Jun Fujita: On Time & Tanka

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Two film negatives from the 1920s, now in the Chicago Daily News negative collection at the Chicago History Museum, are among thousands of reporters’ images depicting the incredible life of the early twentieth-century Windy City.  Some were made as stock photography, with no particular story in mind.  Others were not published at all, the stories they illustrated tossed out by editors and never seen by the public.

Though not meant to be paired, two images, set side by side, make a certain visual poetry.  In one, “V. Shoemaker,” artist for the Daily News, sits at a drafting table drawing on a large piece of bright paper, so overexposed that it is blank, a silence for the eye.  Has Shoemaker’s drawing just been begun or finished?

In the other photograph, taken in 1921, Mabel Normand, silent film actress, reads a page that, by contrast, is full of dramatic words:  “Erzberger Assassinated;  Shot 12 Times.”

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Two images, seven years apart.  The woman who does not speak is captivated by the presence of words — while the man who sets out to “capture” or create an image, to “say” something rather than be a witness, ends up with a great blankness in front of his face.

That’s an imaginary reading of these photos, one of many that could be made.  Maybe the blankness is full, an old paradox.  Maybe both images speak quietly of the eloquence of saying “no-thing,” of looking simply at the picture (or the complex, bloody, drama-filled spectacle) the world paints.  Even the white void V. Shoemaker faces whispers some truth, primitive or cryptic, to us.  Shoemaker’s blank picture says something we intuitively know must be worth investigating.

Poetically, the pictures are the mirror of a real man, Jun Fujita.  It is not known if he actually made them (many of the countless photographs from the Chicago Daily News were never identified by their photographer).  But as small “poems”, creating a mystery when combined, they give us an image both of this remarkable man and of his spiritual struggle with art and image-making.

Fujita was one of the forgotten founders of American photojournalism, the first Japanese American to serve on the staff of a professional newspaper in the United States.  A staff photographer on the Chicago Daily News, much of his work “on beat” was probably anonymous.

Though his career remains obscure, Fujita was one of the most versatile, multi-talented, and intriguing men of his time.  Photographer, painter, poet, silent film actor, and general handyman, Fujita encountered all of America’s tragic contradictions and paradoxes.fujitajun

Fujita was an Issei, a term that Japanese Americans coined to refer to the “first generation” to leave Japan.  He was born in a village near Hiroshima on December 13, 1888.  His unusual odyssey to America began in 1904, when at the age of 16, Fujita reportedly fell in love with a teacher much older than himself and was publicly shamed after a love letter he had written to her showed up.

In response, Fujita emigrated to Canada.  Then, because he had heard it was the cheapest place to live in the United States, he managed to get over the border and come to Chicago, Illinois.

That he achieved success fairly quickly in the Midwest before to the 1930s is significant, since it is thought that only about five percent of Japanese Americans lived here at that time.  Most Issei went to cities or farms on the West Coast.

In the Windy City, Fujita worked first as a train porter and “domestic slave,” then in construction work.  Around 1914, he got an acting job.  Fujita appeared in several silent films shot at Chicago’s Essenay Studios, the same company that produced Charlie Chaplin movies.

Before the film industry moved to Hollywood in the 1920s, Chicago was the movie capital of the world.  Indiana Dunes, sixty miles across Lake Michigan, was a popular vacation spot for Chicagoans and a mecca for theater actors, who often performed in famous nature-themed pageants held there throughout the 1910s and ’20s.  Though the rested nearly under the shadow of Gary’s booming steel mills, Indiana Dunes served as a desert for early Chicago filmmakers.  The Dunes stood in for Mexico, the American Far West, and the Sudan.

A photograph survives of film crews leading camels through the dunes east of Gary in June 1910.  That same month, there appeared a comic but true account in the Chicago Record Herald titled “Gary Camel Caravan Alarms, Mohammedan Steel Workers Set Up Wail At Sight of Procession.”  Scores of immigrant steel workers, mostly Syrians and Lebanese, were surprised by what seemed like a sudden apparition from their homeland:  a movie crew in full Arabian attire.  The immigrant steel workers stood “amazed at the sight of a procession of some five hundred sheiks with their Bedouins, camels, Berber attendants and gun carriers, all in desert accoutrement, marching through the street with the solemnity of a genuine caravan of the Sahara.”

The young Jun Fujita, in his mid-twenties, appeared as an extra in several of these movies and even played a lead role in the silent film Otherwise Bill Harrison (1915), which had as its subject “the daydream of a newsboy.”


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Pageant of the Dunes, 1917.  (Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)


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Pageant at Indiana Dunes, circa 1915-20.  (Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)


In 1914, the 26-year-old “Togo” (as his friends called him) bluffed his way into a photography job and became the first photojournalist on the staff of the Chicago Evening Post (later the Chicago Daily News, a now-defunct paper but until the 1930s one of the city’s great journals.)

On the eve of World War I, photojournalism was a new thing – newspapers only recently discovered how to print photographs effectively – and Fujita contributed to its invention.

He was given free rein in Chicago, where he photographed some of its most prominent citizens, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Carl Sandburg, and Al Capone.  Fujita was the only photojournalist to capture the aftermath of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, when Capone’s mobsters gunned down nine men loyal to rival gangster Bugs Moran.

Fujita also created important images of the 1919 Chicago Race Riot, Clarence Darrow and the Loeb-Leopold trial, and the tragic sinking of the S.S. Eastland in the Chicago River in 1915.

In the mid-‘30s, he was hired to photograph Federal Works projects throughout the United States.  He photographed one of Albert Einstein’s visits to Chicago.


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Jun Fujita, Carl Sandburg, ca. 1930.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-00718010.  Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.


 The most important images of his career were of the aftermath of the Eastland disaster.  Yet as he later said of all of his photography (as he turned toward writing and painting), Fujita would have preferred never to have made them.

The S.S. Eastland was Chicago’s equivalent of the Titanic, which had sunk just three years before.  Around 6:30 AM on July 24, 1915, several thousand passengers began to board the fast, steam-powered Eastland (dubbed “The Speed Queen of the Great Lakes”) while it was docked on the Chicago River near today’s downtown Loop.  Their destination was Michigan City, Indiana, gateway to the dunes.

The Eastland could legally carry 2,572 people, much many more were boarding that morning.  At the height of the summer season, the ship was packed solid with human bodies within less than an hour.  The largest single group of passengers were Czech immigrants from Cicero on 22nd Street.  Almost all were working-class Chicagoans: the Western Electric Company had chartered the Eastland and two other boats that day to take their employees to a picnic on an Indiana beach.

Just before 7:30, the vessel was obviously nearing overcrowding.  Crew members noticed it listing to one side.  In the wake of the Titanic disaster, new safety regulations required all vessels to carry enough wooden lifeboats for every passenger, a law that ironically contributed to the excessive weight aboard the Eastland.

As passengers filled the lower decks, a crowd on top gathered.  When the Eastland started to tip slightly, a crowd rushed to the port side, and at that moment, the boat lurched and fell completely over in the river.

Travelers below-deck were crushed by tables, pianos, cabinets and other heavy objects, and the ship immediately filled with water.  Hundreds were trapped inside.  Although the Eastland was a mere twenty feet from the wharf in the middle of downtown Chicago, 844 people drowned.

Chicago’s citizens and newspapers erupted in anger, outraged that safety rules had been overlooked to put a few more dollars in the shipowners’ pockets.  Unlike today perhaps, Chicago was still a working-class mecca, a cauldron the Progressive movement at a time when American labor was running strong.

Populist poet, journalist and folklorist Carl Sandburg, whom Jun Fujita would later photograph and maybe even share some of his own poetry with, wrote an angry paean against Chicago’s “grim industrial feudalism,” decrying the hands of the rich dripping with human blood.  (Editors considered the poem The Eastland too angry to publish and it was never put in print during Sandburg’s lifetime.)  One scholar wrote that Sandburg was convinced that the working-class victims “had been forced to buy tickets for the cruise and ordered to wear white shoes and white hats so a pleasing photograph of them could be taken for the company’s advertising campaign.”

The tragedy became symbolic of the workers’ lives Sandburg often praised but refused to idealize.  (Sandburg’s famous description of “The People” was “heroes and hoodlums.”)  “I see a dozen Eastlands / Every morning on my way to work,” Sandburg lamented, “And a dozen more going home at night.”

If the victims had been asked to “doll up” for advertising photographs, the photos taken of them that day were anything but good press for the company or the Eastland’s owners.  Jun Fujita was one of the first photographers on the scene, initially taking pictures of the capsized ship from the wharf, then working his way down toward the rescuers.  His pictures are the main visual record of the disaster.  Later, he documented the piled-up bodies of the drowned, scattered in makeshift morgues, their faces covered by blankets.  Yet Fujita also photographed the heroism of rescuers, divers like Harry Halvorsen and Frenchy Deneau, who were given the grim task of scouring the bottom of the river and inside the ship’s hull, retrieving the dead.  They dragged up about 250 bodies.

(In a strange footnote to the Eastland disaster, the diver Deneau later made one of the strangest discoveries in Chicago’s history, “something out of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”  Deneau was laying cable along the bottom of the river later that year, near the Rush Street Bridge, when his shovel unearthed a submarine buried under three feet of mud.  The press dubbed the zeppelin-shaped vessel the Foolkiller, a common name for daredevil’s vessels, and a rumor circulated that it contained the skeleton of a man and his dog.  Deneau allegedly got permission from the federal government to salvage the vessel and had it dragged out of the river on December 10, 1915.  An article in the Chicago Tribune claimed:  “The boat is said to have belonged to Peter Nissen, spectacular mariner, who was lost in his revolving vessel while attempting to drift across Lake Michigan.  The Foolkiller was so called because it first made its appearance shortly after the Chicago fire, in the days when submarines were unheard of, and drowned its original owner, a New York man, when it made a trial trip.  Nissen then bought it.”  Nissen, in fact, had perished in a pneumatic “balloon boat,” also called Foolkiller, on Lake Michigan in 1904.  Deneau put the submarine on exhibition on State Street, charging admission at 10 cents a person.  The so-called Foolkiller sub supposedly disappeared at a fair in Iowa in 1916.  Skeptics claim the submarine was a clever hoax, but images of its raising from the icy waters of the river were made by the Chicago Daily News in 1915, six months after the Eastland disaster.)


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Jun Fujita.  Eastland disaster survivors and rescuers standing on the hull of the capsized steamer in the Chicago River, July 24, 1915.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection,DN-0064944, Chicago History Museum.

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Jun Fujita.  Victims of the Eastland Disaster, 1915.

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Unidentified photographer.  Raising Foolkiller submarine from Chicago River, December 20, 1915.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0065730, Chicago History Museum.


One of Fujita’s own photographs shows an old man carrying the drowned body of a young boy out of the river after the Eastland capsized.  Not forgetting other catastrophes that had struck Chicago, like the 1871 fire, Fujita wrote:

“The horror of the most frightful tragedies in the annals of Chicago is written on the face of the strong man in this picture. The little, limp figure in his arms express its INFINITE PITY. The man, who is evidently a rugged specimen of the type that work on the river, familiar with the uglier phases of life; its hardships and its sufferings, is smitten with an overwhelming sense of woe and terror that his eyes have looked upon. In their fixed stare is photographed the agony of struggle he has witnessed, the torture and the anguish of the drowning multitude.

“From the throng of laughing, happy-hearted holiday makers that a few moments before turning its back upon the toil and grime of the city, faced a day of innocent fun and relaxation, he has gathered this one, small, lifeless body, the pitiful symbol of hundreds more, old and young, on whom a sudden and hideous death leaped from the very threshold of their joy.

