Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Never Before Seen

Eight previously unknown photographs of the 1913 flood purchased on ebay portray the flood at its peak in Rochester, New York. Who was the mystery photographer?
Last November, out of the blue, one Steven Schooler sent me this email message:

Sorry to bother you like this, but I found your blog online and thought you might be interested in some photos I have listed on ebay that show the aftermath of the 1913 flood in Rochester. I came across these recently in an antique store here in my home state of Texas. They are listed under ebay #111511780776, with the auction set to end Sunday night, Nov. 16.
Of course, I immediately jumped to ebay and beheld eight images I’d never seen 
Previously unknown image of 1913 flood in Rochester, NY, on Saturday, March 29, showing turbulent floodwaters coursing over the Court Street Dam. The original photograph - on photographic paper of an oddball size of 3.25 x 5.5 inches - was one of eight sold to me in November 2014 by Steven Schooler. Credit: Collection of Trudy E. Bell
before of the Great Easter Flood, primarily on March 28 and 29, 1913 in Rochester, New York. Now, you’ll never find Rochester topping the list of cities devastated by the 1913 flood, and no wonder: it’s more than 460 miles northeast of the city that gave a human face to the disaster and became synonymous with it: Dayton, Ohio. But Rochester—along with Albany and other New York cities—suffered record flooding that likely would have resulted in national headlines had Dayton (and elsewhere in Ohio and Indiana) not suffered far worse (see “Rescuing Albany’s Water).

Only two cameras existed in 1913 that
could have taken photos of such an
oddball size. The most likely one was
this Kodak 3A Folding Camera.
Credit: Camerapedia
I e-mailed Schooler and asked if I could purchase the images outright. Although he was unable to discontinue the auction at that point with less than 12 hours to go, he wrote:

"I do like what you're doing with your blog, though - I'm actually a professional archaeologist, so I appreciate your love of history. I mostly sell rare/scholarly/reference books on ebay to supplement my income, but I also enjoy poking around in antique stores and am always drawn to the inevitable baskets of sad, cast-off photos. For the ones that have enough clues to situate them in time or place, I enjoy doing a little research and seeing what I can figure out about them. (These Rochester pics were obviously pretty self-explanatory.) Anyway, by putting these wayward photos on ebay, I figure they're at least getting a shot of winding up in the hands of someone who'll be able to more fully appreciate them."
I bit my nails all through November 16, crossing my fingers that the photos would not sell. The next morning, Schooler replied to my query:

"Trudy, no bidders on the photos, which I am actually grateful for too - I really wanted you to get them. You clearly have a passionate interest in the topic, and you're probably the one person best situated to extract the maximum educational / public awareness value from them. Do you think you'll make a blog post out of them? Or maybe even incorporate into another book? (Saw from your email you have one titled The Great Dayton Flood of 1913.)"

The only other camera at the time taking
the oddball film size was the No. 2
Stereo Brownie, a less likely possibility.
Credit:Marlo Groleu

He did not know the identity of the photographer, although the box that contained them had other photos of upstate New York landscape scenes with handwriting on the back identical to the writing on the back of the flood images. 

Because the prints are small and large-format film and glass plate negatives were common a century ago, I speculated that the images might actually be contact prints instead of enlarged. Before shipping them to me, Schooler scanned the prints at 1600 dpi, and was excited to report “there actually is some pretty amazing detail. Like on one, there's a billboard in the distance and on the extreme zoom you can tell it had the image of a roadster-style motor car. And you can actually see one of the pumper vehicles a lot better in another.” 

Schooler packed them very well and they arrived quickly. He added:

If you do use the Rochester images in a new post, or in a new book down the line, please do drop a line -  it would be exciting to see the photos I found used in a finished product!
The camera and photographer
I began digging online for information about the camera and locations noted, as well as in the photocopies of four Rochester newspapers on microfilm (obtained several years ago during a research trip to Rochester) for details about the flood scenes. 

Mystery picture, taken of dry
Water Street on Easter Sunday,
March 23, before the rains began.
Why? Credit: Trudy E. Bell
From my own wet lab darkroom work with black-and-white film, I recognized the small white round dots as being from bubbles in the developer that settled on the film because of too-vigorous pouring and agitation during developing. The composition of the images is not the greatest (indeed, in a couple the out-of-focus window sill obscures a bottom corner of the scene), nor is the printing job expert, yielding inadequate contrast. To me, all these characteristics suggested that the photographer was likely an amateur, not a professional. 

