In February 1927 arctic aviator Richard E Byrd visited “Ashtonhill“, the towering stone mansion above Old Town owned by Tacoma’s own famous arctic explorer General James M. Ashton. The previous summer, Byrd may have won the great race to fly over the North Pole or he may have missed it and the dirigible Norge may have accomplished the feat three days later commanded by the legendary Roald Amundsen and Umberto Nobile. Either way Byrd went on to become an American exploring celebrity for his polar exploration, aviation exploits and best selling books.
In the portrait of the two men, Byrd holds what might well be a copy of Ashton’s own account of his 1922 exploration of the Siberian arctic, “Ice-Bound”. His voyage from Tacoma into Bolshevik Russia is a remarkable tale, a narrative both spellbinding and understated. He was 63 when he left Commencement Bay on the schooner “Iskum” owned by his Phoenix Northern Trading Company and he came back alive with a treasure of extinct mammoth ivory, furs and artifacts. A glimpse of Ashtonhill can be seen behind the Franklin automobile with the General on the porch and Byrd in front. The sandstone manse burned in a spectacular fire about 1970, long after Arctic exploration, Victorian architecture, and Siberian fossils were capturing anyone’s imagination any more.
But wouldn’t it have been great to be sitting around the warm fire in the library at Ashtonhill that winter with Byrd and the General, sipping a good scotch and surveying maps of places no one has been to marked with the challenging word, “unknown”.
At the time of Byrd’s visit, General Ashton was serving as board secretary and attorney for Weaver Studios, Tacoma’s forgotten silent film studio. He had recently been traveling to Hollywood and New York, visiting with theatrical agents and movie industry giants like D.W. Griffith and John Flaherty, the director of “Nanook of the North”. It was no accident that the three known feature films made by the Tacoma studio had plot lines that tied them to the frozen north. Ashton made a fortune in the arctic and spent much of it financing expeditions, films and books about the last unexplored places on earth-the polar icelands.