Tag Archives: South

Hatteras Girl: Dixie Burrus Browning Remembers Island Life During World War II

libsohn 1

When thirty-year-old Brooklyn photographer Sol Libsohn visited Hatteras Island, North Carolina, in 1945 to take a few photos for Standard Oil, he probably didn’t realize that he’d soon end up creating what many consider the definitive portrait of “old” island life on the Outer Banks.  Twenty years later, completion of the Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet ushered in a new world on Hatteras.  Some things, like health care and education, got better.  But cars, tourism, and the collapse of the old maritime culture have taken their toll.

Made as stock commercial photos for use in the oil company’s magazine, Libsohn’s images are enormously popular on the coast.  His idyllic, romantic vision of island life before the roads came in is far from accurate and leaves much unsaid, but Libsohn beautifully captured the archetypes of the old days and ways, before they began their slow disappearance in the 1960s. Yet the actual stories of Hatteras are still hidden in these pictures.

The engineers and roughnecks who descended on this part of North Carolina in the final months of World War II were coming to one of the more remote and hard-to-get-to parts of the American South in those days.  Culturally distinct from the rest of the state and often at loggerheads with it, the inhabitants of these scrawny barrier islands were both isolated and at the center of a great Atlantic crossroads.

Famous as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” Hatteras and the treacherous Diamond Shoals became the deathbed of many a ship in the days of sail.  Some island families even came here by accident, stranded on their way to other ports of call.  Though the mainstay of life was always fishing, a frequent lucky windfall — shipwrecks — brought exotic goods and even scarce household items. Bananas, canned food, clocks, bedsteads, and sometimes cars, all of which could be legally salvaged or auctioned off, came to Hatteras in the hold of wrecks.  In this place where wood is scarce, it is remarkable that many old Hatteras houses were built from doomed ships or the cargo of wrecked lumbering vessels.


dbb 6(NC Route 12, today the only highway on the Outer Banks, was a dirt path seventy years ago.)


Sol Libsohn, who died in 2001, came to Hatteras to illustrate the theme “There’s a drop of oil in everyone.”  Petroleum, in fact, was at the center of a forgotten drama enacted here during the early years of World War II. The little-known “Battle of the Atlantic,” when German U-boats sank hundreds of merchant marine vessels and oil tankers transporting war goods to Allied Europe, was waged from Newfoundland to Texas, but the waters off the Outer Banks became one of the major targets of Hitler’s underwater navy.

Most of the older generation who lived on Hatteras in those years can remember an ominous glow on the horizon, glimpsed over dunes at night, as stricken tankers burned at sea a few miles out.  In a strange boost to North Carolina tourism, recreational divers are now rediscovering and photographing some of these vessels — and their attackers.  In 2014, the German submarine U-576 was found thirty miles off Cape Hatteras.  Forty-five German sailors died when it was sent to the bottom on July 14, 1942.


u-352(U-352 was sunk off “Torpedo Alley” on May 9, 1941, and is one of the most visited dive sites along North Carolina’s coast.  Sumberged Sports.)


Many stories, some surely mythic, proliferated about German crewmen rowing into towns like Morehead City on rubber dinghies at dark to watch movies in local theaters.  A media blackout and the sheer remoteness of the place kept most Americans from knowing much about the war waged off North Carolina’s beaches in 1941 and ’42.  Local lore, now told by adults who were children back then, recalls the horrible fate of sailors at sea.  Bodies — American, English, German — would sometimes wash up on what became Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout National Seashores, horribly disfigured after swimming or floating through burning oil slicks on the ocean’s surface.

At war’s end, Standard Oil began exploring the bottom of Pamlico Sound for domestic petroleum deposits.  For a while, an oil derrick even sat near the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, vying with it to be the tallest structure around.  The oil men gave up after drilling shafts down to 10,000 feet and finding nothing.  Recently, plans for another go at offshore drilling along the Virginia and North Carolina coast have sparked controversy, especially after the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Roy Stryker, who headed the Farm Security Administration’s Information Division and launched the career of many of the great documentary photographers of the 1930s and ’40s, worked with Standard Oil to send the self-taught Libsohn to Hatteras, purportedly to show the uses of oil.  A Jewish kid from Brooklyn, Libsohn had knack for getting along with working-class Americans.  He went on to create a great record of many of the stock subjects of Edward Hopper’s America — “late night portraits of drivers and their vehicles,” his obituary in the New York Times runs, “waitresses and diners, roadside attractions, small towns along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. . . the hurly-burly life in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.”  He taught at Princeton for years.  Most of his images are housed at the University of Louisville’s Photographic Archives in Kentucky.


dbb 12

(Dixie Burrus.  Photo by Sol Libsohn.  Photographic Archives, University of Louisville.)


Dixie Burrus Browning was fifteen years old when Libsohn photographed her in June 1945.  She doesn’t recall why he took her picture.  Her father was Maurice “Dick” Burrus, a Hatteras native who had played professional baseball for teams in Philadelphia, Boston, and Indianapolis and was once scouted in person by the great baseball manager Connie Mack.  After returning to Hatteras Island at the start of the Great Depression, Dick Burrus became a commercial fisherman and a Texaco dealer — perhaps the reason why Libsohn photographed his daughter.

