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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Looking Back: William L. Finley

Dramatic photography, captivating lectures, memorable movie scripts and magazine articles – William L. Finley used them all to convince the American public that it was time to give birds a home of their own.

Finley/Bohlman Slide of PelicansAn American White Pelican just before take-off at its nest site in Malheur Lake, 1908. Handpainted glass slide by Finley and Bohlman.

Finley, who was born to a pioneer family in California in 1876, and his boyhood friend Herman Bohlman hauled cumbersome camera equipment up cliffs and into marshes and trees along the Oregon coast. They used block and tackle to raise their equipment onto ledges. They followed the development of hawks, eagles, herons, murres and cormorants from egg to fledgling.

In a history of the Audubon Society of Portland, Tom McAllister wrote that Bohlman and Finley spent four months photographing a California condor nest.

“Bohlman was the reserved and skilled photographer … Finley was the clean-shaven extrovert who spread a message across the land of the need to save habitat as well as pass protective bird legislation. Their derring-do and the results captivated audiences and readers nationwide. Finley packed the lecture halls.” 

Finley and friends coming ashore in a 1912 visit to Three Arch RocksFinley and friends coming ashore with photography gear in a 1912 visit to Three Arch Rocks. Handpainted glass slide by Finley and Bohlman.

Their photos are striking. Hand-painted glass plates were the most effective way to produce full-color photos in the early 20th century. Many Finley/Bohlman photographs were considered the best of their time and are still in use today.

In 1907, after President Theodore Roosevelt saw the team’s photos of Three Arch Rocks, he established the first bird refuge west of the Mississippi. With his wife, Nellie Irene Barnhart, Finley wrote three wildlife books, created popular wildlife movies and wrote articles for Nature magazine. He was a leader of the Oregon Audubon Society and was named Oregon state game warden in 1911.

Finley and Bohlman's Three Arch RocksFinley and Bohlman's Three Arch Rocks photograph that later helped Three Arch Rocks become the west coast's first bird refuge in 1907.

The Oregon Historical Society reports that, in 1913, Finley ordered a deputy to confiscate a headdress of 46 egret plumes from singer Lillian Herlein at Portland’s Orpheum Theatre. Long before easy transportation or instant communication, Finley regularly made the case for protecting habitat on the West Coast with the leaders on the East Coast.

Finley worked closely with J.N. “Ding” Darling, chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey, and then with Ira Gabrielson, the first director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to add the 65,000-acre Blitzen Valley to Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Finley died in 1953.

A decade later, wintering and resting habitat for the dusky Canada goose in Oregon’s Willamette Valley was set aside as a national refuge and named for him.


This is a great story, and there really is something almost magical about the hand painted slides. What a fascinating process!
# Posted By Hugh | 1/22/12 5:22 PM

Katherine, this was a very nice piece. You may be interested to know that my novel, THE PLUME HUNTER, was inspired by Finley and Bohlman's friendship, and rec'd great blurbs from David Sibley, Bill Thompson, III, and Tim Gallagher. I'm scheduled to appear at the John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival in Burns this April, and there's a nice Q&A on my website about the inspiration Finley/Bohlman provided. Maybe you are interested in a follow-up piece? Please check out the Q/A at reneethompson (dot) com. Thanks so much!
# Posted By Renee Thompson | 1/23/12 1:51 PM
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