collection with an island friend.

As a bachelor just returned home from Alaska, Geoghegan took photos that included his brothers Fred and Jack and their families. One taken in May 1914 of a picnic on Spring Beach shows Geoghegan with his back to the camera, his brother Jack, and some friends. After his marriage to Lola, her children from her previous marriage and the three boys from their marriage became the subjects of many of his photographs. One of the best photos of the family was taken at a popular spot on the west side of Cascade Lake. (The lake and surrounding area, which later became a central feature of Moran State Park, was a favorite setting for Geoghegan.)

Some of the most endearing photographs show Geoghegan and his children at both work and play. In one he is pictured cultivating the garden with "the help" of his oldest boy Jimmie in June 1919. That Christmas Geoghegan took a delightful picture of Jimmie and Richard in front of a decorated hearth eagerly awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus. And in 1923 all three of his young boys were pictured playing with one of the family pigs. 

School and Community

Jim Geoghegan actively participated in community life on the island, even as he cared for his children and his farm and kept up with his photography. Perhaps not surprisingly much of his volunteer work revolved around children and the local school. Friends recalled that Geoghegan was a leader in the 4-H Garden Club, was the informal radio repairman for the school, and in the summer taught lots of kids how to swim.

In 1918, Orcas consolidated its school system and Geoghegan was elected the school board's clerk at its first meeting. Working with the new superintendent Geoghegan and other school board members had to confront many issues related to consolidation; it was reported that Geoghegan, as a single parent with family and farm responsibilities, was "sometimes interrupted by other members of the school board seeking his sound advice for he could not venture out often in the evenings" (Cook, 2).

Geoghegan's camera always seemed at the ready for eventful or playful scholastic moments. In 1918 he captured the traditional dance around the Maypole on May 1st at the Eastsound school and that August he was present with his camera when the whole town turned out to build a new school gym. In later years it seems he was the school photographer; his photos of graduating classes include, in 1922, the first graduates of the consolidated high school.

From the first year he returned to Orcas, Geoghegan frequented every local sporting event he could, taking photographs that would preserve these moments for his island home. He photographed track meets and was particularly attracted to pole vaulting. The events held on Orcas often took place on Crescent Beach, where they must have occurred during the hours that the tide was out. Girls' softball games were also played on the beach. In 1917 the local newspaper reported on one "repurposed" track meet:

"A track meet was held on Saturday afternoon on the school grounds. Because of the other Orcas Island Schools being unable to accept East Sound's challenge, the only competitors were pupils of the East Sound School ... Mr. Geoghegan, who took a great interest in the meet, distributed the prizes to the winners. Several pictures taken on the grounds were among the attractive prizes" ("Eastsound Notes"). 

Documenting Life on and off the Island 

Then as now the beauty of the San Juan Islands and the opportunities for enjoying the surroundings appealed to locals and visitors alike. A photo of a boatload of summer vacationers arriving at the Madrona Point landing aboard the S.S. Chippewa in July 1914 documents the allure of the islands. A highlight for visitors and locals alike was a ride up a very steep road to the top of Mount Constitution for an unparalleled panoramic view of north Puget Sound. Geoghegan's early pictures show guests being taken to the top in horse-drawn wagons; later photos show what appear to be more comfortable excursions in touring automobiles. Summer was a time when local families and visitors could enjoy playing in East Sound as well as in the lakes on Orcas. One of Geoghegan's last photographs, taken in 1940, was of a group of local boys playing in the water at Crescent Beach.  

Geoghegan and his family did take the time to travel off island. A number of his photographs show family and friends enjoying wilderness areas surrounding the San Juan Islands and also major cities including Bellingham and Seattle. Of note is a lovely self-portrait, taken with a delayed timer, of the photographer standing by Sunrise Lake on the Olympic Peninsula, rifle in hand, very much in the style of his Alaskan photos. The photo was hand colored by Geoghegan himself, as were several of those from Alaska. 

There are also photos of an Armistice parade in Bellingham celebrating the fifth anniversary of the end of World War I, pictures of visits to attractions in Seattle, and a wonderful photo of a trip to Capilano Canyon on the Canadian border showing Geoghegan and family members in a car.  Geoghegan's pictures of people -- his family, friends, islanders, and vacationers -- were an important addition to Orcas Island's historical record, but in some ways his most important photographs may be those showing what the island looked like in the early twentieth century and how it changed over the years. They include shoreline vistas around Eastsound, Deer Harbor, and Olga; photos of the hills and mountains on the island, including Mount Constitution and Turtleback; and overviews of the central valley.