Dixie married Lee Browning at age 20.  They raised their children in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where the couple lived for forty-nine years before returning to the Outer Banks.  Dixie has written over a hundred romance and historical novels and is a prolific painter who runs a studio in Buxton.  She spoke to me in her home in December 2008 and told me about life in Hatteras back in the ’40s.


dbb 13


Dixie Burrus Browning:  My daddy was a baseball player.  He played first base with the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Braves and some minor teams.  And he had a hernia.  That ended his career.  Unfortunately, he stocked away everything in the stock market, and he got out of baseball in 1929, so you can imagine what that was like.  Perfect timing.


dick burrus 1


dick burrus indianapolis


If you really wanted to understand Hatteras, you had to be here, living on collards and crokers during the Depression, when most people didn’t even realize there was a Depression, because they went right on living the way they always had.  And it was a subsistence thing, pretty much.  But you could hunt.  You could fish.  You didn’t have to have licenses for everything, because there wasn’t any law down here.  No sheriff.  You didn’t have to have a driver’s license, because there were no highways.  It was a good place to grow up, but Lord, I’m glad my children didn’t grow up here.  And my grandchildren?  Children today, in this generation, they couldn’t handle it.

My brother was a year and a half younger than I am.  When he was about twelve, he became captain of daddy’s shrimp boat.  Daddy was a Texaco dealer, but he had a shrimp boat.  It had a crew of two, a captain and one mate, I guess you’d call them, and they were both Hyde County farmers who didn’t know a whole lot about running a shrimp boat.  And so finally daddy fired them, and my brother Steve at age twelve became captain of a shrimp boat.

And during one of the hurricanes, what you’d do was, you took the boat offshore and anchored it so it’ll swing into the wind.  And so Steve took the trawler off into the sound and anchored it and rode out the storm in it.  And nobody worried about it.  Now can you see a twelve-year-old given that responsibility today?

It was a working thing.  Up at 3:30 in the morning.  And they all headed out, in a row, early in the morning before daylight.  And the first person who found the area where there was shrimp, I can’t remember if they threw a flag over it or what, but then all the trawlers slowly circled, dragging that area all day.  And the first day Steve came in as captain, he sold high man.  He had caught more than anybody else that was out there and that was a big thrill.

He died a good while ago, just before he turned fifty.  [Steve Burrus worked for IBM and helped install computers on nuclear submarines.  He succumbed to a rare brain cancer in 1981.]

And then we hunted, too, when we were children.  We had a bolt action rifle, and for safety’s sake, I carried the bolt and walked behind Steve, who carried the rifle.  And we followed the shoreline looking for geese, ducks, anything edible.  And if we saw something, by the time we got the rifle back together again, they were gone.  So we never shot anything, but people did.  We had stewed goose with rutabagas.  We had sea turtle.  That is the best meat.  It’s un-P.C. to talk about it now, but I don’t give a damn about P.C.  It was delicious meat.  One flipper would feed the family, but it was awful to clean.  It had layers of gobby, sticky fat and leathery skin.  But it was the sweetest, best meat.  It was the color of beef, I guess.  But it was milder than beef.  It was just delicious.  Turtle stew, turtle hash, anyway you wanted to cook it.  Turtle burgers, we had those, too.


dbb 5(Dixie Burrus and Little Lee Peale, 1940s.)


But other than what we could catch or hunt here, we depended on the freight boats.  They came over a couple of times a week with whatever didn’t sell on the mainland.  You know, hamburger that was black.  And we grew up having canned milk, because you couldn’t get bottled milk that was fresh.  It would have been sour by the time it got here.  These weren’t refrigerated boats.

And we traveled on the freight boats, too.  My momma was from Elizabeth City, my grandmamma lived there.  And it was about an eight-hour trip.  They had absolutely no passenger accommodation.  One space for cars.

I have a ship model I did of my granddaddy Dozier Burrus’ boat.  The ship was called the Hamlet.  He bought the Hamlet after he retired from the West Indies trade.  He used to take daddy and daddy’s brothers with him on some of the runs.  Occasionally he’d take his daughters, too, to go up to Baltimore City or Washington City.  The West Indies trade was rum and molasses, mostly.  They sailed down to the Caribbean.  I don’t know that he owned the ships that he was captain of.  One of them — I loved the name! — was called the Bessie Mae and Annie.  I named a painting after it.


dbb 11(Almy Burrus and Capt. Ethelbert Dozier Burrus at the wheel of the Bugeye.)


My daddy’s mother was Achsah Williams.  She died when daddy was about six years old.  (He was the youngest of a slew of children.)  And granddaddy brought a new bride home, Miss Maggie.  Maggie Douglass, from Wilmington.  He left her here with his children while he went off to sea again.  So we had Miss Maggie when we were growing up.  And she’d tease us and play with us and walk to the beach every morning with old paint buckets to get gravel for the chickens she kept.  She kept our chickens.  She lived in the back part of our house.  Her clothes she made out of Pillsbury feed sacks.  Bloomers that would tie.  Cotton stockings that she didn’t darn — she would patch them with a gingham patch.  She wore high-top tennis shoes and sun bonnets.

After she died, we were packing away her things, and in the bottom of the trunk, there were two golden earrings and a black chiffon blouse.  And it just struck me:  Miss Maggie was a young woman with dreams, and she married Granddaddy Dozier and he went off and left her at home.  I’ve often wished I could go back and talk to her and just hug her.  I wrote a novel about her, The Mariner’s Bride.