“These people were his own kind – workers like himself; men and the wives and children of men who earn their living by toil. Is there any wonder that horror looks from his eyes? God pity those who today are heartbroken. But of what avail is the pity of God against human carelessness?”

Even while he was becoming a successful newspaper reporter and was making some of the most important images of Chicago’s history, Fujita slowly came to have misgivings about photography, and later confessed that he did not consider it a true art form.  Like Franz Kafka and others, who denied much of the camera’s artistry, Fujita came to prefer painting and poetry, two genres he thought had more substance than photography and allowed fuller possibilities of expression than a camera.  Doubtless his love for traditional Japanese art influenced his thoughts on camera work.

By the 1920s, Fujita was so disgruntled both with his newspaper job and with the Chicago the “Roaring Twenties” that he sought to temporarily get away from it all.  He headed north, to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters.  As W.B. Yeats sang  in “The Lake Isle of Inisfree,” Fujita built a solitary rustic one-room wooden cabin.  It was a place “in the deep heart’s core.”  The cabin is still there, along on Rainy Lake near the Canadian border, a spot now within the bounds of Voyageurs National Park.

In the great expanse of the North Woods, Fujita sought a more direct communion with nature.  His hermetical experiences in the deep wildernesses of northern Minnesota led him to craft some of the first Japanese poetry ever written in English.  “Nature and the drama in it are all the companions I need,” he wrote around 1921, when he first came to the Boundary Waters.  “There I shall do what I like best to do, read and write.  And I don’t propose to take another picture!”  He even thought about going farther north, to “the northern end of British Columbia, which I believe is the most beautiful country in the world.”

Fujita’s Minnesota cabin, on an island locals nicknamed “Jap Island,” thirty miles east of International Falls, is now on the National Register of Historic Places.  When he left, he was reluctant to say goodbye to it.

Fujita was a master of tanka, a minimalist genre of classical Japanese poetry.  Some of what he wrote at Rainy Lake, Minnesota, was published in book form in English in 1923 as Tanka: Poems in Exile.  The poet was deeply moved by glacial landscapes, sand dunes, and lakes, all of which he found in abundance in the Upper Midwest.  He could find them close to Chicago itself.  His earliest work from the North Woods shows how, once he returned to urban life, he could find a sympathetic landscape in the nearby Indiana Dunes:

Across the frozen marsh
The last bird has flown;
Save a few reeds
Nothing moves.

The air is still
And grasses are wet;
Thread-like rain
Screens the dunes.

As Denis Garrison, who has republished some of Fujita’s work, writes:  “The reader cannot help wondering if the things he saw as a photographer influenced Fujita as a poet, and likewise, if the way he understood poetry informed his photography.”  He writes about “death-like” expanses of snow, of snowdrifts where “thin fangs dart.”

What is tanka?

“Tanka are notable for their accessibility,” Garrison explains.  “Why?  Because most good tanka have ‘dreaming room.’  They have been composed with the technique of understatement, of suggestiveness, of openendedness.  Words and details which limit the universality of the tanka have been omitted with careful attention to what is not said.  What remains is a poem that is a framework upon which readers from widely different backgrounds can hang their own experiences and values and discover meaning, experience epiphany… Ambiguity is a positive value for tanka.”

Ironically, though Fujita often fled photography, spurning the frequent superficiality of the camera lens while seeking a deeper spirituality than anything photojournalism can provide, the “practice” of tanka, reverent and slow, is not antithetical to art made by cameras.  Tanka is a practice focused less on documenting and capturing — on “shooting” and “taking” (the violent basic vocabulary of photography in English is astounding) — than on further opening up the ambiguities of expression and the spirit.  Tanka, somewhat in the manner of Zen, seeks not answers but further questions.

As philosophers and word-lovers already know, there are two meanings of what we call “mystery” and “mysterious”.  A mystery can be an obscurity frustrating our understanding, something incapable of being known.  That mystery is something that we may obsessively try to “solve” or “capture,” as though it were part of the solution to a murder investigation.  Truth becomes a villain that we feel the need to apprehend.

The other kind of mystery is of something not unknown, but rather, saturated with meaning, a meaning too rich and full for the eye or the mind to master at a quick glance.  The two juxtaposed images from the Chicago Daily News —  V. Shoemaker and the silent film actress Mabel Normand —  are this kind of mystery, a laconic, photographic form of tanka perhaps, a silent mystery full of volumes of unspoken “story.”


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Jun Fujita’s cabin, Rainy Lake, Minnesota.  (NPS/Voyageurs National Park.)


By August 1934, Fujita and his companion, secretary and journalist Florence Carr, whom he could not legally marry until 1940 due to American laws against “race mixing,” had also bought six acres of land at Furnessville, Indiana, in the heart of the dunes.  The couple built a summer cottage there.  Jun and Florence’s cottage was described as “butterfly-shaped” and sat behind the house of Chicago artists Vin and Hazel Hannell, just west of the small Furnessville cemetery.

The lakeshore landscape of the Indiana Dunes had fired Fujita’s soul.  He spent much of the last thirty years of his life visiting Indiana’s Calumet region, where he wrote poetry, painted, and continued to photograph.  Fujita made some of the first color photographic prints of the woods, wildflowers, and surviving prairies of northwestern Indiana and northern Illinois.  These works were displayed at his Chicago art studio, which he kept open throughout the 1930s, and at the photo booth he operated at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.


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“Furnessville, Ind.  The town that might have been.”  Chicago Daily Times, July 10, 1938.  (Courtesy Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)


Furnessville, Indiana, was important to Fujita for another reason.  During World War II, when the majority of Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps or kept under a close eye by police and even their own neighbors, it became a more permanent retreat for him.  The small Michigan Central railroad town, practically abandoned in the 1920s after the exhausted lumber industry collapsed and workers left the dune country for Chicago, was a perfect “hideout” of sorts during World War II.  Yet even “half-ghosted,” Furnessville continued to draw Chicagoans and had already begun a slow return as a seasonal artist’s colony.  Fujita and his wife Florence lived in Indiana off and on until at least 1958, four years after he was finally granted U.S. citizenship – through private sponsorship of a congressional bill.

Jun Fujita died on July 12, 1963.  His ashes were interred in the Japanese section of Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery.  Much of the land surrounding Furnessville, where he spent many of his last years, was included in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in the 1960s.  Sadly, the butterfly-shaped Fujita cottage is no longer standing.

PHOTOS FROM THE CHICAGO DAILY NEWS COLLECTION, 1905-1929

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Photographer unknown.  Miss Miriam Mooney, a singer from Tennessee, Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois, c. 1917.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0003451. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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“Mr. Miyamori” sitting in a room in Chicago, Illinois, 1905.  DN-0003141, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Count Michimasa Soyeshima of Tokyo, Japan, at a railroad station in Chicago, Illinois, 1925.  DN-0079174, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Jun Fujita, photographer.  Benjamin Bachrach, Nathan Leopold, Jr., Richard Loeb, and Clarence Darrow during the Leopold and Loeb Sentencing Hearing, 1924.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0078021, Chicago History Museum.

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Elmer Fanter, the “Boy Murderer,” behind bars, March 2, 1915.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064142, Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Margaret Sanger, birth control advocate.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0067907. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Women’s suffrage parade, Grace Wilbur Trout leading women holding flags north on South Michigan Avenue, 1914.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0062630.  Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Acting out a scene from Alice in Wonderland, c. 1917.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0068275.  Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Children playing with an elephant from the Ringling Brothers Circus on April 20, 1917.   Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0067851. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  The schooner Arendal docked at Clark Street to deliver Christmas trees from Michigan.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0063691, Chicago History Museum.

Eastland disaster survivors and rescuers standing on hull of the steamer in the Chicago River, July 24, 1915. – See more at: http://blog.chicagohistory.org/index.php/2012/07/remembering-the-eastland/#sthash.77PXS024.dpuf
Eastland disaster survivors and rescuers standing on hull of the steamer in the Chicago River, July 24, 1915. – See more at: http://blog.chicagohistory.org/index.php/2012/07/remembering-the-eastland/#sthash.77PXS024.dpuf
Eastland disaster survivors and rescuers standing on hull of the steamer in the Chicago River, July 24, 1915. – See more at: http://blog.chicagohistory.org/index.php/2012/07/remembering-the-eastland/#sthash.77PXS024.dpuf

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Jun Fujita, photographer. The stern of the Eastland during the Eastland Disaster.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-i33115, Chicago History Museum.

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Harry Halvorsen, a diver in the Eastland disaster rescue efforts.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064999, Chicago History Museum.

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Jun Fujita, photographer.  Diver Harry Halvorsen, leaping off a ladder leaning against a quay.   Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0065178, Chicago History Museum.

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Female survivor of the Eastland disaster, wrapped in a blanket, standing on the upper deck of a boat on the Chicago River.   Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064947, Chicago History Museum.

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A boy who survived the Eastland capsize, wrapped in a man’s jacket.   Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064943, Chicago History Museum.

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Captain J. W. Petoskey, standing on deck of his rescue steamer on the Chicago River, July 24, 1915.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064846, Chicago History Museum.

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Eleanor Froelich, 2453 Thomas St., only survivor of family on Eastland.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064919, Chicago History Museum.

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Fireman cradling a dead baby whom he tried to rescue from the steamer.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064958, Chicago History Museum.

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Francis and Florian Nowak’s funeral procession, a man leading the procession.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064961, Chicago History Museum.

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Francis and Florian Nowak’s funeral procession, children carrying flowers precede the pallbearers, July 29, 1915.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064961, Chicago History Museum.

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Chinese-American track athlete Y.D. Wong of the University of Minnesota, at Stagg Field, University of Chicago, 1918.  SDN-061579, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Japanese tennis player Kumagae at a tennis club, 1916.  SDN-060898, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Waseda baseball players from Japan and University of Chicago’s Pat Page sitting on the bench on the sidelines during a game against the University of Chicago played at Marshall Field, 1911.  Marshall Field was renamed Stagg Field in 1915.  SDN-009433, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Japanese baseball captain S. Takanatsu, of the Waseda baseball team, standing on the field at Stagg Field, 1921.  SDN-062672, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Japanese baseball player Yamaguchi of the Waseda University baseball team at Stagg Field, 1911.  SDN-056698, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Baseball player, Omuru of Waseda University (Japan) sitting on the bench during game with University of Chicago.  SDN-009448, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Japanese baseball player Matsuda, Waseda team captain, and University of Chicago baseball captain Frank Collings shaking hands, 1911.  SDN-056703, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Chinese American Ida Mae Wong, Chicago, 1924.  DN-0077708B, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Dr Frederick Seville, with stethoscope, examining a nude Asian man, 1917.  DN-0068534, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Japanese wrestlers in Chicago, 1907.  SDN-053632, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Group portrait of policewomen in Chicago, Illinois.  The policewomen were selected by the Chicago Police Department to learn jujitsu, a form of Japanese wrestling.  March 1914.  DN-0062443, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Actor Tom Mix and his wife, 1925.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0078991. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Movie actor Bull Montana, 1929.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0090125. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Jun Fujita, photographer.  St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, 2122 N. Clark St., Chicago, 1929. Chicago Daily News negatives collection, iChi-14406. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Jun Fujita, photographer.  Al Capone, Chicago, 1929.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0094672. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Chief of Detectives Captain James Mooney and Chief of Police Colonel John J. Garrity aim handguns for reporters inside a police station.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0072175. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Mrs. William E. Dever holding a hatchet and standing next to a turkey, 1926.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0080759, Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Studio of Lorado Taft, “Fountain of Time” sculpture, 1915.  DN-0064729, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Young woman and young Asian man painting at Paw Paw Lake, Berrien County, Michigan, 1926.  DN-0081200, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Japanese man, sitting with papers on his lap, surrounded by a Japanese boy and girl, October 4, 1915.  DN-0065243, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Consul S. Yamasaki and his wife standing on a railroad platform, August 29, 1911.  DN-0057692, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Three Chinese American children, Chicago, 1929.  DN-0089489, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

 

Sinipee of the Driftless

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 When the explorer Zebulon Pike voyaged up the Mississippi in 1805 in his failed search for the river’s headwaters in northern Minnesota, he was transfixed by the stretch of country between what became northwestern Illinois and the future site of Minneapolis.  Pike described it as “the most mountainous and beautiful in the entire valley of the Mississippi.”  Indeed, the scenery here is astonishing and often unexpected to drivers crossing the great river or traveling up the Great River Road from Keokuk, Iowa, toward Galena and La Crosse, all the way to the Twin Cities.  Compared to the huge flatlands to the east and west, this part of the valley is a great relief.  Americans today are perhaps as unprepared for the amazing beauty of the Mississippi Valley as Pike must have been when he first came up the river, having no idea what he would find there.

