About Me

Wells, BC, Canada
Richard is a working photographer and writer in B.C. His camera focuses on natural history. archeology, travel, and documentary photography. His photography blog may be found at: http://richardtwright.blogspot.com/

Friday, February 17, 2012

How to Read a historic photograph

The Barkerville, B.C. Bridge photograph examined.

I am an eBay lurker. I track many items that come onto eBay, in particular those with a history or provenance related to the Cariboo gold rush or Barkerville Historic Town here in British Columbia.  About a year ago a photograph came up for auction, one that showed the main street of Barkerville, not surprising, but also a bridge across the street.  When I wrote my book on Barkerville I had come across references to this bridge, but no photos, which is odd because it is a remarkable structure.
Copy photo Leif Grandell. Original photographer unknown. Proprietary rights Richard Wright.

The eBay item was not a normal photograph but rather a glass slide such as used in a magic lantern. There were other bidders, of course. So I used my usual auction ploy, practiced at many a farm auction. I sat back waited until the last few minutes and then bid an amount well over the current bid prices. Though expensive, I got it.

A simple Magic Lantern similar to one that would have been
used for the Barkerville slide. Image from Creative Commons.

The goal now was to see what the photograph told us about the bridge and the town. The first step was to scan the glass slide to get a good digital image, but that was more difficult than expected. As the slide is 3 dimensional the scanner only wanted to scan one face. I passed off the slide to my friend Leif Grandell a great photographer and technician, who coincidently has a great interest in Barkerville history. A few days later he was back with a CD containing a few dozen image. He had taken photos at various exposures to bring out specific features and some closeups of certain details, such as three men standing in front of a store.

A slight under exposure adds detail to sky and shows the massive flagpoles that Barkerville's "Valley of the Flags" was known for. One even has a yardarm of some kind. This exposure also shows detail in the surrounding mountains, such as Mount Murray in the centre.
All photos: Original photographer unknown. Copy photo Leif Grandell. Proprietary rights Richard Wright.

There is no photographer's name on the slide and there is nothing at present to indicate who it might have been, but in the upper left corner a label reads: "Painted by Newton & Co. 3 Fleet Street, London."
According to "Early Photography UK" Newton's was a well-established firm producing cameras, magic lanterns and globes with an extensive catalogue of lantern slides and films. The site says: "The Newtons were an old established family working in the diverse areas of globe making, patent agents and civil engineers. Advertisements claim establishment in 1704. John Newton (b.1759 d.1844) worked from 97 Chancery Lane from c.1780; John's son William (b.1786 d.1861) joined the firm forming J&W Newton. Miles Berry joined the firm in 1831 forming Newton, Son and Berry, which lasted to 1841. Berry was the patent agent for Daguerre and was issued the first Photographic patent in England. William's son, William Edward (b.1818, d.1879) was part of the Fleet St. branch.

"The firm were important suppliers of lantern slides and equipment they also sold cameras and equipment during the wet-plate and early dry-plate periods. In 1920 the two partners in the firm, Herbert Charles Newton and Russell Stuart Wright separated, Newton continued at the King St. address selling lantern slides and Wright at the Wigmore St. address selling optical instruments, both firms continued to use the Newton and Co name."

So our Barkerville slide has some interesting provenance and a connection with the earliest days of photography through Daguerre and his Daguerrotype, and may be a slide that was in a Newton catalogue. The UK collector I purchased from bought the slide as one of a group of 3400 glass slides in an estate sale in middle England.  It appears there are no others of Barkerville in the collection. How did this slide get in the collection? Likely we will never know.
In the bottom right corner a careful look with a magnifying glass shows the words: "Street in Barker-ville 83." So the date is narrowed down to the spring (if it is a flood time) of 1883.

This unknown photographer, perhaps an early stock photograph shooter, set up his, or her, camera at the corner of the Theatre Royal and the Barkerville Hotel and took the photograph looking north or downstream toward St. Savior's church, which can just be seen at the end of the street under the bridge.

Other than the bridge itself the first remarkable feature is the height of the boardwalks. Buildings in Barkerville were built on the ancient creek bed and periodically the creek would flood and wash tailings gravel down the street, threatening the buildings and filling in foundations. Stores and homes had to be built on pilings or stilts and periodically jacked up above the rising street level. This did not always work and some buildings, such as the dual use Williams Creek Fire Brigade hall and the Theatre Royal had their bottom floor, or in the case of the schoolhouse the whole building, covered in gravel. Boardwalks were built to access the raised buildings, and to keep pedestrians out of the muck and manure of the street.  However, today's restored Barkerville has boardwalks at almost street level, more like what is seen the 1860s and 70s.  Here in this photograph we see the boardwalks are approximately 10 feet off street level, judging from the steps and the height of the men.

The bridge runs from Kelly's General Store on the right, next to the Barkerville Hotel, across to the old Hudson' Bay store, now called Mason and Daly.  Three men stand in front of Mason and Daly. Leif Grandell noticed that at the bottom of the stairs on the right there are a number of large stones. It would seem unlikely that these stones would have been left here for any length of time. And, the street is littered with large rocks. We know from present day examples that the weight of even the single stagecoach going up and down the street soon grinds any errant stone to dust.  Leif's guess is that the photo was taken immediately after one of the frequent spring floods, and in fact that may be why the photo was taken.  Let's move closer.

If we zoom in with another exposure several more features become evident. On close inspection we see the bridge is accompanied by a water line braced with two long struts. Another water line, which we know were used to carry water from fresh hillside springs to businesses, can be seen further down the street.
St. Savior's white paint is weathered down to just a border under the eaves.  To the right of St. Savior's the shaft house of the Davis claim can be seen on the eastern bank of Williams Creek. Further down the street the boardwalks are lower. And, contrary to a popular belief today, there is a wagon, perhaps two, parked on the right side of the street.
Now let's crop again to the left side of the bridge, in the shadow.

With Leif's cropped image and some photo enhancements of mine in Aperture 3, such as contrast, definition and sharpening, we can read a sign: "A. Pendola". Angelo Pendola was a Barkerville merchant, a Mason, who supplied many miners with goods.  He married hurdy gurdy dancer Martha Luhrsden in about 1878, had one son and left in about 1883 to move to Savona near Kamloops where in ran a brewery. He died in New Westminster in 1889 and is buried in Vancouver's Mountain View Cemetery. Until now the location of his store was not confirmed. Now we shift our focus to the right side of the street.

Here we can see a sign with the word Hotel and something indecipherable, perhaps related to the quality or meals.  This is in approximately the location of present day Nicol Hotel. The second water line and a flagpole can be seen to the left of the sign near a wagon or stairway. Finally, we move in on the group of men.

These three men are standing in front of what was the Hudson's Bay Company store. HBC sold to Mason and Daly in 1885.  The men are unidentified and facial features are not discernible. It would seem likely they are associated with the HBC. The man in middle bears a resemblance in posture and clothing to Richard (Blue Dick) Berry, as seen in the photo of Barkerville Oldtimers, PABC #C10180. Barry, who was a California 49'er, died in Barkerville in 1908.

So here a single photograph has opened up a new window to the 1880s streetscape of British Columbia's major historic site, Barkerville Historic Town.  We can only hope that similar images will continue to emerge from dusty attics and locked trunks.

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