Lots of ships got sunk around here by the German submarines in World War II.  I remember taking a walk on the beach after they blew up the Australia and seeing a metal lifeboat with bullet holes all down the side of it.  It had been strafed, obviously.  There was just a straight line of machine-gun holes right down the length of it.  And part of a carton of containers or something.  K-ration, or C-ration, or one of those rations, small cans.  The container had what looked like blood stains on it.  We didn’t touch any of that stuff.  And there were old pieces painted grey that were part of the deck gear that we recognized as such.  But you know, you’re kids, you can’t drag everything home.  There was stuff everywhere.  The beach was littered.  And we chased a muskrat all around there.

I know Shank Austin found a body there.

It was really rough.  Even as a child, it was the reality at that time.

I remember one specific night when everything rattled.  Everything that was glass in the house, including the window, just rattle-rattle-rattled.  It was enough to wake you up.  I woke up and looked out the window.  It was over the Slash, through the marsh.  We had a pretty clear shot of the ocean.  You couldn’t see the ocean itself, because there were houses and things in between, but you could see three distinct glows at night.  You could see the glow of burning oil.  The German submarines had gotten three of them that night.


the slash(A man, probably Millard O’Neal, walks over “The Slash” in Hatteras Village.  Photo by Sol Libsohn.  Photographic Archives, University of Louisville.)


My uncle, Uncle Almy, was in charge of the Hatteras Inlet Coast Guard Station, which at that time was on the north end of Ocracoke Island.  He and his crew went out there in open boats.  I’m not sure if that was when the Australia was torpedoed (you know, I was a child then, I get things mixed up), but Uncle Almy and his crew saw the surviving sailors on one of those ships.  The stern was up in the air looking down at the water and the tanker was surrounded by burning oil.  The surviving crew members had to dive in and swim under.  Not many of them made it.  Somewhere I have pictures of Uncle Almy and I think one or two survivors when they got back to the station.

After the Australia was sunk, they had a vendue.  That’s traditional down here.  They’ve been doing that for the past couple of hundred years.  There was a wreck commissioner who came down.  He would oversee the sale of things.  And daddy bought some things off the Australia.  He bought the Texaco flag.  Big, bedspread-sized, wool bunting.  And he bought some of the semaphore flags, but not all.  Momma put an old quilt in between the layers and quilted them together.


dbb 15 - mv australia(The Texaco tanker Australia went down off Diamond Shoals on the night of March 16, 1942, en route from Texas to Connecticut.  Four crewmen were killed in the explosion.)


dbb 8(Two survivors of the Australia at Hatteras Inlet Coast Guard Station.)


dbb 7(Local Hatteras islanders next to the wreck of the Australia.)


dbb 16 - uboat(U-332, which torpedoed the 11,000-ton tanker Australia in 1942, was sunk by an RAF Liberator bomber in May 1943 off Cape Finisterre in northwestern Spain.  All 45 of its crewmembers died.  This photo shows the crew of a similar boat, U-576, found off Cape Hatteras in 2014.)


The first time I went to New York was with Ernal Foster and my daddy.  I was maybe ten or eleven years old.  I had long pigtails.

I remember coming out of the Holland Tunnel.  There was a woman standing outside the tunnel dressed in a man’s suit.  That made such an impression on me.  There was nobody else in sight.  No cars, no traffic, no nothing.  It must have been in the wee hours of the morning.  I thought that was the strangest place, New York.

Out on Long Island, we stopped at a place called Pop’s Pony Yard for me to ride a pony.  Never mind that I had ridden bareback on the beach here at Hatteras.  There was me in a dotted Swiss dress with a long sash and my pigtails, sitting on the back of the pony, jogging along.


dbb young 1(A young Dixie Burrus, around 1940.)


I graduated in a class of three at Hatteras High.  It would have been more, except that the boys, as soon as they got to be sixteen, they’d leave here and go sign up with the Merchant Marine.  So our class kind of leaked.  I think we got the kind of teachers that couldn’t get a job anywhere else.

Just about the sickest I have ever been (and I was always prone to sea-sickness) was traveling back from Elizabeth City on one of those freight boats.  There were two boats named the Cathleen and the Mallinson, but I can’t remember which one it was.

Anyway, it was a freight boat, loaded up to the gills except right up in the forepeak.  And then there was all that cargo.  There were just planks like this that held it back.  We left late in the afternoon, and it was already rainy and stormy, and the water was real rough.  I think there were two other girls and me.  We had been to Louisburg to a Methodist youth retreat or something like that.

So when it started getting kind of rough — and, as I said, there were absolutely no amenities — they sent us below.  We opened the hatch up in the forepeak, and climbed down a ladder, and sat on upturned cases or crates or whatever.  And by then the water was sloshing about mid-way up our shins and we just sat there.  And the bow was rocking back and forth.  And we were getting sick.  And every time the boat would go like this, with all that freight piled up behind us, the boards would creak and groan.  And like I said, it was an eight-hour trip.  In pitch darkness.

First one and then other of us would get sick.  It was hot, miserable, stifling, stinky and I couldn’t stand it anymore.  So I climbed up the ladder and just got this much of me outside and closed the hatch over here.  And it was real foggy then.  Still rough, not raining, but just foggy.  But I could breathe, and the seas would wash over, and then wash over, and then wash over, and then wash over.  And it was refreshing.  Then all of a sudden this figure materialized, just head and shoulders, because the rest of it was foggy, and he said: “SON. . . You got to go back below!”

