Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Giving a Second Look

I had one of those unexpected history moments this past week where looking closely at a photo made me realize it wasn't from the time period and event I (and seemingly everyone else) thought it was.  As fun as those can be, the search for answers (and ultimately finding them) was the most fun.  Now, I'm left with the question of exactly when one of the photos was taken.

This first picture was a photo I had seen many times online and in print.  It was thought to be of the great flood of 1913.  The flood in Kent was part of a larger flood across the state over several days at the end of March.  Virtually every city in the state has some kind of story related to that flood.  Over 100 people each died in Dayton and Columbus because of the flooding in those respective cities among countless losses of property all over Ohio, including the dynamiting of several old Ohio & Erie canal locks in downtown Akron.  The damage in Kent was mostly restricted to areas right along the river, helped in no small part by the fact that through downtown, the Cuyahoga River is around 40 feet below street level.  The Baltimore & Ohio tracks (known locally as the "lower tracks" because of how they pass through downtown) suffered the most damage simply because they are closer to the river.  The stone arch dam, built in 1836, suffered severe damage and the adjoining lock was pretty much totally destroyed (though by then it had long been bricked over).  The dam would eventually be repaired in 1925, but only after a long debate over whether it should be removed since it no longer served a purpose for the canal or industry (in addition to the adjacent canal lock, the dam also fed a mill race on the opposite side of the river that initially served the old Kent Flour Mill near Stow Street).
Photo posted by Henry Halem; from the collection of the Kent Historical Society
Now, at first glance, this seems to be a photo of that flood.  I have seen this photo many times in books and online and never gave it a second thought about its timing.  Then, a few days ago, a friend of mine posted a photo in the possession of Kent State University's Special Collections and Archives that is from virtually the same angle and is also of a flood.  He and I both assumed it was simply another photo of the same event since it also featured flooding and shared the vantage point of the photo above.
Photo from the Kent State University Special Collections and Archives
Again, at first glance, these seem to be photos of the same event.  When I first saw this, I thought briefly that it was simply an untouched version of the previous photo, since the first picture is clearer.  Then I thought it must be a picture from a little later since the water level in the bottom picture is higher than in the first picture.  But then I looked more carefully at the first photo and noticed some big differences; differences that give an idea of when each picture was taken and that they weren't THAT close together.

The first that jumped out to me was the absence in the top picture of the large tower just to the right of center in the bottom picture.  This was a 150-foot flagpole (which included a bell) that was built in late 1895 on the site of the current gazebo downtown.  It stood until sometime in the 1910s and is often in the background of photos taken of downtown during its existence.  Next I noticed that the trees along the riverbank at the bottom of each picture were noticeably larger in the bottom picture than they were in the top picture.  The third major thing I noticed was the mill on the far left of the picture (and adjacent smokestack) was also absent in the first picture.

Now, with those obvious differences clearly visible, I still had to do a little digging and some more visual inventigative work to determine A) which (if either) photo was of the 1913 flood, and B) when the top photo  was taken since it was definitely not 1913.  I found a few clues in three Kent history books I have that allowed me to say with almost certainty that the bottom picture is of the 1913 flood and the top picture is probably sometime in the 1880s for a flood that is not mentioned.

The most detailed history of Kent ever written is the 1932 History of Kent by historian Karl Grismer.  He mentions three major floods for Kent: 1832, 1904, and 1913.  At first I thought the top picture was possibly the from the 1904 flood, but the absence of both the mill and the flagpole eliminate that since both were also there by 1904.  It's definitely not from 1832 since there wouldn't be clear photographs from then not to mention that where downtown Kent is now wasn't developed until circa 1836-37.  The large mill building seen in the bottom picture was built in 1890.  At that point, I was looking pretty carefully at the top picture to see if there were other details I could find.

The first additional detail I could find was the retaining wall that separates the upper tracks from the lower tracks is simply the natural rock cut away.  In the bottom picture, that has been covered with large bricks (still there today).  In a book I have called Images of Kent by Michelle Wardle, I found two photos taken of downtown in the 1880s that show that same rugged drop (as opposed to the brick wall), as well as the absence of the mill (and obviously the flagpole).  The pictures are dated in the captions as "1880s".  From that, I could definitely date the top picture as being from the 1880s at least.

Even with that, I still couldn't date the top photo or totally confirm that the bottom photo was, in fact, from the 1913 flood (instead of the 1904 flood).  Since the mill and flagpole were also present in 1904, I needed something else to give me more clues.  I looked at Roger Di Paolo's book Rooted in Kent, which is a compilation of many of his more recent Portage Pathways articles on Kent history.  I was looking to see if there was a larger version of the top pic so I could possibly see more detail.  Well, instead of seeing more detail on the picture, I found mention of a building that could help me date it.  From 1884-1905, there was a small building along the lower tracks immediately south of the Main Street bridge (accessible via a staircase from the bridge) known as the "boxcar depot" since it was a depot station for those tracks (Baltimore & Ohio or B & O) made from an old boxcar.  When I looked at the top photo again, sure enough, there it was right adjacent to the bridge.  When I downloaded the full-sized photo from Henry Halem's Facebook page, I could see the boxcar depot even clearer.  In the lower picture, there isn't anything in that area at all besides the staircase, which was there much longer than the depot was (a new and nicer depot for the B & O further down the tracks opened in 1905).

I was able to see several other photos from the 1913 flood, all of which match the bottom picture with certain background details like the flagpole, absence of the "boxcar depot", and presence of the mill.  As for the top photo, it is of a flood that is not mentioned in Grismer's history.  It was taken during or after 1884, but before the construction of the mill's prominent grain elevator in 1890.  So, in other words, sometime in the mid-to-late 1880s.

It just goes to show how valuable photos are in studying history and even more so how valuable dating them is!  This is why I like to get pictures around town (especially as things are changing) and I try to make sure my digital camera's date and time are set correctly.  It also goes to show the value of looking for details.  You never know what you're going to find!

UPDATE: February 2, 2012
I found a picture of the Kent Opera House, which is visible in the left backgrounds of both pictures.  It was built between May and November of 1889, which reduces the time frame of the top picture to about a year.  The fact it is in the picture and the mill is not tells us the picture was taken sometime after enough construction of the Opera House was done so that it was visible and before any visible construction began on the mill expansion.  If construction started in May, I would guess based on how it looks in the top picture that this picture was taken very close to its completion if not after.  If I had to pick a date based on what I know, I would say this is probably sometime in the early spring of 1890 since there are also visible leaves in the trees along the river.  Even today, the Cuyahoga gets very high from spring rains and snow melt in March and April (other times too).  The fact that it's not mentioned in the detailed History of Kent makes me believe it wasn't that big of a deal when it happened and if it were just another typical spring flood, that's what it would be.

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