Both the images and the paper prints are also an oddball size: the images themselves are 3 by 5.25 inches, and the paper on which they are printed is 3.25 by 5.5 inches. These sizes perplexed me until belatedly I recalled that Rochester was the headquarters of the Kodak Co. The fabulous British site Early Photography has a marvelous table of standard film and plate sizes for antique and vintage cameras. According to that table, the only possible candidates that could have existed by 1913 would have been Kodak roll film size 122 introduced in 1903 or Kodak roll film size 125 introduced in 1905, both 3.25 by 5.5 inches, sometimes also called a “postcard” film size. 

Now, according to Kodak’s own list of historical cameras, the only camera that could have existed in 1913 using that oddball 122 film would have been one of half a dozen models of a No. 3A Folding Pocket Camera, which was on the market from 1903 to 1915. Initially, it retailed for $78—hardly chump change in 1913, equivalent to about $1700 today—but quickly dropped to $20. 

The other possibility, for 125 film, would be a No.2 Stereo Brownie Camera, on the market from 1905 to 1910 for $12 (about $265 today). Although the price point would be right for an amateur, the camera itself seems unlikely unless there were an option for exposing the entire film plane for a single image. 
Men boating on Front Street. Possibly the water was too deep to allow the anonymous photographer to approach closer to his subject, which was beyond the pile of bricks.
Credit: Collection of Trudy E. Bell

My bet is on the No. 3A Folding Pocket Camera, suggesting to me that the photographer might have been a fairly wealthy amateur.

Easter Sunday mystery
The least interesting image of the eight has the most intriguing mysteries. It shows just a dry empty street with pieces of trash along the curb and some random people at the far end, a couple of them moving fast enough to be blurred during the exposure time. On the back the photographer has written: “Water St. Out of the office window looking toward Main St. Taken Easter Day 3/23/13.” Water St.—or, more precisely, North Water St.—in Rochester is only a block long, which instantly narrows down the location (see map).

Water from the flooded Genesee River washing into houses on March 28, 1913. Note the snow on the roof and the icicles. From sun angle, photo was taken in the morning. Credit: Collection of Trudy E. Bell
Okay, so why was the photographer in the office on Easter Sunday? Doesn’t sound like the behavior of an observant Catholic or Protestant in 1913 on one of the two holiest days of the Christian year. Might the photographer have been of another faith? (Certainly today University of Rochester is one of the top 30 private universities in North America with a large Jewish population.) If the photographer had access to the office on a Sunday, was he (most likely male in 1913) a senior employee with a key or did the office work 24/7? Or did he/she have living quarters there? If the office never closed, including on Easter Sunday, what was its business? 

Compare this image from the Rochester Municipal Archives (second image in the Rochester Subway's blog) of some of the same buildings with the image just above. From the sun angle, this one was taken in the afternoon.
The biggest mystery is: why was the photograph taken? Was it a test shot with a new camera? There is nothing obviously noteworthy out the window. Moreover, the rains had not yet begun, as the heavy weather moved over upstate New York at least a day later than it hit Indiana and Ohio.

Peak flood, March 28
There are four images from Friday, March 28—the day the waters were receding from cities in Ohio, but were just cresting in upstate New York. One—evidently taken from 
High water under buildings on the Main
St. bridge from the river flowing below.
Credit: Collection of Trudy E. Bell
an upper floor across the Genesee River—is annotated “Water washing into the houses across the river from back of our shop & office. Ordinarily there is dry ground about 15 feet below the balconies. The water went right on through & came out on Front Street. 3/28/13.” 

Assuming that the photos were again taken from the same office on Water Street, that suggests that the building fronted the river on the west side of Water; note also the mention of a “shop,” which implies a factory. The photo itself shows snow on the roofs and huge icicles; the buildings’ east-facing walls are in full sun, suggesting the photo was taken in the morning. A sharper image of part of this same scene is the second photograph in the Rochester Subway’s blog installment “Rochester’s Great Flood(s), which is a fast enough exposure it better shows the water’s turbulence; some of the snow has melted and the east-facing walls are in shadow, implying that photo was taken later in the afternoon.