Several of the old men called all children “son,” male or female, it didn’t matter.

But they haven’t called me “son” in a few years.


dbb 10(Dixie Burrus heading out to Diamond Shoals.  More of her photos are available at the Hatteras Island Genealogical and Preservation Society’s website.)


Stephen Taylor, staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

Men and Manholes: Subterranean Louisville

southwest outfall 5

Subterranean waterways, massive “re-creations” of rivers and streams, and the disposal of human waste:  this is the unromantic focus of one of the most unexpectedly beautiful and little-known collections of photography from the Roaring 1920s and the Great Depression of the ’30s.  Housed at the University of Louisville, over 3,000 negatives and prints make up the remarkable Metropolitan Sewer District Collection, an archival depiction of the many public works projects that were carried out around Louisville and surrounding Jefferson County, Kentucky, from the early 1920s until just after the great Ohio River Flood of 1937.

Captured on gorgeous 8×10 negatives, the images are aesthetically accomplished and surprisingly compelling to look at.  Some seem like precocious versions of late twentieth-century landscape photography, subtle Jazz Age precursors of the New Topographics movement of the 1970s and ’80s.  Fifty years after a team of Louisvillians documented their nascent sewer system, photographers such as Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke, and Robert Adams revisited this same basic subject matter, mostly in the American Far West.  There, they approached the rugged, mundane, and shabby corners of construction zones on arid city fringes such as Denver with a new eye – both for the unexpected beauty of a suburban building lot, for instance, and for the warnings that such a humble place carried with it in telling the story of human encroachments on the wild.

Like Louisville’s Commissioners of Sewerage, who paid to have the images in this collection made, photographers like Robert Adams captured realities that were so close, so abundantly central to our lives, that they were rarely enunciated in art or even in documentary work.  And like the poet Carl Sandburg, who began his famous poem “Chicago” with a bold statement of the blatantly obvious (about that city being “Hog butcher to the world”), it took a certain genius behind the lens to depict the essential structure of the workaday metropolis, the mundane skeleton of what made everything else click.

Yet these images of Louisville’s sewers and public works projects capture much more than architectural and engineering history.  They document the birth of a modern city.  Twentieth-century cities were profoundly shaped by the problem of overcoming disease and wielding off “nature’s” disastrous wildcards.  In fact, these became common photographic subject matter at a time when progress was considered inevitable and based on human advances in city design.

Culverts, ditches, pipes, floods, and sewers.  Hardly the first spot one would go to make a case for photographic beauty – or to describe the “spirit of place” in a great, overlooked American city.  This, however, is where so much of the modern city’s natural and human history hides.  Like Louisville, all the metropolises that came about after the start of the Industrial Revolution were designed largely in response to the public health crises of the 1800s, and most of the engineering projects documented by early photographers were ultimately images of cities fending off disease, disorder, and disaster. To fully appreciate the beauty and significance of these images, some of that history has to be told.

Alley_between_Mellwood__William

“Slop for sale.”  Alley between Melwood & William, Louisville, Kentucky, March 1931.  Metropolitan Sewer District Collection, University of Louisville.  MSD.092.007

While Louisville’s early “sewers” dated back to the 1820s, the earliest drainage systems here were little more than street-side ditches that helped flush storm water and waste down to the Ohio.  Forty years after it was founded by George Rogers Clark at the rapids known as the Falls of the Ohio, Louisville was still a small riverside town with just a few thousand inhabitants.  Yet that number alone made it one of the biggest “cities” in what was still called “the West,” a century before these photographs were made.  (The population of Chicago, a military outpost, numbered just 300 in 1833.  St. Louis, Cincinnati, Lexington, and New Orleans were the only moderately large towns west of the Appalachians.)

The town’s life was partly shaped by the difficulty of living in a “pond-dotted bottomland” of the Ohio.  During the first years of Loiusville’s history, until about 1805, hogs roamed the streets at will, defecating into the ponds and creeks that served as a water source for settlers.  The practice was curbed by an act of the Kentucky Legislature, called the “Hog and Pond Law,” which banned free-roaming pigs from wandering the muddy streets and called for ditches to be dug that would help drain off the pestilential pools and wetlands that were such a part of the original landscape.  Settlers knew from experience, if not from scientific fact, that ponds and sitting water caused them to die.

Before levees were built, the early city was also flood-prone, though the Ohio River was a different river then than it is now.  The explorer Meriwether Lewis, who joined up with William Clark in Clarksville, Indiana Territory, across the river from Louisville, in 1803 and spent the next three years traveling Western rivers en route to Oregon and back, knew the original Ohio firsthand.  Traveling down from what later became West Virginia, Lewis found the river so dry upstream from Louisville that his boat often got stuck on sandbars.  In engineering projects culminating in the 1950s, the difficult river was gradually dredged and dammed, its channels regularized and its flow deepened for navigation.  Like the Columbia and parts of the Mississippi, the Ohio died as a free-flowing stream in the mid-20th century and became, in effect, a long, skinny lake, its levels controlled by humans for flood control and the passage of barges.

creek and culvert

Creek and culvert, December 1928.  MSD.036.345

Yet like the great New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, which were felt strongly in this area, early floods in Louisville caused little permanent damage or concern, since frontier buildings were primitive, small, and easily replaced.  The main danger from floods was the proliferation of disease that occurred after the high waters subsided.  A malaria epidemic hit Louisville in 1822 and killed 122 people, a serious blow to a town that numbered just over 2,000.