Situated at the heart of the unique geological area known as the Driftless, the bluff country along the upper Mississippi is a masterpiece of nature’s chisel.  The beauty goes on for miles, into the heart of this landscape where four states come together.  The Driftless is virtually the only part of the Midwest that was not flattened by glaciers during the last Ice Age.  Its trout streams and breathtaking topography are often compared to the cozy valleys of the Southern Appalachians and the karst country of central Kentucky.  Wider expanses in the interior evoke the Flint Hills of Kansas.  Due to the nature of the sloping terrain, big industrial agriculture has never been feasible in this dramatic place, and in recent years it has become home to movements in “alternative” organic farming and sustainable living.

And while the Upper Midwest was settled mostly by Germans and Scandinavians, when settlers first began to move here in the 1830s, the contours of this unique land must have immediately appealed to Southerners.

Such a man was Peyton Vaughn, who arrived from North Carolina around 1830.  Coming with his wife, Vaughn purchased a small tract of land about a half-mile from the Mississippi near the mouth of Sinipee Creek.  If he climbed the impressive bluff on his property, Vaughn could have seen for many miles up and down the great valley.  Four miles downstream was the future site of Dubuque, Iowa (then a part of Wisconsin Territory), which was chartered as a town three years after Vaughn arrived in the area.  The most important nearby settlement, however, was Galena, Illinois, three miles inland from the Mississippi on the Fever River and about twenty miles south of Sinipee Creek.  Galena was rapidly becoming the center of all activity in this region.

Vaughn settled in what was known as the Lead Mining District or Mineral District, a general term including much of what later became the state of Wisconsin.  The Driftless region, in the southwestern part of this territory, was incredibly rich in lead ore, which at that time promised even greater fortunes than gold and was more abundant.  The valuable mineral could be melted into lead bars for easier export downstream and was eventually shipped to the East Coast and to Europe, where manufacturers turned it into a range of products – from bullets to pipes to newspaper print.

In fact, it was lead, not agriculture, that was the primary lure drawing settlers to Wisconsin in the 1830s.  (A growing population led Wisconsin Territory to be carved out of Michigan Territory in 1836.)   Lead mining was so important to the early economy that it led to the state’s nickname, “The Badger State.”  Miners dug into hillsides like burrowing animals, and a lead miner – not a farmer – stands next to a sailor on the state flag.  The center of mining operations in Wisconsin was clustered around the U.S. Land Office at Mineral Point, thirty-five miles from the river.

Today, Mineral Point is one of the most beautiful small towns in the Midwest.  Most of its unique sandstone architecture dates from the late Federal period, which lingered into the 1830s, when mining was dominant here.  Many houses were built by Cornish miners who resettled from England and built diminutive buildings resembling those of the Old World villages they came from.  Pendarvis, a Wisconsin state historic site, is the best known of them.  It sits across the road from a spot, once mined, called the Merry Christmas Mine, now restored to grassland and woods and called the Merry Christmas Prairie.


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(J.E. Whitney, Views on the Upper Mississippi, circa 1865.  New York Public Library Digital Collections.)


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(J.L. Nye, Tornado damage, Mineral Point, Wisconsin, 1878.  New York Public Library Digital Collections.)


The problem for early Wisconsin miners was that in order to get lead to market, they had to sell it to middlemen in Galena, the region’s only shipping port.  Railroads, still a new innovation, had not reached this far west, and roads for ox-drawn wagons were primitive at best and not ideal for carrying a heavy product like lead.  In the 1830s, Galena’s monopoly as a shipping port guaranteed its position as a wealthy and cultured town, which it remained until after the Civil War.  Its famous architecture dates mostly from its boom days.

Peyton Vaughn, who survived the violence between whites and the Sauk during the Black Hawk War of 1832, was neither a miner nor an enterprising industrialist.  He operated a cable-pulled ferry on his property for a year or two.  Then he became aware of his great luck in having bought land here.  A group of twenty-three investors from Mineral Point determined that the mouth of Sinipee Creek would be the ideal location for a port to rival Galena.  In 1838, they started up the “Louisiana Company” (presumably because everything shipped downstream would eventually go to New Orleans.)  They offered Vaughn $12,000 (at that time a huge sum of money) for a piece of his river frontage.  In exchange, Vaughn agreed to use half of the money to build a suitable hotel at the site, which he would become proprietor of.  In the August 4, 1838, Iowa News of Dubuque, it was announced that “the object of the company is to establish a depot for the lead made in the district… The landing is excellent, and reached with ease by the largest of boats.  The name given to it is Port Sinipee.”

When town lots were laid out, they sold for large sums, as much as $2,000.  Port Sinipee showed every sign of being caught up in a real estate frenzy.  Carpenters and craftsmen came from Galena, Dubuque, and other parts of the territory, and homes, shops and warehouses rapidly sprang up.  Mechanics and merchants came to oversee the construction of docks for the barges that now began to wander upstream from St. Louis to take on lead ore.  By the spring of 1839, about twenty buildings had been erected.  It is unclear whether they were of quick, shoddy construction, or solid like Vaughn’s hotel.  Vaughn, for one, put all his effort into building the best edifice he could make, far exceeding the expectations of the Mineral Point investors.  He built his hotel of local stone, two-stories high, with walls two feet thick.  “The lower floors were of oak, those above of pine, the timbers of oak and red cedar.”  Sitting at the base of the bluff, pure spring water is said to have passed right under the hotel.  A fine ballroom occupied much of the second floor.  Vaughn’s “Stone House,” though never entirely finished, was no primitive frontier tavern, for sure.  It would have been one of the finest buildings in Wisconsin at that time.

A Methodist church was established.  General stores carried “large stocks which included costly furniture and delicate chinaware that one would not expect to see offered for sale in such a wild country.  Miss Isabel Fenley had in her living room a large, much prized mirror that was purchased at a store in Sinipee in 1840.”

By far the most interesting man to show up here and tie himself to its rising fortunes was the engineer, newspaper correspondent, and photographic pioneer John Plumbe., Jr.  Plumbe’s remarkably tragic and unexpected story spans the history of mining, frontiers, and photography alike.

Born at Castle Caerinion in Wales in 1809, Plumbe immigrated with his parents to central Pennsylvania in 1821, where his father operated the first metal screw factory in the United States and helped drive the first railroad over the Alleghanies.  John Plumbe, Jr., studied civil engineering, presumably in Philadelphia.  While in his twenties, he worked on the construction of the first interstate railroad back East, between Petersburg, Virginia, and Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.  Seeing prospects for success in the west, he eventually followed the expanding frontier, ending up in the vicinity of Dubuque, Iowa, when it was still a booming new town.  Noticing his talents, the Louisiana Company of Sinipee, located just a few miles upriver, hired the twenty-eight year old engineer to do surveying at the port and assist in laying out lots for the buildings that were projected to rise.  Plumbe’s diary from these years, beginning October 17, 1838, is a record of his daily comings-and-goings during the quick rise and fall of the burgeoning town of Sinipee.


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(John Plumbe’s diary, State of Wisconsin Collection, University of Wisconsin-Platteville.)


One of the oddest turns in Sinipee’s history and Plumbe’s own story occurred shortly after he came to Dubuque.  Plumbe was a wild dreamer and a “jack of all trades,” never consistently tied down to one profession or one vision of his own career.  Yet he was undoubtedly tireless, even obsessed, with the several professions that he pursued, from engineering to photography.  It was his tireless effort to promote Sinipee, in fact, that led to his laying the first seeds of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Ironically, while the port’s existence was tied directly to the huge significance of the river as a transportation artery, Sinipee itself, as the “birthplace” of the railroad, would play an indirect role in the eventual eclipse of the Mississippi as the main highway through Middle America.  On December 14, 1838, John Plumbe met with investors from Mineral Point and citizens of Sinipee at Vaughn’s Stone Hotel.  From a certain point-of-view, this date can be considered the birthday of the railroad that would eventually traverse the U.S.  Plumbe proposed petitioning Congress to fund a new rail line linking Milwaukee on Lake Michigan to Port Sinipee on the other side of Wisconsin, the first link in a series of lines that would (he hoped) connect the Eastern U.S. to Oregon.

At this time, existing rail lines in Europe and America were short, sometimes not more than a few miles long, and trains rarely moved at a speed faster than ten miles an hour, and even that was fast enough to make the Duke of Wellington – the victor of the Battle of Waterloo – faint from dizziness while taking a short train ride during his old age.  Plumbe’s proposal, however, was unanimously supported by the investors and a resolution was forwarded to Congress by Wisconsin’s territorial delegate.  The War Department later approved funding for a survey of the proposed route, which eventually culminated in the completion of a cross-country railroad thirty years later, its final golden spike driven into desert ground in Utah in 1869.

Tragically, neither Sinipee nor John Plumbe would participate much further in the railroad or in the economic prosperity of the country.  The town fell victim to one of the ever-present causes of “town demise” in the 19th-century Midwest.  This was the destructive force of rivers and the persistence of water-borne diseases.  In the spring of 1839, only a few months after Plumbe optimistically touted Sinipee’s importance to a nation being covered in rails, spring floods on the Mississippi inundated the town.  The water itself did relatively little damage and the town’s inhabitants simply waited for the swollen waters to recede.  Yet stagnant pools left by the flood bred a deadly array of diseases.  Always a colossal nuisance near inland rivers, mosquitoes spread malaria in proportions far worse than what settlers here were used to.  Sinipee’s citizens fell ill in large numbers.  At least sixty of them, perhaps a quarter of the town, died.

Once a place was known to breed fever and other “bug” diseases (then sometimes called simply the “ague”), it was difficult to get other people to move there, even with great predictions of a coming fortune.  As Sinipee’s inhabitants began to drift away, others were reluctant to buy their vacated property.  After all, if the spot was so promising, why had the sellers left?  By the beginning of 1840, it seems only the Vaughn family remained, though “wildcat” currency bearing the name “Sinipee, Wisc.” was still being printed four years later.

Thedore Rodolf, a Louisiana Company investor, rode into town in 1840 and claimed to find it all abandoned:

“When we finally rode down the ravine to the Mississippi River, and the bankrupted city burst upon our view, a singular sensation took hold of me.  The buildings were all new, showing no sign of decay or deterioration by usage or the weather, having stood there but a little over a year.  I expected momentarily to see the occupants come out to bid us welcome.  There, was, however, not a living being to be seen or heard. . .  I think not even a bird gave life to the desolation.  The quiet of a church-yard reigned. The houses, all painted white, seemed to loom up as monuments of departed greatness.”


