TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION. Well readers, sometimes Casey and I purchase daguerreotypes, and in this instance, two extraordinarily important conserved half plates, in ways that might seem unbelievable. The first plate presented an ox taken horizontally and almost filling the entire frame came with this information printed on a piece of paper glued to the red velvet pad inside the complete leather case: “A Picture of the Ox donated by Geo. B. Chace for the Barbecue at the Opening of the great Wooden Bridge
at Portage Falls
Aug. 25 – 1852”. I could end this text now and the next owner of this stupendous daguerreotype would have hours of research to conduct to learn more about this event and that tremendous structure out of focus in the background. In fact, the only parts of the landscape portrait sharply defined were the head and rump of the animal and the foliage in the immediate vicinity. Upon inspecting this glorious artifact from a bygone era it was immediately apparent to Casey and I that the daguerreian used a portrait lens to record the Ox in all his glory before being sacrificed to feed some of the 10,000 citizens who attended the opening of the what was then, the largest bridge in the entire world built across the Genesee River in upstate New York. According to local lore, the steer exacted sweet revenge on almost two dozen of the attendees who apparently perished after consuming what was believed to be tainted meat. But I run ahead of myself in the telling of this tale. Nearly two years ago I had an email from an auction house asking me the “potential value” of this daguerreotype. A couple bad images were provided but never the less I was EXTREMELY fascinated. After answering the inquiry, I waited for the auction but it never occurred because the dag wasn’t consigned. About one year passed and I was able to contact the seller. She assured me that I could purchase that dag along with others she had. A few months ago, the dag was offered for sale on eBay. Casey made the seller an offer for the plate. It was subsequently removed, only to be offered again by the original seller and then removed again. Casey and I discussed what had occurred and we were both perplexed. Recently a person told me that he had purchased this daguerreotype from the seller who was using eBay to “shop it around”. He said that he would sell it to me. Great I thought. Until . . . Casey was simply asking another dealer what he had acquired recently and the fellow sent him pictures of . . . THIS DAG with the information! He actually DID acquire the dag months go from the original seller, who continued to post it for sale on the net after she had sold it. While the other guy assured me that once he retrieved it from storage he would offer it to me. You know folks; I couldn’t possibly make this up. And the story will get even better so please, keep reading.
The masterpiece arrived here in Exeter 12 hours before I was flying to the UK where I would meet Erin. We had arrangements to exhibit at photo fairs in London then seven days later in Paris. I took the dag with me to share with a couple clients. Near the end of our trip, Casey sent me a quick picture of the next dag, also a horizontal half plate with the text that accompanied it. He had been at a weekly antique show and spied the dag along with many others for sale on a table. As he was examining the scene the dealer read the description. When Casey heard the words “Portage” and “the great bridge was built in 1852-53” a million watt light bulb flashed. I immediately replied to his text and he phoned me. My son was absolutely giddy with excitement. We both realized that these fellows were probably the surveyors who did the site work for the structure’s location. Once I returned with the first dag, Casey took them both apart and the plate preparations were identical along with the hallmarks, “SCOVILL MFG. Co. EXTRA”. Naturally, the same defect caused by the maker’s inferior lens, rendered two-thirds of the scenic portrait to be softly focused.
What were the odds that these two daguerreotypes would be reunited? Together, they educate all of us about a very historical event that had such permanent and dire consequences for some of the celebrants. This link shows a portion of the invitation printed on silk. You may need to copy and paste it into your browser:https://books.google.com/books?id=N6_juSJjBakC&pg=PA19&lpg=PA20&focus=viewport&dq=portage+falls+aug+25+1852+ox#v=onepage&q=portage%20falls%20aug%2025%201852%20ox&f=false
By scrolling up or down from that page, much more information will be gleaned about the bridge.
By now you have all studied the ox and probably noted a man’s face and his top hat just behind the mid-point of the massive beast. Casey and I wonder if that was “Mr. Chace”? The natural colors obtained when the exposure was made and the wide-ranging contrast were exceptional. The white and brown specks were problematic to the preparation of the plate. Nearly invisible marks on the ox and in some of the surrounding trees could have been done later. Obviously, previous careless handling of the priceless object caused the mat scrapes.
The deficiency of the daguerreotypist’s lens for the view he was hired to record is even more apparent in the second image that shows the surveyors and others posed in front of a boarding house. The scratches along the bottom could have been done the day the dag was made because when the dark slide was pulled or replaced after the exposure, there might have been grit on it that caused those abrasions. Casey has had similar marks occur on his own plates while making modern daguerreotypes. The overall haziness of the scene that rendered the people, especially in the middle, almost as spectral figures only adds to the strangeness of the architecture behind them. The surveyor’s transit was placed in profile as were the men seated on either end of the comedic tableau. Why was the gent on the right posed with his arm in the air?
The information with this dag reads: “This picture was taken at the shanty or boarding house, at Portage New York when the great bridge was built in 1852-53. The man at the Level is my father Preston S. ???? The woman in the doorway Mrs. Hewlett. The other woman I think is either Mrs. Freudo (sp) or was ?? other Moore.”
The pairing of these plates presents an unparalleled opportunity to hold in one’s hands daguerreotypes that recorded a historically significant event that presented one of the greatest engineering achievements in the world at that time.
Dennis A. Waters at