An improvement on the covered ditches that ran down the shoulders of streets, Louisville’s first true sewer was built in 1850, a three-thousand foot brick-lined conduit running from First Street to Walnut, then emptying straight into Beargrass Creek.  Looking back now, to us it seems amazing how poorly the connection between the spread of disease and basic sanitation was understood in the early 1800s, a connection that was often not made at all.  The myth of the virgin frontier’s “purity” probably contributed to the spread of sickness.

In fact, humans in cities even today, who have a good knowledge of the causes of disease, would be unable to safely dispose of their own waste without the big engineering projects that created sewers and public treatment facilities.  Considering that epidemiologists did not fully uncover the cause of cholera, for instance, until 1854, it is not surprising that our ancestors’ efforts here were weak.  (A contemporary anti-cholera poster from New York City suggests that doctors thought the bacillus was spread by the consumption of raw vegetables and unripe fruit, or even by sleeping in a breeze.)

Cholera_395.1

Cholera prevention poster, 1849.  New York Historical Society.

Major outbreaks of cholera, malaria, and yellow fever were frequent events on the Midwestern frontier and far more catastrophic to settlers than tornadoes and Indian attacks.  Hindostan, a settlement at the White River Falls in southern Indiana not far from Louisville (and where at one time almost as many people lived) was completely wiped out by disease in the early 1820s.  Settling in a flood plain and living on houseboats, several hundred settlers and adventurers, many of them polished, educated Easterners, sickened and died in the fall of 1820 from what was probably yellow fever.  Four years later, less than half of the town’s population remained, having succumbed to the disease or gotten out of the area entirely.  Hindostan (where about 1,000 people are thought to have lived) disappeared completely and the spot was avoided for years.  Folklore attributed the unspecified disease to decaying plant matter backed up by the river rapids, but it almost certainly originated with the fact that Hindostan’s migrant population lived largely on flatboats directly atop the water and must have flushed their own waste directly into the stream.

This ill-fated settlement was not the only victim of public health disasters.  Much of the United States was struck by a cholera epidemic in 1833, just a year after the disease was first reported in New York City.  Originating in the Ganges River region of India, where it had killed millions for centuries, cholera spread west along trade routes in the early 1800s.  In 1820, Russian troops brought it from South Asia to Poland and a cholera epidemic was soon devastating Paris and London.  In 1832, the bacillus showed up in New York, probably carried in the bilge water of ships.  A disease of the bowels, cholera took its victims rapidly, usually within 48 hours, causing severe diarrhea and dehydration.

At Salem, Indiana, thirty miles from Louisville, panic set in June 1833 and the town was almost depopulated.  “There were scarcely enough people left in the town to care for the sick and dead,” it was written.  “Merchants closed their stores and stampeded.”  Salem’s old city graveyard is full of cholera victims, their markers made from whetstone quarried at Hindostan.

That same month, Lexington, Kentucky, the biggest city in the West, almost shut down from fear of cholera.  A third of its population fled to farms nearby.  “The dead could not be buried fast enough,” the historian George Ranck wrote, and farmers refused to come into town to sell food.  The four- or five-thousand Lexingtonians who stayed behind would have succumbed to famine if authorities hadn’t stepped in.  Yet an unlikely folk hero, King Solomon, helped save the city.  As bodies piled up, Solomon (a vagrant alcoholic who rarely drank water) became a gravedigger.  Though public handbills at the time warned citizens in cholera-stricken areas to avoid “ardent spirits,” Solomon’s preference for whiskey over water was probably what saved his life.  And as John Wright, a Lexington historian, chronicles humorously: “If any stray bacillus had entered his bloodstream it would have died immediately from the alcohol content.”  Solomon survived the epidemic.  In honor of his heroism and humane treatment of the dead, the city of Lexington had the town drunk’s portrait painted.  It hangs today in the Bodley-Bullock House near Transylvania University.

cholera.jpg cholera temps passe

British cartoon, 1848.

Cholera outbreaks were also among the many disasters that struck young Chicago, a dangerous place since its very birth.  In one of history’s tragic ironies, the disease was carried west to Lake Michigan by U.S. soldiers coming from Buffalo, New York, to fight in the 1832 Black Hawk War in southern Wisconsin.  Black Hawk’s band of Sauk “warriors” (most of whom were actually women and children repossessing their homes) struck as much panic into the hearts of early Chicagoans as cholera did the following year in Indiana and Kentucky.  The disease turned out to be far more deadly than any attack ever carried out by the Sauk, who were driven down the Wisconsin River and massacred that July.  When cholera struck again in 1854, killing 3,500 people, that epidemic was one of the three great disasters to befall the imperiled nineteenth-century city, ranking with the Fort Dearborn Massacre and the Great Fire of 1871, both of which effectively obliterated Chicago.

Malaria, too, which flourished in stagnant pools of water, especially after floods, was a serious problem facing settlers in the Midwest.  Mosquitoes breeding along the Wabash River after late-winter floods gradually led the Shakers, who had settled north of Vincennes, Indiana, in 1809, to go back to Kentucky and Ohio by 1824.  The loss was a major blow to the expansion of the Shaker faith into the West.