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(“Wildcat” banknote issued to “J. Davis,” July 10, 1844.)


By 1850, a large frame house was all that was left of Sinipee’s business district.  In the years after the epidemic hit, the little port’s buildings were dismantled bit by bit for re-use in the mine shafts at Mineral Point.  Wooden planks were carried over the ice on the river to Dubuque, still a growing town whose importance would have been far greater to Wisconsin miners if it had been on their side of the river.  Payton Vaughn died around 1845.  His wife lived in the grand Stone Hotel until her death in 1861.  Their son later moved onto a farm up the bluff, a place called Sinipee Heights, which overlooked the town site.

When the uninhabited Stone Hotel burned in 1904, its ruins were left where they fell.  Distanced in time from its “heyday,” folklore began to circulate about famous guests who once stayed or danced there.  It was claimed that Zachary Taylor and Jefferson Davis lodged at the hotel while they were stationed at Fort Crawford, the remote frontier outpost upriver that became Prairie du Chien.  Davis and Taylor were certainly in the vicinity during the 1832 Black Hawk War.  (The future Confederate president protected the defeated chief Black Hawk during his journey to prison, earning the leader’s friendship and admiration.)  But the story of them stopping at Vaughn’s hotel in Sinipee cannot be true.  Though there is a “wildcat” banknote from Sinipee issued to one “J. Davis” in July 1844, the future Confederate president had resigned his military commission and left Wisconsin three years before the town of Sinipee came into existence.

Jefferson Davis’ experiences during these years were truly romantic.  He fell in love with Taylor’s beautiful daughter Sarah Knox Taylor at Fort Crawford, married her against her father’s wishes in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1835, then went back South with her, down the Mississippi, where she died of malaria near their plantation outside St. Francisville, Louisiana, after only three months of marriage.  Struck down by grief, Davis plunged into eight years of gloomy seclusion.

It has often been said that Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln were similar men.  Both were native Kentuckians and sons of the frontier, both had served in the Black Hawk War on the Upper Mississippi, both were reluctant fighters who felt called by duty when the Civil War erupted but had already seen death themselves and would have been happy to stay away from it all.

They were alike in another way, too:  Davis and Lincoln had both lost their first loves and their personalities were shaped by that experience.  Lincoln, in his twenties, in New Salem, Illinois (like Sinipee, abandoned not many years later), nearly committed suicide when his great love Ann Rutledge, a bright and beautiful pioneer girl of 22, died of typhus in 1835.  Like Davis, he was desolated by her loss.  Lincoln spent weeks roaming the woods of the Sangamon River country in despair.  Yet it was his response to pain, many thought, that “deepened” the young Lincoln and made him great.  The poet Edgar Lee Masters, who wrote the epitaph on Ann Rutledge’s gravestone in Petersburg, Illinois, when she was moved out of a lonely pioneer grave years after Lincoln’s assassination to lie in honor in the town cemetery, included her voice in one of the few poems from Spoon River Anthology that spoke for real historical figures.  “Out of me unworthy and unknown,” Masters had her say, a wraith by her own graveside, “the vibrations of deathless music, with malice toward none, charity for all. . . I am Ann Rutledge who sleeps beneath these weeds, beloved of Abraham Lincoln, wedded to him, not through union but through separation.  Bloom forever, oh Republic, from the dust of my Bosom!”


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(Unidentified woman.  Daguerreotype by John Plumbe, Jr., circa 1846-48)


“Old Rough and Ready” Zachary Taylor had also disappeared from Wisconsin by the time Sinipee came into existence.  In 1838, when Payton Vaughn built his hotel, Taylor was commanding troops in Florida during the Seminole War and never came north again.  Both Taylor and Davis, however, traveling by military steamboat, would have sailed by the bluff towering over the site of Sinipee many times.

After the town’s demise, the optimistic engineer John Plumbe also left the area, returning east at first.  As Sinipee’s buildings were dismantled and used elsewhere, Plumbe was in Washington, D.C.  There, around 1840, he set eyes for the first time on a new invention that had come into the world around the same time as the locomotive and which would revolutionize it as much as any new kind of travel.  Just three years after the Frenchman Louis-Jacques Daguerre, drawing on the work of Henry Fox Talbot in England and others in France, presented the world with a new art form, the daguerreotype, John Plumbe saw one of these amazing images in a Washington gallery.  Fascinated, he took up the art of photography (then three just three years old), became a skilled practitioner of daguerreotypy within a few months, and quickly set up over twenty commercial portrait studios.   Plumbe’s studios were scattered from Boston west to Dubuque and overseas to Liverpool and Paris, where he sought to compete with Daguerre himself.

Pioneering a process for transferring images to lithographs an invention he called the “plumbeotype”   the Welshman and failed promoter of a port town in the Driftless became known briefly as the “American Daguerre,” advertising himself as a “professor of photography” just a few months after he learned to make these images himself.  He may have worked briefly for the photographer Matthew Brady in New York or Washington.  Plumbe made portraits of many of the famous Americans of the time, including the writer Washington Irving, the historian George Bancroft, naturalist John James Audubon, and the enslaved artisan of Monticello, Isaac Jefferson.  He is also credited with making the earliest photographs both of a sitting U.S. President (James Polk) and of the White House and U.S. Capitol building.


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(John Plumbe, Jr., Self Portrait, 1847.  National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.)


Walt Whitman, then the little-known editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, paid a visit to Plumbe’s New York City studio in July 1846.  It was almost a decade before Leaves of Grass appeared, but the revolution in human vision brought about by photography certainly flowed into Whitman’s own radical new vision of the world once he encountered this art form.  He was obsessed the daguerreotypes ability to capture “reality.”

Plumbe’s studio was “at the upper corner of Murray street and Broadway, commonly known as Plumbe’s Daguerreotype establishment” and Whitman thought it “a lion of the great metropolis.”  He must have had his own portrait made there.  One of the best early daguerreotypes of the poet is sometimes attributed to Plumbe.  As Whitman wrote on the front page of his newspaper, on July 2, 1846:

“Puffs, etc., out of the question, this is certainly a great establishment!  You will see more life there — more variety, more human nature, more artistic beauty, (for what created thing can surpass that masterpiece of physical perfection, the human face?) than in any spot we know of.  The crowds continually coming and going — the fashionable belle, the many distinguished men, the idler, the children — these alone are enough to occupy a curious train of attention.  But they are not the first thing.  To us, the pictures address themselves before all else.   What a spectacle!  In whatever direction you turn your peering gaze, you see naught but human faces!  There they stretch, from floor to ceiling — hundreds of them.  Ah! what tales might those pictures tell if their mute lips had the power of speech!  How romance then, would be infinitely outdone by fact.

“You are indeed in a new world — a peopled world, though mute as the grave.  We don’t know how it is with others, but we could spend days in that collection, and find enough enjoyment in the thousand human histories, involved in those daguerreotypes. . .   There is always, to us, a strange fascination, in portraits.  We love to dwell long upon them — to infer many things, from the text they preach — to pursue the current of thoughts running riot about them. . .  Time, space, both are annihilated, and we identify the semblance with the reality.”


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(Walt Whitman.  Daguerreotype attributed to John Plumbe, Jr., circa 1846-48.)


Always an engineer at heart, however, Plumbe may have turned to photography mostly as a means to make money and keep his transcontinental railroad dream alive.  By 1848, he found himself in financial trouble and sold off his portrait studios.  When the Forty-Niners began to go west to California, the photographer ditched his art and went with them, though not just to look for gold.  Plumbe surveyed land around Sacramento and was a customs inspector for the port of San Francisco in 1852, where he continued his involvement in railroad schemes.

He may have encountered another man who had come west from the Driftless.  William Stephen Hamilton, the youngest son of Alexander Hamilton, who was six years old when Aaron Burr gunned down his father, came to southwestern Wisconsin from New York City and became a lead miner near Mineral Point during Galena’s boom days.  He, too, fought in the Black Hawk War and founded a mining town, Hamilton’s Diggings, which later disappeared.  (It was located near present-day Wiota, Wisconsin, on a branch of the Pecatonica River.)  Hamilton loved the Driftless but went to California in 1849 to dig for gold.  He died of yellow fever and was buried in a mass grave in Sacramento.  Before his death, he told a friend that he would “rather have been hung in the ‘Lead Mines’ than to have lived in this miserable hole (California).”

Like William Stephen Hamilton, Plumbe also failed miserably in the Far West.  A bad fate seemed to dog him everywhere, as all of his businesses and dreams failed.  Returning to Dubuque in 1854, just a few miles from the ruins of ill-fated Sinipee, he opened a milling business with his brother Richard.  But that endeavor, too, was crushed during the national economic panic of 1857, when he lost what little savings he had.

Struggling against a deep sense of frustration and failure, prolonged depression, and the effects of malaria contracted at Sinipee twenty years earlier, the 48-year-old John Plumbe cut his throat with a razor at his brother’s home in Dubuque, Iowa, in May 1857.  As a suicide, this great man — one of the forgotten figures of American photography — was buried in an unmarked grave overlooking a great vista of the Mississippi, in Dubuque’s Linwood Cemetery.  Lost for almost 150 years, the grave was recently identified by local historians and a memorial erected.

The graves of the epidemic victims at Sinipee were also mostly unmarked, though they still sit atop the majestic bluff, whose summit can be reached by a difficult hike.  The ruins of the Stone Hotel were used as fill during the construction of Mississippi Lock and Dam No. 11, which when completed on October 15, 1934, flooded the old townsite.  Only the graves on the bluff remain today.

The site of Sinipee is now the Fenley Recreation Area off Bluff Hollow Road in Grant County, Wisconsin, and is managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

JOHN PLUMBE :  A GALLERY

 

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plumbe - george bancroft

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plumbe us patent office dc 1846

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City West: Lost Metropolis of the Indiana Dunes

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When the dune country at the south end of Lake Michigan was opened to settlement in the 1830s, land speculators and profiteers drew up plans for new towns along virtually every creek and river, as “times were big for a boom,” it was said.  Early on, as several of these towns vied to become the great metropolis of the lake and dominate the shipping and mercantile interests of “the Northwest,” the playing field was wide open and Chicago’s future as a great city was never taken for granted.

Chicago, in fact, was not much of a town at the start of the 1830s.  As an imperiled place called Fort Dearborn, stuck on the edge of a hostile prairie, it had been abandoned outright just two decades earlier, at the outbreak of the War of 1812, when its besieged inhabitants – in a scene similar to one in The Last of the Mohicans – struck out for the relative safety of Fort Wayne in Indiana Territory.  The doomed Chicagoans did not make it much more than a mile down the beach when the Potawatomi attacked, capturing some and killing others during a battle in the dunes.  The military post was not immediately re-built, and by 1833 Chicago’s population numbered just 200, rising to about four thousand by the end of the decade.  Its name did not help:  Chicago was named for a skunk-infested swamp.  Beset by the same diseases, fires, and other misfortunes that led many frontier towns to an early grave, “So far as men could see,” its rivals later said, “Chicago had no cinch at the outset.”

Michigan City, Indiana, another lakeshore settlement, was considered a strong rival.  The lumber that built early Chicago came almost entirely from the other side of the lake and the construction of new cities throughout that region depended on small lumbering camps and mill towns that sprang up in Indiana and Michigan.  The sands of the Indiana Dunes at first held great potential for success as emigrants came to the western Great Lakes before the Civil War and vied to make their town the great emporium of the West.