Geoghegan also took many pictures of individual buildings, including the houses of friends and neighbors, hotels and lodges around the island, and general stores, as well as village scenes, especially of Eastsound. He also used the camera to capture activities on land and water: scenes of plowing and harvesting, orchard care, and recreational and commercial fishing.

Final Years in California

The 1940 U.S. Census lists Geoghegan's two youngest sons, Richard, age 21, and Harold, 18, as household members, but by then Geoghegan was pretty much living on his own.

World War II was a difficult time for Geoghegan. While he did his part watching for enemy planes as a civilian member of the army's Ground Observer Corps, he must have obsessed with what more he could do. Born under the MacGeoghegan coat of arms with a motto of "Always ready to serve," he had never been to war. He was in Alaska during the Spanish American War, and when the United States entered World War I he was a first-time father and already 48 years old.

In 1943, at the age of 73, Geoghegan sold his Orcas home and moved to Seattle. With his formal and practical training in electricity and radio he got a job in the electrical shop at Boeing installing microphones and radio compasses in military aircraft. Later that same year he moved again, to southern California, and went to work for Lockheed Aircraft in Burbank as an electrician, retrofitting fighter planes and bombers with radar. He worked for Lockheed until August 1945. Although there are no known photographs from that period, Geoghegan did write a fascinating series of accounts after he "retired," painting a word picture of life in both Seattle and southern California in the war years and his working life on the floor of aircraft-assembly plants.

Geoghegan chose to stay in southern California after the war. He lived at least part of his last years in a small boarding house in a town on the outskirts of Los Angeles and, ever the observer, wrote about the changes he saw in post-war California as he traveled around the state with a shoe-sundry salesman. James Geoghegan died on July 8, 1953, in Los Angeles, about three months shy of his 84th birthday. His body was brought back to Orcas and he was laid to rest on July 18, 1953.

Lasting Legacy

On June 8, 1918, the country experienced a total eclipse of the sun, a celestial phenomenon that Geoghegan photographed on that day, as he did eclipses in 1923 and 1930. The path of the 1918 eclipse was west to east, clipping part of Washington before moving across the country, making headlines as it passed. Geoghegan pictured himself in one photograph, camera aimed skyward, head covered by the camera drapery.

In many ways that photo epitomizes James Geoghegan's life behind the camera as an observer and chronicler of the lives of his growing children, the community and island he loved, and the universe that inspired him. He lived life to the fullest, never slowing down, giving up, or giving in, and left a collection of photographs that continues to give life to the history of Orcas Island.

As a group these photos put meaning and context to life at an earlier moment in our history. In addition individual images serve to allow younger generations of islanders and others with roots on Orcas to visually connect with their family and island heritage.

Geoghegan's photos and detailed documentation have been made available to the public in the digital archive at the Washington Rural Heritage website through a grant from the Washington State Library to the Orcas Island Library. This digital archive allows users to access Jim Geoghegan's photographs in ways he could hardly have imagined.


David Richardson, Shamrocks on the Tanana: Richard Geoghegan's Alaska (Snoqualmie: Cheechako Books, 2009), 164-169; David Richardson, "The Geoghegan Brothers of Alaska," The Alaska Journal: History and Arts of the North Quarterly, Winter 1976, pp. 17-24; John Geoghegan, "John Willis Christopher (Jack) Geoghegan," typescript dated 1945, Geoghegan Family File, Orcas Island Historical Museum, Eastsound Washington; Richard T. Geoghegan to Barbara Barbieri, January 29, 1989, Geoghegan Family File, Orcas Island Historical Museum; Beatrice Cook, "Meet Your Neighbor: Jim Geoghegan of Eastsound," undated manuscript (circa 1940), James T. Geoghegan folder, Orcas Island Historical Museum; James Geoghegan, "Went to Seattle," "Notes on Moving to California," "Work at Lockheed Burbank," and "Spending Time in My Declining Years," unpublished notes, 1948-1951, James T. Geoghegan folder, Orcas Island Historical Museum; Roy Reddick, "Neighbors Respect Memory of Friend: Jim Geoghegan's Public Service Recalled by Former 4-H Club Boy," Friday Harbor Journal, August 6, 1953, p. 1; "Eastsound Notes," Ibid., May 1917, p. 5; Boyd Pratt and Sandy Strehlou, "San Juan County Historic Barn Inventory," 2010; James Geoghegan, "Sojourn Yukon and Alaska," undated manuscript, Richard Geoghegan Collection, Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska; "Orcas Island Heritage," Washington Rural Heritage website accessed December 9, 2014 ( The authors thank Phil Heikkinen, Nita Couchman, and the staff of the Orcas Island Library and the staff and volunteers of the Orcas Island Historical Museum, in particular Virginia Jensen and Joanne Johnston, for their assistance and support.

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