Another that same date, with the notation “From back window,” says “These buildings are on Main St. They are built right over the river, which ordinarily runs 15 feet below, and you can see the arches. Now the water is right up under the buildings. 3/28/13.” 

Mill Street, Rochester. Trudy E. Bell
Until the 1960s, Rochester’s Main Street was unique in the world: despite previous floods and fires that destroyed three predecessors in the nineteenth century, the fourth and stone Main Street Bridge was lined with buildings on both sides, with the Genesee River flowing underneath them. This 1913 flood view probably shows the snow-covered roofs and the backs of the buildings on the upriver (north) side of the Main Street Bridge, judging from the likely location of the back office window. 

A third photo for the same date reads “Andrews St., Rochester N.Y. 3/28/13.” The fourth reads “Mill St. Rochester N.Y. 3/28/13.” The two might be usefully considered as a pair, as in 1913 Mill and Andrews intersected; thus, the photographer might have shot one, turned 90 degrees, and shot the other. The water on Mill St. is clearly not very deep, and likely also the same on Andrews, judging from the “open for business” sign on the grocery store and the coat-covered fire hydrant. Note the hose snaking across Mill St., and at the far left water is gushing out of a pipe that is pumping out a basement.

Saturday, March 29
Andrews Street, Rochester. Collection of Trudy E. Bell
The next day, the water was still at least knee deep on Front Street, as can be seen from the photo annotated “Good boating on Front Street Rochester N.Y. This is where the river dropped in the back doors and left by the front. 3/29/13.” The camera’s focus is on the two men in the boat in the middle distance beyond the pile of bricks.

Elsewhere, even though streets were dry, cellars were still flooded. On the back of one image the photographer wrote, “Engines pumping water out of cellars. Rochester, N.Y. 3/29/13.” Unfortunately, no location is noted, but perhaps a reader familiar with Rochester history may be able to identify this busy brick or stone street with its trolley tracks and landmark buildings. The pumping at left appears to be being done with the aid of a fire engine.

Engines pumping. Location?
Collection of Trudy E. Bell
The last photo (lead photo at top of this page) reads “Court St. dam Rochester, N.Y. Ordinarily you can see all the rocks in the rapids. The ‘roll’ of water coming over the dam is about 9 feet high. 3/29/13.” Note also the dangerous turbulence of the floodwater.

The floodwaters had scarcely receded when Rochester’s mayor, Hiram Edgerton, wrote a letter on April 1, 1913, urging the city council to “immediately” consider ordinances to build a protective wall along the west side of the Genesee River, which was completed two years later. The wall still exists and is undergoing improvements today.

Can you help?
I also have scanned the backs of six prints where there is a paragraph of writing, on the outside chance that some reader may recognize the handwriting and be able to identify the photographer. 

The handwriting is quite legible with few abbreviations; indeed, the nature of the explanations suggest that the annotations were not notes to self, but explanations to a friend or relative somewhere else who may not be familiar with the Rochester. That causes me to wonder whether these images were actually mailed to someone distant from the city. And of course, the question has to be asked how they finally ended up in Texas, where Schooler purchased them. 
Anyone recognize the handwriting of the anonymous photographer on the backs of the photos? Scans by Trudy E. Bell

If you have any clue as to the identity of the photographer from the handwriting—or if you know the history of Rochester well enough to have a good supposition as to the “office” and “shop” from which the photographer was shooting—please definitely contact me. I will feature any further information in a future installment.

©2015 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: Katrina + 10

Selected references
A selection of images that make interesting comparisons appear in the installment “Rochester’s Great Flood(s) in Mike Governale’s blog Rochester, May 19, 2014. 
A few paragraphs of interest appears in “The Flood at Rochester, N.Y.,” by E. A. Fisher, Engineering News, v. 69, p. 741, April 10, 1913. 

Tidbits about the 1913 flood in Rochester appear in this USGS reference on floods in upstate New York 1865-1989, with discussion about five notable floods including 1913.

For more about buildings on a bridge, see "Historic Main Street Bridge" by Dorothy S. Truesdale in Rochester History 3(2): , April 1941.

Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus $4.00 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me), or order from the publisher.