Indiana, however, was not originally given a lakeshore.  Though what had been called Indiana Territory extended at one point all the way north to Lake Superior in what is now Minnesota, by 1816 when it was formed as a state, the size of Indiana’s territorial sway had been drastically reduced.  When Michigan Territory’s southern boundary was drawn, that line extended across the end of the lake to the border with Illinois.  Jonathan Jennings, Indiana’s territorial representative in Congress and later its first state governor, successfully had the boundary moved north ten miles to give his state a sliver of lake frontage.  Twenty years before railroads revolutionized America, Jennings, like so many others, envisioned a future full of sloops, schooners, canals and slow travel by water.  By 1840, Michigan City was Indiana’s only port on the Great Lakes.  But it was not the first settlement on the lake.

The first European establishment thought to have been built in the dunes was a French post called the “Petit Fort,” perhaps a name given it by later historians who did not know what the French actually called it.  Built sometime around 1750, this was a minor outpost at the mouth of Fort Creek, sometimes called “Wood Creek.”  Like Joseph Bailly’s later trading post, built just a few miles away in the 1820s, the Petit Fort was probably the private residence of a French fur trader, perhaps with a small chapel attached to it for the use of itinerant Catholic missionaries.  After victory in the French and Indian War in 1763, the British took control of this small wooden fort, but by December 1780, had already abandoned it, as the surrounding area was quite remote.

During the Revolutionary War, the abandoned fort was the site of one of the only “battles” (really a skirmish) fought in what became Indiana.  Augustin de la Balme, a French-born fur trader at Cahokia on the Mississippi River, who opportunistically supported the American rebels, set out during the autumn of 1780 to plunder British posts in Michigan.  La Balme met a gory end at the hands of the British ally, Miami Chief Little Turtle of Kekionga (Fort Wayne), the most powerful man in this corner of the Great Lakes, who slaughtered La Balme and all his men in a battle along the headwaters of the Wabash River that November.  A separate raiding party, fourteen-men strong, plundered British Fort St. Joseph (later Niles, Michigan) before striking out westward along “the Route of Chicagou.”  This was the Sauk Trail, an ancient path, which led them to the Petit Fort.  On December 5, 1780, the Cahokia raiders were overtaken there by a British lieutentant and Indian warriors, who “killed four, wounded two, and took seven Prisoners.  The other Three escaped in the thick Wood.”  Three of the prisoners were brought back to British Detroit.  The rest were taken captive by the Indians.


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(Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)


When the Quebec-born trader Joseph Bailly came to Indiana in 1822, he settled less than three miles from the mouth of Fort Creek.  His failed port town, “Bailly”, platted in 1833 but never built, was situated just down the beach from the old site of the Petit Fort.  But “Bailly” was not the only “dream city” envisioned along this shore.

Though Michigan City already existed in 1837 – Congress had found $20,000 to build a harbor there – its future was as uncertain as Chicago’s.  Michigan City owed its existence to the Buffalo & Mississippi Railroad, which sought to connect Lake Erie to a new harbor on Lake Michigan, though the best location for that harbor was in dispute.  The rails would then extend southward to link up with what the railroad’s proponents imagined were navigable waters on the Illinois and Kankakee Rivers, thereby connecting Buffalo, New York, to the Mississippi River and the west.  Canals and dredging projects were part of this ambitious plan.

Bad blood caused divisions within the company.  Soon, several entrepreneurs from the “official” harbor town at Michigan City broke away and formed their own company, the Michigan City & Kankakee Railroad.  In 1836, the harbor did not yet exist, so a few hopeful profiteers simply moved their money four miles down the beach.  A new “metropolis” was platted – City West, the most romantic “dream city of the Calumet,” as Indiana’s lakeshore is called.  At the site of the Petit Fort, long since vanished (perhaps it was an omen), City West was projected to rise as the great city of Middle America.

Engineers made soundings that convinced some investors that the water off the mouth of Fort Creek was deeper than that of the harbor envisioned at Michigan City.  Today, it takes a huge stretch of the imagination to understand how the planners of City West intended to turn Fort Creek, a tiny stream, into a harbor with a canal connecting it to other interior waterways.  Yet in 1836, preparations for constructing a great city were being made here.  Optimism like this is one reason why the U.S. plummeted into a huge economic depression in 1837, during the summer of City West’s short, romantic life and rapid demise.

A plat map, signed by Jacob Bigelow, “President of the Michigan City and Kankakee Railroad Company,” was drawn up that summer.  It bears the date July 12, 1837.


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(Copy of a plat map of City West as envisioned in 1837.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)


Bigelow’s map survives in the Porter County Surveyor’s Office in Valparaiso.  It shows a rather fabulous town, which (had it succeeded) would have dwarfed all the other frontier settlements on the lake.  Containing about ninety blocks, City West was divided into hundreds of lots and would have housed thousands of people.  To attract investors, the map noticeably exaggerates the size of Fort Creek.  Streets were named for the landscape and the elements of nature:  Elm, Oak, Pine, Willow, Walnut, Water, and Pearl.  Others were named patriotically:  Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison.  Oddly, though there were many streets with names such as “Rhode Island Street” and “South Carolina Street,” none were named for Indiana.    Bisecting the town, a ditch – the Michigan City and Kankakee Canal showed that the town planners hoped to connect Fort Creek to the Little Calumet River.

City West’s “authors” – Bigelow, Bradley, Hobart, and William Morse – had huge land investments here.  Unlike some investors in western land, though, they lived in their “city.”  Morse dammed Fort Creek and built a sawmill, where he turned pine trees into planks, and the construction of houses began.  “The prospects seemed bright and hopes were high;  settlers were coming;  houses were being erected.”

Lots were cleared of trees and underbrush and great heaps of cut lumber piled up.  Space was found for gardens.  A sloop that had wrecked on the beach was salvaged for its contents.  In its hold, a store of potatoes was found.  “Curious Indians, always peaceable,” a pioneer remembered, “came up along their trails from the interior, or by water in their birch canoes and camped on the beach nearby to watch the operations of the whites. . .”  About twenty American families came.  With straggling adventurers and single men, the population may have reached 200 – no impediment to optimism, as this was the size of Chicago just a few years earlier.  A general store and a warehouse were erected.  A blacksmith moved in.  “Several of the dwellings were quite costly, place and period considered.”  Jacob Bigelow built a wooden hotel and tavern, called The Exchange, which contained twenty-two rooms and was probably the largest building between Chicago and Detroit.  As other hotels were built, this became a gathering place for prospectors in the Calumet region and for emigrants headed farther west to Illinois and Wisconsin.  Before new houses were constructed, families stayed in the big wooden hotels.  Morse’s residence was considered the finest in town.

Hervey Ball and Amsi L. Ainsworth were two prominent settlers at City West.  Ball had come from Augusta, Georgia, where he was a cavalry captain in the local militia and “owned fine horses,” yet he and his wife Jane Ayrault, were originally from Holyoke, Massachusetts.  No ordinary settler, Ball was a graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont.  The family lived at City West for one short summer in 1837, the only time the place flourished, then moved farther west to Lake County, Indiana, where Jane Ball was remembered as a doctor and dentist to early settlers on Red Cedar Lake in the 1840s.  She also ran a boarding school.

Their son Timothy Ball was born in Massachusetts in 1826 and came to Indiana with his parents when he was eleven.  His romantic memories, written over sixty years later, are one of the few records of life in City West.  (Ball became a Baptist minister in Crown Point, Indiana, and died in Alabama in 1913.)  The beautiful summer of 1837 was his first in the west.   He had never seen anything like Lake Michigan, and the experience was burned into his memory.


 TimothyBall


There were no teachers or preachers in City West, he recalled, and the town never had a church or a school.  Children who came with their parents had to be educated at home.  But since the town had sprung up in the summer, nature became a school of sorts, and the new scenery and experience of frontier life were enough of an education, anyway.

Though his memories are undoubtedly those of an old man remembering childhood City West could not have been quite the idyll he describes Ball left a vivid enough description of the place.  His memories should be taken for what they are, as longing and nostalgia for a beautiful, unspoiled place of memory, of something primordial in the soul, which explains so much of the appeal of the Indiana Dunes to those who have come here for 150 years.  Pinned between steel mills and within sight of the third largest city in America, the dune country (mercifully preserved by generations of activists and artists) represents what Ball aches for in his memoir something pristine and still youthful, ancient as this place is.

Ball remembered Potawatomi children from nearby Baillytown and “white boys” from Michigan City who would frequently pass through on ponies and ride along the beach.  An Indian hunting party from Green Bay came down the lake in birch-bark canoes and sojourned here to watch the burgeoning “city” arise.  The presence of educated and ambitious Easterners meant that, unlike in some frontier places, social distinctions were rife in City West:  “Of young ladies proper,” Ball wrote, “there were not more than five or six.  Of young misses there were, of the ‘first set,’ five.”  Children and adults alike trekked into the dunes, where they harvested sand-hill cherries, huckleberries “blue and black, low bush and high bush, growing on the flats and on the high sand hills, that overlooked so many miles of that blue lake, ripening the 1st of July till frost came, ready to be gathered by the quart or by the bushel.”

“Toward the cool of the evening,” at sunset, women and children strolled on the hard beach sand washed by waves.  They climbed amid the great “blow-outs” and crawled to the top of sand bluffs to look out across the grandeur of “the broad expanse of water, sometimes seeing the white sail of a distant vessel.”  Yet City West was not big enough to have a thriving social life.  Its girls were denied “balls and evening parties.”  Instead, in “lazy hours,” they went berrying, read books on the beach, or basked in the warm sun “on the banks of fine, clean sand.”  The sails of ships they saw, “bound in or out of Chicago, [were] destined soon, as they fondly believed, to be seeking City West instead.”

Though the town was apparently healthy, there were burials there that summer.  A cemetery, now lost amid shifting sand dunes, was situated just back from the shoreline.  Young Timothy Ball deepened his summer education when he got his first introduction to death here.  At City West, he wrote, he “learned the intense sadness and loneliness of death in a pioneer settlement and the loneliness of a pioneer burial in the wilderness;  and here [I] learned how colonies were planted in the American wilds.  Those months seem now like years of ordinary life.”


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(Brooks Photo, View from Mt. Tom at Waverly Beach, Indiana, 1930.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)


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(Wind erosion uncovering adventitious roots of Populus deltoides, Miller, Indiana, 1907.  University of Chicago Department of Botany Records, AEP-INN153.)


The main stagecoach route west from Detroit ran directly through this area, and in the early years immigrants and travelers typically drove down the beach:  the hard-packed sand was far easier to ride a wagon or horse over than the swampy country located just back of the dunes.  What was called the Chicago Road roughly followed the old Sauk Trail.  Settlers were not the only travelers found on it.  Several well-known tourists visited the young towns springing up in the West.  Every one of them was entranced by the duneland scenery.

A year before City West was born, the 34-year-old British writer Harriet Martineau traveled across northern Indiana en route to the Illinois prairies, which she had heard of and had a longing to see.  Martineau left Detroit on June 15, 1836, and got to Michigan City, Indiana, six days later.  Stagecoach journeys at that time were exhausting, involving travel on the roughest roads imaginable.  Martineau wrote that there were a dozen eggs in the stagecoach and that the Chicago Road was so rough that each of the coach’s inhabitants was asked to hold an egg throughout each day’s journey to keep them from being smashed.  The trip west from Detroit was, she remembered, jarring but comical.  As they drove into Michigan City, “the driver announced our approach by a series of flourishes on one note of his common horn, which made the most ludicrous music I ever listened to.  How many minutes he went on, I dare not say;  but we were so convulsed with laughter that we could not alight with becoming gravity, amidst the groups in the piazza of the hotel.  The man must be first cousin to Paganini.”