Many “non-scientific” causes were also put forward to explain fevers and the high mortality rate facing this area.   “Bad air” was one.  Some early county historians cited dense fogs along rivers and creeks as the bringer of death.  Yet one writer theorized that the disease-stricken town of Palestine, another White River settlement in southern Indiana, owed its demise to sheer bad luck.  Settlers there, he speculated, had dug the town well at the site of an Indian graveyard and the old burials were poisoning the water supply.  Palestine, the first Lawrence County seat, was abandoned in 1825 and resettled as Bedford, three miles from the river.

E_Parkway_1100_B

1100 block of Eastern Parkway during flood.  January 1927.  MSD.035.005

mill creek flooded area 1

Mill Creek: Mystery neighborhood.  Flooded area between the side yards of two houses, January, 1937.  MSD.091.190

downtown louisville 1937 flood 1

Downtown Louisville during the Ohio River flood, 3:20 p.m., January 28, 1937.  MSD.M.538

During a cholera outbreak in Britain in 1854, John Snow, a physician, plotted the sources of cases and finally showed that contaminated water was the culprit.  Over the next few decades, improvements in public sanitation, especially in urban areas, led to individual cholera outbreaks becoming less deadly, though still not uncommon.

Culturally, cholera’s spread was also blamed on impoverished Irish immigrants and African Americans, both of whom were major segments of Louisville’s population.  The Irish made up most of the labor gangs that built Midwestern canals in the 1840s and ’50s, and the stereotype stuck, especially as cholera did, in fact, flourish on these waterways.  Later, they laid railroad tracks and worked in the Butchertown slaughterhouses, all of which at that time dumped their loads straight into Beargrass Creek, remembered for many years as a stinking mess.  (One of the biggest “sewer” projects of the Civil War era involved simply enclosing the creek and re-channeling it away from downtown before it emptied the city’s waste directly into the Ohio.)  John Snow’s report, however, did little to destroy the racial and ethnic prejudice that fostered misunderstanding about the spread of disease, which was still often attributed to “intemperance” and wild living, not the lack of adequate sewers.

By 1870, a high incidence of malaria around Louisville prompted a city engineer, Brigadier General Isaac Munroe St. John, to study the need for an improved sewer system.  (St. John was familiar with the geology of the South, having served in the Nitre and Mining Corps of the Confederate Army, which dug saltpeter from caves in the Southern Appalachians for gunpowder manufacturers.)  Between 1871 and 1873, he oversaw the construction of the Western Outfall, a trunk line from Breckenridge Street west toward 14th Street and the Ohio.  Untreated waste water and storm drainage was unceremoniously dumped into the river as late as 1959, when Louisville got its first treatment facility.

The tunnels that made up Louisville’s 19th-century sewers had originally been built of brick, but after the 1880s, engineers switched to cheaper and more durable concrete.  By 1906, Louisville had 113 miles of sewer lines, but was still considered far behind most other cities of its size.  (It was then one of the ten largest in America.)  Watching their city become architecturally resplendent, with parks and boulevards designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Louisville’s urban planners were hard-pressed for cash to lay pipes and build drainage networks to protect the infrastructure from very basic demands made on it.

man in tunnel

Underground sewer investigation, man in brick-lined segment of tunnel, March 1937.  MSD.USI.021.

metal circular tube 1

Metal circular tube, August 1932.  MSD.047.290

The Commissioners of Sewerage, who from 1924 to 1937 oversaw the creation of one of the most thorough bodies of urban photographs ever made about a public engineering project, were established through an act of the Kentucky Legislature in 1906 and funded by $4 million in bonds.  Beginning in 1908, that money went toward trunk lines and relief for flood-prone parts of the city.  Yet over the years, money was consistently hard to come by.  As the growing city sank itself in debt, largely for sewers, the most important works project underway finally had to be funded by bonds, not tax dollars.  Public relations experts and engineers alike needed photographs.

As the Commissioners hired thousands of workers and invested millions of dollars into effective construction projects, which intensified during the ’20s and ’30s, their efforts came none too soon.  Louisville’s population exploded in the first half of the 20th century.  Slaughterhouses and packinghouses, tobacco warehouses, beer and whiskey distilleries, and other industries that processed the agricultural abundance of Kentucky and its hinterlands all flourished, drawing in a large population from the countryside, the Ohio Valley as a whole, and from Europe.

The Great Depression increased the flow of workers into the city and exacerbated its already tight housing and sewage problems.  One of the greatest difficulties facing the Commissioners during these years was of how – or whether – to separate storm water from waste water in pipes that were not big enough to carry both together during heavy rains.  During large storms and floods, the city faced the terrible prospect of raw sewage overflowing and mixing with the bursting creeks, then contaminating wells and other sources of drinking water.

During World War II, Louisville became quite prosperous as industries here contributed to the war effort.  The city even became something of a boom town during the 1940s.  With the massive out-migration from the Appalachian region during and after the Depression, as “mountaineers” headed to cities like this one, but especially Chicago and Detroit, new construction here was unable to keep up with the demand for housing.  Much of what we recognize as the characteristic architecture of Louisville was built between 1920 and 1950.  Had the city not wisely invested in expanding its network of pipelines and drainage systems prior to the Second World War, Louisville’s industrial growth would have been crippled.

intersection at weisser avenue

Intersection at Weisser Avenue, April 1934.  MSD.078.018

Goss 1261 at Emerson

Goss Avenue at Emerson Street, November 1927.  MSD.035.033

butchertown with mystery 1

Butchertown with mystery.  Beargrass Creek near houses and smokestack on a hill, April 1933.  MSD.M.371

Like all of central Kentucky, creeks and rivers are major topographical features of the Louisville area.  A basic topography of limestone and karst has virtually defined Kentucky’s culture, as its landscape and history are deeply tied to water.  Subterranean rivers helped create Mammoth Cave, the biggest cave system in the world, sixty miles southwest of Louisville, and thousands of smaller caves run through the karst belt from northern Alabama into southern Indiana.  Kentucky’s groundwater, rich in mineral deposits percolating through layers of limestone beneath the soil, is a major factor in whiskey production here.  Legend holds that good groundwater has also created Kentucky’s strong horses and beautiful women.  Irish settlers, who helped define the region’s culture, were drawn to this landscape that reminded them of Ireland, where water is also a major presence.

