William H. Harbeck

(1866-1912)

Cinematographer and Titanic Victim

William H. Harbeck was a noted filmmaker who traveled the world shooting movies for various sponsors. Born and raised in Toledo, he married Catherine "Katie" Stetter in 1886 and they had two sons.

 

Before breaking into the film business, Harbeck tried his hand at a wide variety of jobs. He went from bookkeeping to journalism before working as an inventor. When revenue from his inventions didn't pan out, he explored careers as a travel agent, bakery owner, and steam laundry business owner before he became a filmmaker. Little is known about how Harbeck became involved in the motion picture business but he was well respected for his craft. He made his mark in the new industry after being the first cinematographer to capture scenes of the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake on film. After he moved his base of operations to Seattle in 1907, he became a leading avant-garde pioneer in filming outdoor scenes of the Pacific northwest. By the close of the first decade of the 20th century, Harbeck's films were seen all over the world.

 

At the time of his death, Harbeck was working for the Canadian Pacific Railway's Department of Colonization, producing films to promote travel to western Canada. The railroad sent him to Europe in early 1912 to study outdoor location shooting with French filmmaker Leon Gaumont. While in Paris, Harbeck met Henrietta Yvois, a 24-year old model.

 

During Harbeck's 1912 visit to Europe, besides Paris, he toured London, Brussels, and Berlin to shoot new film and present his completed productions.  including The Pendelton Roundup, a rodeo film he shot in Oregon the previous fall. On April 1, while in Berlin, he wrote to his family in Toledo to inform them his work in Europe was done and he was returning by way of Amsterdam to London. He had been offered $10,000 by the White Star Line to film the Titanic on its maiden voyage from South Hampton, England to New York City. Included in his planned itinerary was a ship-to-ship transfer from the Titanic to a tug-boat at Sandy Hook, NJ to film the "unsinkable" luxury steamship's arrival in New York Harbor.

 

Harbeck boarded the Titanic in Southampton as a second class passenger. He was carrying his film equipment and tens of thousands of feet of film he had shot over the last several months. Henrietta Yvois joined him on the voyage. Sadly, Harbeck and Yvois perished when the Titanic was sunk after colliding with an iceberg on April 15, 1912. Harbeck's body was recovered by the CS Mackay-Bennett, a cable repair ship, eight days after the sinking. He was found wearing a life vest and clutching a woman's purse which was later determined to have belonged to Yvois. Harbeck was identified by his Moving Picture and Projecting Machine Operators’ Union card. Yvois' body was never recovered.

When Catherine Harbeck came to Halifax from Toledo to claim the body of her spouse, she was almost turned away since authorities assumed "Mrs Harbeck" had drowned with her husband. After proving her relationship to Harbeck, she brought his body back to Toledo for burial here at Woodlawn. She also filed a claim against the owners of the Titanic for damages associated with the loss of her husband and his property. She claimed $25,000 for her husband’s death and $55,000 for the loss of property. Harbeck's business partner, Mrs. Katherine George of Seattle, claimed $41,000 for the films that had been lost.

 

Catherine Harbeck never remarried and remained in Toledo until her death in 1940.

For more details on W.H. Harbeck and the mystery of "Brownie" Harbeck, check out this feature story from Toledo.com or this Pacific NW Magazine piece from the Seattle Times.

 

Click here to view Harbeck's film, The Pendelton Roundup.

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