Martineau had no idea what she was about to see, as she walked out toward the lake.  Though City West’s birth was still a year in the future, what she wrote of the scenic wonder of the dunes would have been the same if she had come the following summer.

“Such a city as this was surely never before seen,” she rhapsodized about Michigan City, which would have been similar to City West.

“It is three years since it was begun;  and it is said to have one thousand five hundred inhabitants.  It is cut out of the forest, and curiously interspersed with little swamps. . .  New, good houses, some only half finished, stood in the midst of the thick wood.  A large area was half cleared.  The finished stores were scattered about;  and the streets were littered with stumps.  The situation is beautiful.  The undulations of the ground, within and about it, and its being closed in by lake or forest on every side, render it unique.”

Martineau and her friend were eager to see this “mighty fresh water sea.”  European tourists even today are awed by the existence of these massive freshwater lakes in the middle of North America.  Martineau’s first view of Lake Michigan was no exception.


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(Sun’s Farewell Kiss, Lake Michigan Camera Study, circa 1930.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)


“We made inquiry in the piazza; and a sandy hill, close by, covered with the pea vine, was pointed out to us. We ran up it, and there beheld what we had come so far to see.  There it was, deep, green, and swelling on the horizon, and whitening into a broad and heavy surf as it rolled in towards the shore.  Hence, too, we could make out the geography of the city.  The whole scene stands insulated in my memory, as absolutely singular; and, at this distance of time, scarcely credible. . .  Immediately after supper we went for a walk, which, in peculiarity, comes next to that in the Mammoth Cave, if indeed, it be second to it.  The scene was like what I had always fancied the Norway coast [to be], but for the wild flowers, which grew among the pines on the slope, almost into the tide.  I longed to spend an entire day on this flowery and shadowy margin of the inland sea.  I plucked handfuls of pea-vine and other trailing flowers, which seemed to run over all the ground.  We found on the sands an army, like Pharaoh’s drowned host, of disabled butterflies, beetles, and flies of the richest colours and lustre, driven over the lake by the storm.  Charley found a small turtle alive.  An elegant little schooner, ‘the Sea Serpent of Chicago,’ was stranded, and formed a beautiful object as she lay dark between the sand and the surf.”

The following summer, in 1837, the burgeoning town of City West was visited by another famous traveler.  Daniel Webster, the “Great Orator”, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, who had run for the White House, was visiting Chicago with his wife and daughter while cruising the Great Lakes on a steamer out of Buffalo that summer.  He had made enormous investments in western land and served on the board of the Buffalo & Mississippi Railroad at Michigan City.  This was his second visit to the Midwest.


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Shortly before the Fourth of July, men from the two rival railroad companies convinced Webster to come east from Chicago.  It took money to build towns and harbors and Webster could pull strings back East.  Coming by stagecoach, he stopped at City West, probably on the morning of July 4.  “The Whig portion of the community was quite excited,” Ball remembered, and “a good breakfast was prepared at the Morse residence.  After breakfast, as the citizens, men and boys, had gathered near the house – girls did not go out in those days as they do now – the great ‘expounder of the Constitution’ came out to be introduced to the inhabitants of City West.  There he stood before us, the great lawyer, statesman, and orator, tall in form, massive in intellect, the man of whom we had heard and read, but whom we had not expected to see standing upon our sandy soil.  He soon took his seat again in the coach and passed out from us on to Michigan City.”

Webster, however, apparently thought Michigan City had better prospects.  On the Fourth of July, he stood at the foot of the Hoosier Slide, a majestic 175-foot-high sand dune that was carted away to be used as landfill and in glassmaking before 1920.  Webster gave a speech and predicted a grand future for Michigan City and its railroad, though it was said that the citizens had treated him so well that “he was rather tipsy when it came time for his speech.”


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(Hoosier Slide, Michigan City, Indiana.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)


Unfortunately, wild land speculation (such as Webster’s own) was already driving the United States to financial collapse.  A few months after City West was born, the country was sunk into the Panic of 1837, antebellum America’s equivalent of the Great Depression, which squashed many frontier towns.  Fueled by unscrupulous “wildcat” money-men on the frontier, American banks collapsed, businesses failed, unemployment skyrocketed.  The disaster was partly caused by the prosperity that came before it.  The “panic” lasted into the mid-1840s.  All of this occurred while nature, too, was gradually being despoiled.

With no money to dig a canal, extend a rail line, and build a harbor or even a pier, and watching Congress’ favors given to Michigan City, the promoters of City West scattered.  Its promise never returned.  The spot was simply too close to its rival to be a success.

Rapidly abandoned, the bones of the “city” were left where they stood, a ghost town and potential stage-set for a western just a year or two after it was built.  By 1839, Ball remembered, “few if any were left in the once promising and pleasant little city.”  Property was confiscated by creditors.  Land which at the peak of the boom went for several hundred dollars an acre was sold at a cent per acre, Ball claimed.  “Such dire disaster defies depiction, and my poor pen capitulates,” lamented another observer.

The ruined town, though, remained an adventure spot for children.  Sarah Stonex, daughter of pioneer settler Jacob Beck, remembered the fate of City West and what was left behind.  Around 1840, she went with some other curious children to take a look at the empty new houses that had been left to nature.  (This scene must have been repeated in parts of suburban America after the housing bust of the 9/11 decade.)  “They found one, counting closets and all, which was divided off into twenty-two rooms.  This must have been the ‘Exchange’ or the Bigelow hotel.”  Timothy Ball had left with his family.  Like Sarah Stonex, he also came back, “in the midst of the fruit season of 1840,” when he was about 14.  Ball and a friend, caught too far away from home around dusk, decided to sleep over in the deserted town.  “The houses were there but the place was solitude.” They checked into the abandoned Exchange hotel, found it not to their liking, moved into another house, having “entered such as took their fancy,” then ate dinner and fell asleep.  The next day they walked around the empty streets, “bathed in the lake and departed, first gathering an abundance of fruit, without seeing another human being.”

Some of the houses were being swallowed by sand dunes.  But before it fell into decay, most of City West’s residences were simply carted off.  One of the hotels (maybe the 22-room Exchange) was dismantled and hauled to nearby Chesterton in 1850.  Chesterton was still called Coffee Creek and was not much bigger than City West had been.  Rebuilt as the “Central Hotel”, this structure survived until the spring of 1908, when it burned down, “thus suffering the fate common to many of its original associates.”

On a night of wild thunderstorms, probably in 1853, whatever was left of City West finally passed out of existence.  No one saw it happen, but a forest fire, caused either by lightning or debris from passing trains, broke out and consumed the town.  Its charred ruins were swallowed by the constantly moving dunes.  “By the shifting sands and the processes of nature, the last vestige of this early competitor of Chicago” was obliterated.  Having born and died the very year of photography’s invention in France, no images (unless they were drawn or painted) were ever made of it.

Another spot, called “New City West,” existed from about 1845 to the mid-1870s.  When a trolley line was completed, this spot was renamed Tremont after the “three mountains” (tre monti, in Italian) located nearby.  (These are three massive sand dunes, Mount Tom, Mount Holden and Mount Green.)  A post office was set up here in the 1840s, alongside a cooper shop manufacturing hoops, buckets, tubs and barrels from oak and hickory harvested in the surrounding woods.  During a great lumber boom after the Civil War and during the rebuilding of Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871, this area served as a shipping point for timber cut throughout the Calumet River region.  A shipping pier extended about 600 feet into the lake near the mouth of Fort Creek (today it is called Dunes Creek).  As timber resources declined and the lumbering industry died here, the pier went into disuse.  It rotted or blew away in a storm before 1900.


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(Brooks Photo, South Shore Line station, Tremont, Indiana.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)


A commuter rail station on the popular South Shore Line, which brought thousands of tourists from Chicago and South Bend every summer, survived at Tremont, but land acquisitions during the creation of Indiana Dunes State Park and the national lakeshore caused the place to dwindle away as an active community by the 1960s.  The spot is now called Waverly Beach and is the gateway to the state park, located off U.S. 12.  At the mouth of Dunes Creek a large bath house and pavilion sit near the shoreline, next to a large parking lot.  This was the site of City West.


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(Hotel and parking lot, circa 1930, at the site of City West.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)

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(Dining room at the Pavilion, Dunes State Park, at the site of City West.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)

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(Indiana Dunes State Park, June 1928.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)

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(Brooks Photo, Shady path on Stewart Ridge, Dune Park, Indiana.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)

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(Man on ice and snow, Indiana Dunes.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)

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(Man on ice and snow, Indiana Dunes.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)

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Advancing dune in an area denuded by steam shoveling, Dune Park, Indiana.  Lantern slide, circa 1907.  University of Chicago Department of Botany Records, AEP-INS87.

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General view of established dunes, Chesterton, Indiana, circa 1907.  University of Chicago Department of Botany Records, AEP-INP12.

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(Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)

Charles Van Schaick: A Voice From the Passion of Nature

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The journalist Michael Lesy, who was responsible for the re-discovery of photographer Charles Van Schaick in the early 1970s, wrote that the best art always spawns other art.  Lesy’s first book utilized Van Schaick’s work as the visuals in a gloomy surrealist montage of text and image, a creative exploration of the madness, crime, and mania that struck central Wisconsin during the economic Depression of the 1890s.  A “counter-cultural cult classic,” that book is often mistaken as a work of history.  In fact, as Lesy writes, it is hardly a history at all, but a further artwork, a mental projection upon the past.  “The book was called Wisconsin Death Trip, which is what some people who used drugs at the time called hallucinations of death and rebirth.  Those who read the book couldn’t decide if it was poetry or history, a fabrication or a discourse, a hoax or a revelation.”

Lesy was 28 when he published Death Trip in 1973.  Juxtaposing scintillating crime articles from small-town papers with Van Schaick’s commercial studio work and landscapes, the author — inspired by German and French surrealists of the World War I era — intended the book to be a “sledgehammer.”  As he remarked in an interview in 2003:

“Everyone felt at the time [in the late ’60s] that the potential reader of any visual book was jaded and numbed by trash. Whatever was published then — Life and Look had just gone under — it was a world of visual garbage.  So, I tried to create sequences that would be interrupted by rather heavy-handed interventions to say, ‘Think and look again.’  I’m not sure if I would do that again. I also think, in general, the book failed because people are just, in spite of everything, left-brained. They read text — and the text overwhelms what they see. The text had one message — but it was meant to be combined with the messages of the images. The right-brained stuff. The right-brained stuff in the book is a very, very complex combination of things. Of course, there are funereal images, but there are images of…  horse genitalia…  The stallion and the young man showing his muscles.  Families and youth and marriage and happiness.  And the intent was to hope that one could create through this complex layering of information or collage-making a kind of soup bowl in which information would be mixed inside the brain of the viewer, and it would all be combined and sucked on and enjoyed.  But it didn’t work that way.  So people remembered the horror stories.  And only remembered the horror stories in their reading.  And the intent was something different.”


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(Album, Magazin für Fotografie.)