Yet the water-rich Ohio and Kentucky valleys have been the source of many destructive floods.  The great 1937 flood on the Ohio, which devastated every town in the valley during late January and early February, was the greatest single disaster ever to hit the city of Louisville.  Coming near the end of the Depression, the flood was the ultimate test both of individual resolve and of whether Roosevelt’s New Deal relief agencies would be efficacious.  (Shawneetown, Illinois, and Leavenworth, Indiana, two historic river towns, were completely wiped out, then rebuilt three miles back from the Ohio, in two of the most dramatic re-locations of entire communities in American history.)

Louisville, of course, survived the ’37 flood, yet it would be hard to imagine the public health nightmare that would have ensued without the work done over the previous decades to channel water away from the heart of the city.  Overpowered levees broke and most other attempts to control the river failed, and the water did a great deal of damage here.  But it was public works projects in the city that prevented it from being utterly overcome.

Flood_1937_church

Muddy bank during 1937 Ohio River Flood, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in background, January 31, 1937.  MSD.M.602

Louisville’s sewer system, dramatically expanded in the early twentieth century to meet the needs of flood control and urban sanitation, was a response to the basic realities of living in this often water-logged landscape.  The photographers employed by the Commissioners of Sewerage clearly understood this.  As a body of images, the more than 3,000 large-format photographs they produced are one of the most complete documentary works ever made about an American landscape, meticulously recording virtually every corner of the city’s watershed.

At first glance, one wonders why the Commissioners wanted images of hundreds of seemingly mundane spots in Louisville and rural Jefferson County.  Not all of these photographs document construction projects, and clearly many would never be used in public relations.  Some of the most striking images are exciting because of this simple fact:  their purpose remains utterly mysterious.  What, for example, was the reason behind these three images, whose composition suggests that the photographer was not driven by a desire to show anything other than how completely engrossed he was in the mystery of a watery landscape?

grimstead drive near beargrass creek

Grinstead Drive near Beargrass Creek, April 13, 1926.  MSD.025.001

mill creek road

Mill Creek road, January 1937.  MSD.091.134

E_Parkway_1100_B(2)

Flooded road, 1100 block of Eastern Parkway, November 1927.  MSD.035.020

Though a shortage of money just before and after World War I led to cutbacks in sewer construction, new bond issues in the 1920s raised nearly $15 million and 154 new lines were built during that decade.  Work continued into the Great Depression, when the bulk of these images were made.  They are interesting counterpoints to the famous documentary photography carried out by the Federal Works Project Administration.

Much material created by the WPA was, in fact, government propaganda in a positive sense, intended for federal and state publications, ultimately meant to bolster the “American spirit” in a dark time.  Those photographs showed the American people working when there was a major shortage of work.  Photographers like Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee captured the dark realities facing Americans, but also depicted their resilience and the efforts of the New Deal agencies to alleviate economic and social problems.  (Russell Lee, one of the leading Farm Security Administration photographers, visited the Ohio Valley in February 1937 to document the aftermath of the catastrophe at Shawneetown, Illinois.)

By contrast, few of the Metropolitan Sewer District images focus on the human workers involved in construction.  Rather, like a later school of American landscape photography (the generation of Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams) they approach the visual appeal of those works themselves.  They are landscape photography, first and foremost.  As the New Topographics photographers would have instantly recognized, in some ways these are also pictures of the fence that we have thrown up between us and the gulf of human history that came before us, and on which our own society depends.  Without this, ours would be a different civilization.

Now buried under earth and invisible like the men who built them, like past generations these subterranean systems are the “secret sharers” that underly our own lives, subtle underground doppelgangers, ghostly counterparts of the world above.  The material captured here by photographers tells much of the 20th-century story, one woven between the complex geometry of pipes, the sinuosity of culverts, and the grid slowly being laid out over the great city and the face of nature.

PHOTOS FROM THE METROPOLITAN SEWER DISTRICT COLLECTION

southwest outfall 1

Southwest Outfall, 1933.  MSD.067.084

southwest outfall 2

Southwest Outfall.  Close up view of brick porch with lattice ladder, 1933.  MSD.070.016

Beals_Branch_SpaldingBraeview_area

Beal’s Branch, Spaulding-Braeview area, 1931.  MSD.049.095

man inspecting pipes

Man inspecting drainage pipe with measuring tape, May 1926.  MSD.M.005

manhole covers 1

Manhole covers on display, Louisville, December 1930.  MSD.M.061

Bells_Lane_vic(1)

