The Alaskan mining prospector ‘Professor’ Dick Willoughby was looking out across the Muir Glacier in June 1888 when he caught a glimpse of a most remarkable sight – the outline of a modern city skyline looming out of the misty horizon.
Although the mirage lasted only a few minutes, he was able to photograph it to prove that he had indeed seen it. Willoughby speculated that what he had witnessed was the reflection of a real city many thousands of miles away.
Alaska had been bought by the US just 20 years earlier and for many Americans, it still represented a weird and wonderful wild world of ice where anything could happen and Willoughby’s story became a sensation after it was published in the San Francisco Chronicle.
For his part, Willoughby did very well out of it, selling copies of his photograph for 75¢ in his hometown of Juneau and being paid to accompany tours of the area where he took it.
The story began to unravel when a Wells Fargo employee recognised the mysterious skyline as that of Bristol, England, and the view from the public park on Brandon Hill.
It transpired that Willoughby had acquired the blurry photo of Bristol as part of a job lot of equipment he had bought from a stranded English photographer for $10 which inspired him to hatch his ‘silent city’ mirage hoax.
Interest in the story continued even after it had been debunked and in 1890 Willoughby sold the negative to a photographer in San Francisco for $500.
In fact, the ‘professor’ was a notorious practical joker and teller of tall tales, not to mention being a shrewd businessman who had netted himself a lucrative mining deal in San Francisco worth $67,000.
Willoughby became a tourist attraction in his own right in Juneau and visitors would call to be treated to one of his tales until he died in 1902 aged 70.