Yet Lesy recalled that he himself had first been drawn to Van Schaick’s work and the gory newspaper clippings re-published in Wisconsin Death Trip because, combined, those investigations humanized the American Midwest, where he found himself adrift as a young graduate student.  Probably the most misunderstood, even maligned, American region, the Midwest rarely makes it into literature or art except in extremes — either of nostalgia or terror or their emotional derivatives.  Countless literary tropes, from the age of Sinclair Lewis’s Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River, Illinois, have portrayed the region both as a bastion of the great subdued and repressed human passions and as a place of overwhelming public Puritanism and small-mindedness, with all the flaws of the South and New England and Old Europe writ large against a bigger and more oppressive landscape.  Some people find the Midwest a cultural gulag, home to a sort of enforced flatness rivaling that of the equally stereotyped horizon.  The reverse image is equally ridiculous: the Midwest of apple pies in the windowsill, a happy dirt lane over the farm road to the blissful one-room schoolhouse on the prairie, the virtuous, felicitous university of the plains.

The truth is somewhere in between.  Lesy’s Death Trip, of course, has reinforced the negative image.  But as he writes in the preface to The Forbidden Zone, his remarkable journalistic account of people who “deal with death” (from meat-cutters and detectives to hospice workers and pathologists), Van Schaick’s work and the long hours spent reading small-town papers on microfilm at the Wisconsin Historical Society were actually what helped him connect with this location.  The wild mix of pain, madness, humor and joy that are so alive both in this place and in the documentary material that he unearthed in archives — this is what made it all seem worth investigating.

Lesy describes that process.  He had came to Madison from Columbia when the University of Wisconsin had the greatest history department in the U.S.  Intending to study Weimar Germany, he grew so bored with his PhD advisor that he set out to find another dissertation topic, one “sufficiently bloody and dramatic.”   Up to then, he had known only European history, but landed on the assassination of Lincoln and impeachment of Johnson as having the requisite dark overtones.  On the shores of Lake Mendota, he recalled in an interview, “I was sitting reading the newspaper, the New York Times every day… thinking ‘What a boring place.'”  Then “one afternoon, I decided to take a break and look at a collection of photographs made in a small town in Wisconsin at the very end of the nineteenth century.”  As he looked, captivated, at these commercial studio photographs made at the edge of the North Woods eighty years earlier, “I asked the [archivist] the name of the little town where all the pictures had been made.  ‘Black River Falls,’ he said.  He turned out the lights and I went to dinner.”  The photos were the work of Charles Van Schaick.

The story of his attraction to Van Schaick’s work and the journalistic accounts he set alongside it is one less about a “documentary” impulse than about personal narrative.  Lesy was the son of European Jews.  His father had fled a Polish village during World War I and trained as a doctor in Ireland before emigrating to Cleveland in the 1920s.  The rest of his family was incinerated in the Holocaust and the author grew up with his father’s stories of pain, death, separation, starvation, in Poland and even in London and Dublin, stories about “a little boy six years old, left alone to go out before dawn in the winter to say prayers for his father’s soul,” then trapped in a snowdrift, “crying and freezing,” while Polish village boys shouted “Kill the Kike!”  Van Schaick’s work, Lesy recalled, where he saw an “amazed and fearful glance”, also reminded him of the extraordinary portraits made by August Sander in Germany between the fall of the Kaiser and the rise of Nazism.  Sander had documented the “types” of German laborers, eventually falling afoul of the Nazis, “who had their own ideas about social types [and] found his to be subversive.”

Looking to gild Van Schaick’s pictures with surrealism, Lesy delved into the Black River Falls newspapers — beginning with 1885, moving forward to 1890.  This was the same nervous world of the European fin-de-siecle:  no one reading Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, for instance, which appeared in 1916 but was set a generation earlier, could doubt that the impending mental breakdown of Vienna and Berlin, Stockholm and Paris, had sent out its rays to the North American Middle West.  (Wisconsin, after all, was settled largely by Germans, Scandinavians, and French.  Norwegian was the dominant language of many of its small towns into the 1950s, with English taking second place even on the eve of the Vietnam War.  For almost a century, this state, more than any other, was virtually a displaced European country.)

“Without knowing it,” Lesy remembered, “I had just stepped into the center of a conjunction of history, photography, and my own inheritance. . .”

“Epidemic disease, suicide and insanity, interrupted by ghosts, arson, armed troops, murder, exhaustion, window breaking, and lake monsters…  What I’d done was to discover a massive amount of pain, suffering, and death in the middle of America.  In fact, what I’d described [in Wisconsin Death Trip] was a holocaust without Jews. . .  Every day, I walked out of the light and into the cold, dark, quiet room where the microfilm machines were kept… I’d like to say that I was filled with sorrow and pity.  But the truth is, I went mad.  Six months later, when I woke up, I was changed, as changed as my father had been when he’d risen up out of his bed after nearly dying of rheumatic fever.  My father had decided to be a doctor.  I decided to be a writer.”


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Since Death Trip’s publication in 1973, Lesy has unearthed other troves of under-appreciated or forgotten American photos, from the immense archives of Caufield & Shook in Kentucky (which led to Lesy’s book on Louisville in the 1920s, Real Life) to those of the prolific Manhattan street photographer Angelo Rizzuto, discovered in 2001.  Though sometimes called a historian of photography, Lesy is a literary journalist, and remains perhaps as much of an artist as he was in Madison, Wisconsin, back in 1971.  (His other books have also pursued the morbid but oddly quickening fascination with crime that began when he dug into rural Wisconsin papers of the supposedly “Gay Nineties.”)

Yet if it is difficult to look back to a time when Charles Van Schaick’s remarkable images could be appreciated “pre-Death Trip” (and before the opera, play, hard rock band, and “fiction documentary” that Lesy’s book spawned), some of that man should be resurrected and the photography put on more solid feet than the “dark” emotions with which it is commonly associated.  Van Schaick died in 1942 in his old age, having no idea that his work would be transformed into a gothic chamber of mirrors for the coming LSD generation.  In fact, remarkably little of his work is morbid, though it undoubtedly documents a dying world.

A surface reading of his commercial work combined with apparently more personal images show that Van Schaick was a light-hearted man with a healthy recognition of the dark side of life where it emerged — though since most of his work was for paying clients, it is difficult to read.  He certainly deserves credit for not presenting the chest-thumping view of small-town life, the kind of photographs the adulatory Goodspeed county historians might have made had they been behind a lens.  As literary movements often dove-tail with developments in photography, Van Schaick can perhaps be called a realist or populist, somewhat in the vein of his contemporary Carl Sandburg.  Like the poet, the photographer is deeply human, romantic at times, but also skeptical of “the people” and the idolized vision of “progress”.  (“The people, yes…” Sandburg says, who “go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds”, “hero and hoodlum, phantom and gorilla.”)

So little has been published on Van Schaick (even Lesy’s Death Trip is hardly “about” him) that few readers of the surrealist book where his work came back to life know what the man even looks like.  Yet he appears in several of his own photographs, perhaps (I argue) even in his most famous and haunting portrait of death.

At least five definite portraits of “Charlie” Van Schaick survive.  The earliest is a “Self-Portrait of a Man,” made in his Black River Falls studio the year he opened it in 1879.  (He shared the building with a dentist’s shop.)  He looks like a somewhat stern 30-something photographer, wearing a long Shaker coat.  There is also a photo of him with his wife and sons in the family dining room, probably taken in the early 1880s.  All later photos show a much less stern-looking figure.


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(Van Schaick family.  WHi-46087.)


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(Studio portrait of Charles Van Schaick and son.  WHi-56741.)


The more interesting early portrait of Van Schaick is also a self-portrait.  On the surface, this is merely another “precious” commercial photo, one of many thousands made at the time, a generic studio image of two people “playing” for the camera, acting out some domestic scene.  Even during the first infant decades of photography, before the Civil War, such images were already being churned out, perhaps as a response to the very nature of the new art form itself, which involved tremendously slow exposures that required a “grave” look — though perhaps also in rebellion to pre-photographic standards of portraiture in paint and charcoal.


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(Portrait of Charles Van Schaick and boy.  WHi-57003.)


The significance of the photo is hardly visual at all, though.  The boy Van Schaick is hugging is not his son, but a Ho-Chunk boy.  With the Menominee, Ojibwa, and other tribes, the Ho-Chunk (historically called the Winnebago) were the Europeans’ predecessors in the North Woods and on the prairies of southern Wisconsin.  They were also the builders of the fascinating animal-shaped effigy mounds that still dot the watersheds they hold sacred, earthen artistic representations of the spirit animals (bears, lizards, turtles, and Thunderbirds) that have animated their beliefs, stories, and understandings of the landscape.  Like most of the Midwestern and Eastern tribes, the majority of the Ho-Chunk were forced west to the Great Plains after European settlers came to Wisconsin in the 1830s.  Though plagued by smallpox and dispossessed of most of their land, a few remained in the vicinity of Black River Falls, where many have returned and where they maintain their tribal headquarters today.

While much of Van Schaick’s commercial work with his white neighbors is predictable, his extensive work with the Ho-Chunk is extraordinary despite the fact that, compositionally, it is identical.  In the Van Schaick collection in Madison, nearly half the surviving 3,000 images are of his Native American neighbors — often taken with a portable camera outdoors, but just as frequently in his studio with the finest camera he had.  And unlike other photographers who claim to have “documented” American Indians, Charles Van Schaick did not exoticize them or “set the scene.”  Edward Curtis’ studio work, the most famous body of pictures ever taken of them (Curtis became a photographic George Catlin), were set up to give the impression that they had been taken “in the wild.”  Even those that were actually taken there were very much inventions designed to give an impression of spontaneity and authenticity.

Van Schaick’s images, by contrast, are honest representations of the way the Ho-Chunk lived in Black River Falls at the turn of the century, not imaginary or romantic projections.   As early as 1880 and as late as the mid-1930s, he was making portraits of them in his studio (perhaps for free, perhaps for the same rate he charged his other sitters).  Though these individuals, too, display an “astonished gaze” before the mysterious camera — also a sadness and gravity even deeper than that of the artist’s white clients — they are not “dressed up” by him.  In a sixty year career as remarkable as Mike Disfarmer’s in Heber Springs, Arkansas, Van Schaick portrayed the Ho-Chunk as they wished to be portrayed, not as noble savages or a “lost race”, but as neighbors still very much “here”, even as thoroughly modern Americans, sometimes sporting the same bobbed haircuts and clothing as their white neighbors.


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(Grace Decorra Clay Whitegull, circa 1910.  WHi-63243.)


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(Kate Eagle and Minnie Eagle, circa 1910.  WHi-60665.)


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(Studio portrait of Edward Funmaker and Frank Washington Lincoln, circa 1900.  WHi-61269.)


It is intriguing to ask whether his best-known image of death, known even to the most unimpressionable reader of Wisconsin Death Trip, presents a mystery in the search for the “true face” of Van Schaick.  The image in question is so powerful, so strange and deeply personal, so “unprofessional” and uncommercial, so unlike the standard memorial photographs his clients commissioned him to make, that it seems unlikely to me that this picture was made for anyone but Van Schaick himself.

As reproduced in Lesy’s book, the face of the man in the doorway is invisible, yet the original negative makes it clear that this is potentially Van Schaick’s.  I do not know if he lost a daughter around 1890.  If this is not his daughter in the coffin, he appears to have made the image in his studio, not the private home where the girl probably died.  Visible in the corner is a pile of tapestries, the ones he spread over couches and chairs for customers to lounge on during portrait sessions.  Is this even an “anti-photo,” a radical inversion of the orthodox genre of the memorial photo?  Other signs indicate yes.  As photographers often do in self-portraits, someone has taken this man’s measurements wrong, as if the doorway or the negative were a coffin too short for its occupant.  Working with a glass-plate negative in a low-light setting, Van Shaick’s exposure had to have been over a minute, giving him (if this is the man we see) sufficient time to open the shutter and walk into his portrait.  Moreover, a moving, vibrant, impatient child could never have been the subject of a long-exposure experimental still-life.  And had he wanted to make an unsettling and strange image of this type with a client’s deceased child, I doubt his customers would give him that chance.