Bells Lane vicinity, May 1928.  MSD.036.190

4th_Chestnut_NE_corner_old_post_office_entrance

4th and Chestnut, NE corner, old post office entrance.  MSD.033.052

laying of bricks in tunnel 1932

Laying of bricks in tunnel, 1932.  MSD.047.325

MSD_049_095_n

Tunnel or cave with rough stone walls, Spaulding-Braeview area, 1931.  MSD.049.095

southwest outfall 3

Southwest Outfall, 1933.  MSD.067.085

grinstead drive 2500 B looking east

Grinstead Drive 2500 B looking east, 1926.  MSD.025.051

Beals_Branch_SpaldingBraeview_area(1)

Entrance to a tunnel, Beals Branch area, December 1930.  MSD.049.074

liberty 719 W

719 W Liberty, 1928.  MSD.035.058

sewer pipe or tunnel

Sewer under constructrion, 1926.  MSD.025.055

pipeline under construction

Pipeline under construction, 1932.  MSD.047.238

meadows eastern parkway

Eastern Parkway, November 1927.  MSD.035.023

napoleon boulevard 2

Napoleon Boulevard, March 1935.  MSD.079.019.4

drainage ditch 2

Children stand in a creek or flooded ditch, 9:00 AM, June, 29, 1928.  MSD.M.034

southwest outfall 4

Southwest Outfall, December 1933.  MSD.067.108

inside tunnel feburary 1931

Men inside tunnel, August 1931.  MSD.047.160

Brownsboro_Road(2)

Entrance to tunnel, Brownsboro Road, August 1935.  MSD.085.136

men standing in tunnel 2

Standing inside a tunnel or large drainage pipe, Spaulding-Braeview area, July 1931.  MSD.049.108

Brownsboro_Road(6)

Brownsboro Road area.  MSD.037.065

Exhibition_series

Model of a house next to various sized pipe models with two small trucks, 1932.  MSD.new.024

lumber installation

Lumber installation, 1932.  MSD.047.298

Flood_1937_boats

Boats and ice, Ohio River flood, February 2, 1937.  MSD.M.637

Flood_1937_residential(1)

Downtown Louisville, 3:00 p.m., January 28, 1937.  MSD.M.535

Alley_between_Mellwood__William (2)

Alley between Melwood and William, April 1936.  MSD.092.008

Noah’s Ark

south river 1

“That’s Noah’s Ark,” the woman said.

She came out of her door when she saw me in the woods, photographing what was left of a huge wooden fishing vessel sitting by the road, something destined, I said to myself, to sink not in water but here amid the trees, into the earth.  “That’s a dead man’s dream boat,” she told me, happy to have a visitor.

She’d been neighbor to it for a decade, and it was part of her home, I think.  “He started to build it about fifteen years ago, then died of cancer halfway through,” she said.  “It’s been sitting there ever since.”

Twenty-feet high but already overshadowed by young trees growing through its ribs, the boat’s frame was returning to the soil, the same way the boatbuilder’s was – an emblem and companion of its maker’s life and soul even now.  The ancients sent horses and slaves and sometimes wives with the dead.  I wondered if this ark sailed with its creator.

It was an emblem of that place, too.  South River, where the Neuse River becomes an estuary and flows into Pamlico Sound, is a small fishing town in one of the most rural parts of a “fisherman’s” county:  Carteret County, North Carolina, called Down East, one of the last maritime holdouts in the South until a decade or two ago, and barely so today.  The spot is twenty miles north of Beaufort in the remote heart of the interior sound country, far from any beach or crash of surf but pervaded and brought to life absolutely by water.

Like the Great Plains, this is a subdued, understated place that, all the same, communicates a wide-open grandeur, a sacred immensity that speaks in a vocabulary of quiet words.  Like the Plains, it is a country of grass and horizons – and deep loss.

The estuaries and sounds, like the ocean, have all but died in the last half century, poisoned by development in their urban watersheds and by other environmental pressures, including fishing itself, which is part of the heart and soul of this location and without which this will be another place soon.  Space and place, we forget, are different creatures, not always identical.

In a county where practically every yard once had a boat under construction, “Noah’s Ark” was one of the last wooden fishing vessels ever built in eastern North Carolina.  Commercial fishing will last about one more generation here, then it’s all done.  As I write this, the centuries-old coastal culture faces its last days, driven out by money and the collapse of the sea’s old balance.  Just two or three boatbuilders today pass on the craftsmanship that built this boat.  It will be a symbol of this whole human geography, of spirit and generations and community, riding somewhere in an unfinished ark against a new flood.

“We have no more beginnings,” George Steiner wrote in his breathtaking book on the idea of creation.  “Incipit:  that proud Latin word which signals the start survives in our dusty ‘inception.'”  And as Charles Bowden, a stirring pessimist, said in the first pages of Desierto twenty years ago, everything today is memories, and “We call these memories the future…  I live in a time when the imagination is dead… At such moments I often go to ground, literally.  I seek some clues and solace in plants, animals, swirls of soil.”

The quiet noises that autumn evening were distant dogs and seagulls and crickets at dusk.  If the boat longed for water, as I, crawling through its skeleton, imagined it did, a stretch of Pamlico Sound was just out of reach, on the other side of the trees, down the road through the tiny fishing town, and the water kept its company as a vision, at least.

Noah’s Ark was rotting among trees that were probably as old as itself, that might have been kin to it.  I crawled up inside the hull or skull and saw the whole belly of it.  Something beautiful beat with a pulse there still.

south river 5

south river 4

south river 2

south river 7 600px

south river 3