From the Archives & Special Collections: The Abby Williams Hill Journals

In August 2019, the Archives & Special Collections received a Washington Digital Heritage grant to digitize, transcribe, and make available online nine journals written by the artist Abby Williams Hill (1861-1943). These journals focus on Hill’s travels throughout the United States between 1895 and 1906 and provide a unique female perspective on significant issues affecting the nation at that time, including education, tourism, and the rights of women, African Americans, Native Americans, and the working class. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be using the blog series to highlight each of the journals and their significance for researchers. Abstracts for all of the journals can be found here.

Last week we discussed the journal from Hill’s year-long trip across the United States with her children in 1901 and 1902. The fourth piece in our digital collection is a daybook from the summer of 1903. That year, Hill secured a contract with the Great Northern Railway to paint scenery along their rail line in the North Cascade Mountains in Washington State. In exchange for her work, Hill asked for 1,000-mile railroad tickets for her and her four children. Hill set off from Tacoma in May 1903 and headed east to Chelan to begin her work. She had a letter of introduction from the Great Northern Railway to present to the station agents along her route. The letter urged the agents to assist her in any way possible. At that time, the North Cascades Highway did not exist and access to the mountains was difficult. Hill writes of traveling by rail, taking a steamer to the north end of Lake Chelan, and then having to travel on foot or by horse into the mountains from there. She painted entirely en plein air, meaning she painted outdoors and on site. She faced many challenges with terrain, wildlife, including rattlesnakes and bears, and weather. Hill wrote:

“Snake came and looked at me. Big land slide came down behind me… I start [Horseshoe] Basin picture. Pitch my awning on a rock, very windy, have to sit astride… Miners at cabins. Showed them pictures. ‘That’s the real stuff boys, no need to come see the Basin if one can see those’… Paint on rock. Hard wind, difficult to stick on. Awning blew down.”

Another day, she writes of difficulty with the snow. “Mr. B. sent Mr. Cooper and a horse for me. Leave the horse, cross the snow on foot. Climb over a trail above a crevasse, by ropes down a hole, up a rock over snow and slide [down] rock to the ledge. Slide over 800 feet, returning, men roar at our inability to steer… Finish the Basin picture. Ione and I have a tumble.”

The Great Northern Railway selected twenty-one canvases by Hill to use in their marketing and promotional materials. The paintings depict scenery in and around Leavenworth, Index, Lake Chelan, and the North Cascade Mountains. On April 12, 1906, Hill wrote a single entry in the daybook, updating her readers on the outcome of the Great Northern Railway commission. She writes:

“What a long interval! My collection which I was painting when I kept this book has been long finished and was exhibited at the St. Louis [World’s Fair]… The Great Northern published a folder illustrating it and circulated 30,000 of them at St. Louis.”

Indeed the railroad did publish Hill’s work in a brochure titled “Scenic Washington Along the Line of the Great Northern Railway,” which we are lucky enough to have several copies of in the Abby Williams Hill collection. In addition to the brochure and this daybook, the collection also includes Hill’s original contract with the railroad, the letter of introduction Hill took with her while she traveled, and a list of the paintings that were exhibited at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and their values. Hill and her children traveled to the fair to see the paintings and her observations are documented in the journal we’ll be looking at next week. In addition, the university owns sixteen of the twenty-one canvases that were part of this commission. Images of those paintings can be seen here.

This project was supported by a grant from the Washington State Library with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The Archives & Special Collections is currently unable to host in-person researchers. If you need assistance or would like to set up a virtual appointment, please email us at

By Laura Edgar, Assistant Archivist & Archivist for the Abby Williams Hill Collection

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