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(Small girl in coffin.  WHi-11995.)


Franz Kafka, a skeptic of photography, remarked once to his friend Gustav Janouch: “Photography concentrates one’s eye on the superficial.  For that reason it obscures the hidden life which glimmers through the outlines of things like a play of light and shade.  One can’t catch that even with the sharpest lens.  One has to grope for it by feeling. . .  This automatic camera doesn’t multiply men’s eyes but only gives a fantastically simplified fly’s eye view.”  It is, perhaps, by reading an auto-biographical or emotional narrative into such images as this one of a dead girl that one can rise above Kafka’s correct observation that the camera does not, really, “capture” reality.  Rather, intelligently, “archaeologically” read, the camera and the photo can point toward the direction of reality.  Reality, to me, seems exterior to many of Van Schaick’s images, yet seen as a whole, as a mixture of comedy and tragedy, of loss and gain, they are guide-posts toward significant truths.  As Robinson Jeffers expressed it, talking about a “harder mysticism” than the one we think we have expressed in art or philosophy:  Multitude stands in my mind but I think that the ocean in the bone vault is only / The bone vault’s ocean: out there is the ocean’s; / The water is the water, the cliff is the rock, come shocks and flashes of reality.

Moreover, as Bruce Davidson said of his own work — he could have said it of Van Schaick’s — “Most of my photographs are compassionate, gentle, and personal.  They tend to let the viewer see himself.  They tend not to preach.  And they tend not to pose as art.”  Better still that the artist remained (and remains) poorly known.  Like Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and Franz Kakfa, like Mike Disfarmer and Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Charles Van Schaick was an obscure, little-known figure to his contemporaries, working in a place the art world labeled a remote backwater, seldom traveling beyond the town he called home.  Black River Falls was Concord, Amherst, a back alley of Prague en route to the castle, Heber Springs, or the abandoned buildings of Lexington, Kentucky, that Meatyard found to be inspirational to his own practice of Zen.

In introducing a small gallery of this photographer’s work, it strikes me that there is a deep and literally ecological interest to Van Schaick’s photographs that is seldom addressed.  What Michael Lesy called “a holocaust without Jews… [site of] a massive amount pain, suffering, and death in middle America” was, in a very definite sense,  just that:  what happened in the North Woods of Wisconsin in the late 1800s was nothing short of an environmental and cultural holocaust.

This great event was not restricted to Wisconsin — it was a global, centuries-long tragedy.  But the once-phenomenally wild American Midwest bore a tremendous, agonizing burden during this huge environmental collapse, the demolition of the old wildernesses that humans had known since the beginning of the species.  In fifty years, farmers, loggers, and industrialists utterly changed this place.  Northern Wisconsin, in particular, was all but completely logged-off by World War I, so much so that it was practically ruined for human economic purposes afterwards and was called a “cut-over district”.  It is one place environmental historians always study.  (Today, the Cut-Over has been largely coaxed back into forest, though it will never be farmed again and most of the old wildness has been sapped out of it.  How of much of that wildness is gone is essentially erased from our collective memory.)  Moreover, the human population of the North Woods, like most of the rural Upper Midwest, peaked in the 1920s and will never return.  Those days are done.  But these pictures were taken there, at the edge of the Cut-Over.


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Van Schaick’s landscape images captured some of the climax of this forest “economy” (if wholesale ravage and industrialism can be called “economy”).  No doubt, like many bad things, the pillage of nature was nevertheless full of many beautiful human moments, lived in direct encounter with the “wild” and in the shadow of its “passion”, to employ a religious phrase really meaning a destruction where love is present.  In truth, if there is only one thing, simple but true, that must be said of Charles Van Schaick’s images, it is this:  they are photographs of humans living in the shadow of nature while nature is on the way to its own cross.  Like the Christian hero, however, Nature does not die outright.  As we see in the work of this photographer, the citizens of Black River Falls — natives and newcomers alike — are wrapped in a world of wood and earth, from birth to death, from cradle to coffin, informed in large measure by that passing, that passion of nature, and the subtle weave of its vanishing but ever-present life into the material of their own lives.  Nature, here, is something of a relic, yet a relic, we know, is a powerful object, seized up again to quicken things that are, themselves, dying.

There is, perhaps, also a very specific “dark memory” underlying some of Van Schaick’s work.  His relatives, originally millers in upstate New York, were directly involved in the lumber business along Green Bay and other parts of northern Wisconsin and Michigan.  (Eventually they expanded their business out of Ludington, Michigan, to another Ludington, a lumber town in the virgin pine forests of southwestern Louisiana near Lake Charles.  Today it is a ghost town, abandoned since the 1940s.)

Yet even without this family connection to the logging industry, doubtless Van Schaick was aware of the massive fires and real ecological terror that were routine occurrences in the Great Lakes states at the end of the nineteenth century.  During the same week of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, three other huge burns engulfed millions of acres of northern forest land.  In Michigan, the Manistee and Huron fires destroyed about a quarter of the state.  Rebuilding Chicago, at that time a wooden city, led to the almost complete deforestation of northern Indiana and much of Michigan.  Lumbering operations, coal- and wood-burning trains, and the draining of wetlands for agriculture led to further conflagrations as nature was ripped open and the scattered debris caught fire.

Nature was not the only victim of this violence.  In Peshtigo, Wisconsin, close to the shores of Green Bay, and in parts of the Door Peninsula adjacent to it, as many as 3,000 people died during the same mega-event that spawned the Chicago Fire.  Some said the death of Biela’s Comet, breaking up in the atmosphere, was the cause.  Others blamed the Irish.  But of course it was dry tinder and wind and carelessness that caused these disasters.  In the tragic Peshtigo firestorm, that October of 1871, a literal hurricane of flames consumed an entire corner of Wisconsin.  True reports were sent in of parents killing their children before the wall of fire arrived, sparing them an even worse agony.  A French priest, Father Perrin, wrote of victims drowning or dying of hypothermia as they took refuge in the Peshtigo River.  A tornado of fire threw houses and train cars into the air.  Two of the most amazing and terrifying stories were reported in a newspaper article in 1921, fifty years after the event.  Lesy skipped it, but it could have been a centerpiece of his book.  Amid the roaring flames, this happened:

“A woman in the Sugar Bush started for the village with her children in a wagon.  On the way she found the road blocked by a fallen tree.  She immediately cut one horse loose, got upon it with her children, and succeeded in saving them all.  On the river bank she gave birth to another child.  A sadder case was that of a Norwegian woman who reached the riverbank in a fearful burned condition, succeeded in crossing the river, and there gave birth to a child and died.  The sight is said to have been agonizing in the extreme.”

Michael Lesy was interested in human psychological responses to a farm crisis, but he could have written a similar book about the psychological toll of environmental destruction.  And perhaps he did.  After all, there have been four great economic depressions in American history (we are living in one of them as I write this), all of them brought on in part by a contempt for nature’s limits and a worship of power and wealth.  The real danger of living on the edge of the North Woods in, say, 1890, was analogous to living in the presence of a mad, dying creature, a world we very much still live in.  Some of this must have woven itself into Van Schaick’s images.  As nature walks to its Golgotha, it will ultimately survive, but as we inevitably walk with it, surely our feelings of loneliness, exhaustion, stress, grief, and homesickness (the same that sometimes pervade these portraits and landscapes) are assuredly not sprung from our own agonies alone.  The sadness in the faces of the Ho-Chunk, who lost so much of what they knew and loved as home, will gradually become ours.


CHARLES VAN SCHAICK:  A GALLERY

 

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Woman diving from a rowboat.  WHi-60306.

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Girl looking down river.  WHi-55717.

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Couple in cutter sleigh.  WHi-54138.

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Woman and infant.  WHi-54176.

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Horse with a long mane.  WHi-24682.

 

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Two men in a wagon pulled by a white horse.  WHi-43281.

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Three girls in field.  WHi-47448.

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Tree sections at sawmill.  WHi-91811.

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Burning building.  WHi-42622.

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Medical students playing with equipment.  WHi-56265.

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Open casket with body of European American man.  WHi-62685.

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Man on sunken boat.  WHi-48441.

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Stagecoach.  WHi-43753.

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Hearse.  WHi-45615.

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Julia Ormsby bathing baby.  WHi-28604.

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Women in garden.  WHi-54173.

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Crowd in country.  WHi-44143.

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Women holding snakes.  WHi-56245.

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Men boxing.  WHi-55991.

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Lutie Franz in nude flexing back.  WHi-28706.

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Studio portrait of two women.  WHi-46127.

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Two women dressed alike.  WHi-57000.

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Portrait of Clara St. Cyr and Lucy Davis, circa 1900.  WHi-10151.

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Studio shenanigans.  WHi-10308.

cvs 74

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A corpse on her deathbed.  WHi-64109.

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Deceased man.  WHi-64110.

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Twin infants in coffins, circa 1886.  WHi-4996.

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Infant in coffin.  WHi-60109.

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Kate Thunder and mother, circa 1891.  WHi-63043.

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Emma Mary White Greencloud-Redcloud Thunder and Sally Dora Redbird Goodvillage Whitewater, circa 1905.  WHi-63400.

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Three workmen.  WHi-43076.

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Ice harvesting on the Black River.  WHi-89312.

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Log cabin and corn crib.  WHi-53563.

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Man chopping wood in yard.  WHi-54145.

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Men working on building.  WHi-43261.

cvs 51

Men working on powerhouse.  WHi-43253.

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Loggers pose on railroad tracks, circa 1896.  WHi-1964.

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Log jam, circa 1895.  WHi-10206.

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Portrait of children in costumes.  WHi-58172.

cvs 61

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Werner Drugstore.  WHi-90305.

cvs 80

Team of horses with winch.  WHi-43096.

cvs 94

York Iron Works.  WHi-91830.

cvs 77

Team of horses with winch.  WHi-43089.

cvs 28

Jen Parson Kelly on sidewalk.  WHi-28597.

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Girl posing in greenery.  WHi-53365.

cvs 40

Man in boat by York Iron Works.  WHi-91845.

cvs 84b

cvs 54

Men near brick kiln.  WHi-43104.

cvs 64

Relaxing on a hillside.  WHi-54532.

cvs 69b

Studio portrait of a woman.  WHi-94382.

cvs 146

Portrait of a nun.  WHi-57481.

cvs 147

Green Grass with pistol and dog, circa 1880.  WHi-63532.

cvs 161

Henry Greencrow, circa 1900.  WHi-62834.

cvs 162

Nellie Winneshiek Twocrow Redcloud and Kate Winneshiek Lonetree, circa 1901.  WHi-63048.

cvs 115

Ho-Chunk girl and boy with smallpox.  WHi-63929.

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Ho-Chunk woman walking across snow.  WHi-64093.

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Ho-Chunk woman with child, circa 1887.  WHi-60605.

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Portrait of two unidentified Ho-Chunk boys, circa 1900.

cvs 148

Studio portrait of Ho-Chunk women.  WHi-61642.

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Albert Thunderking Lowe and Edward Funmaker, circa 1905.  WHi-61271.

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Henry Rice Hill (SanJanMonEKah), circa 1900.  WHi-060910.

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Nancy Davis Funmaker Whitedog, circa 1930.  WHi-60646.

cvs 116

Marie Big Hawk Whitewater holding her baby Clyde White, circa 1936.  WHi-60567.

cvs 171

charles van schaick 2

Three people on a ladder, circa 1899.  WHi-29251.