This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

O Canada!

18 April 2015

Creating a family portrait, especially of a large family, has always been a fine art for a photographer. Arranging subjects into triangles follows the classical traditions of portrait painters. Here we see a mother seated with her wide eyed newborn as her older son stands close. He holds a violin and looks to be about age 7 or 8. 

On the other side of the photo is another triangle with a father and his four other children. Three small boys, who appear about ages 3, 4, and 5, perch on a papier-mâché stump, the universal 19th century photo studio prop. One child has a role of music in his lap. Next to them stands the tallest brother, perhaps age 11 or 12, who holds a blackwood flute. Their father sits relaxed in an arm chair with a clarinet in his expert grasp. Everyone gazes indirectly to the right of the camera. 

It is a charming well balanced portrait of a family proud of their musical accomplishments. Their clothing and high button shoes place them in the 1880-90s, posing for a style of photo that was quite common for this era.

Except for one small difference. This is a family of color posing for a Canadian photographer.

The father's features are clearly African in origin, but his wife's complexion is paler and her ethnicity is less clear. We can not rule out that she might even be of Ameri-Indian descent, or what is called in Canada a member of the First Nations.

Before the American Civil War, many black people sought freedom from American slavery by escaping to Canada. After emancipation that migration continued in the second half of the century and included black immigrants from the British West Indies. 

Canadian census records present a dilemma for genealogy research. Prior to 1901 race was not included as a census category in Canada. Whereas American census records are helpful in using race to make a positive identification, especially with regard to common surnames, early Canadian documents lack this refinement. Even after 1901, it was called Racial or Tribal origin which included entries for Irish, Scotch, as well as Indian. On the other hand, Religion was very carefully noted in Canada. Roman Catholic, Methodist, Episcopal, etc. or even Pagan for native Indians was listed.

This happy family left no other clues as to their identity. They are not dressed for the theatrical stage, so I do not believe they are professional entertainers. It is only a rare example of a 19th century family of color, parents of six handsome and talented children.

What is more remarkable is on the back of the cabinet card.

The photographer was S. J. Dixon, whose Electric Light Photo Gallery was located on the corner of King and Yonge Streets in Toronto, Ontario. This address, which is in the the heart of downtown Toronto, was important to distinguish it as Not connected with any other Gallery of the same name.

The other photographer's name was James Dixon, whose studio was also on Yonge St. a block away. As far as I know he was no relation to S. J. Dixon or Samuel John Dixon who was a member of the Photographers' Association of America, and was a prize winning photo artist. His studio was listed in the Toronto city directory in every year from 1878 to 1896.

Though he was evidently an accomplished and even artistic photographer, Dixon is best remembered in Canada, and the United States too, for his other special skill.

Samuel J. Dixon was a funambulist.
A tightrope walker.

 * * *

Raleigh, NC News and Observer
September 08, 1890

In September 1890, S. J. Dixon made the news for completing a feat few men would ever attempt. Using a 22 ft. 6 in. balancing pole that weighed 30 pounds, Dixon walked 923 feet along a rope cable strung between Ontario and New York high above the roaring rapids of the Niagara River Gorge. The site was just between the older Suspension Bridge and the new Cantilever Railway Bridge. It was 3:30 in the afternoon and over 8,000 people watched his performance with dread and amazement.

At the center of the cable,  he lay down on his back, crossing his feet and folding his arms. Being an intrepid photographer, he had his picture taken.

The image is the right half of a Stereo view photo made by George Barker of Niagara Falls, NY. No doubt he, like Dixon, was also a member of the Photographers' Association of America. It was while traveling to their convention in Philadelphia earlier that year, that Dixon noticed the cables along the great Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge connecting Canada to the US. He told his fellow colleagues that he could easily cross the gorge by walking on a cable like that. Apparently he had acquired this equilibrium ability in his youth, and decided that he should demonstrate it at the most famous tourist attraction in North America. After just a few weeks practice on a rope cable 60 feet in the air at a Toronto park, Dixon went to Niagara Falls, Ontario to make good on his claim.

 From a report in the Winnipeg Free Press of September 12, 1890:

The professor's own graphic words to the World last night were:

Now I had reached the testing point. I nerved myself as well as I could. I kept saying to myself: "Steady now, Jack ; steady now.  You're going to do it all right, but steady." And here I noticed that the guys which were to steady the centre part of the rope were not working and that the cable was swaying in the wind. This of course somewhat unnerved me, but I soon steadied myself, being determined to succeed. The danger of this part of the journey,the great height above the water,the swaying of the rope and the full knowledge of my personal risk kept my wits at the highest tension. I had to change my point of vision every moment or two. If I looked steadily at the rope for more than three seconds I would imagine the rope, like the rushing water, was moving in the same direction and my senses would begin to reel; but the moment I changed my point of vision and would look one time at the bridge, another at my hand and another at the balancing pole, thus varying the centre of observation, I was enabled to resist the illusion.

So impressed was I with the gravity of the situation that I occupied fully five minutes in crossing the 200 feet of the centre of the river. The wire was swaying at such a rate that I had to exercise the greatest care; but when I was over the centre and felt that the greatest danger was passed my spirits rose steadily and I had no difficulty in sitting and kneeling on the rope. When I was fairly over the bank the hardest part of the walking occurred, as the guy ropes at this part were utterly useless and the cable shook in the wind more than the aspen, I got safely through and was heartily congratulated by those on the American side. The first thing I did was to take a small infusion of eau de vie, with a little soda mixed therein.

Dixon was not the first person to concoct such a terrifying stunt. The French tightrope walker and acrobat, Charles Blondin (born Jean François Gravelet, 1824 – 1897) made the first crossing of the Niagara gorge in 1859. He made numerous walks even once carrying his manager over on a chair that was strapped to his back. The bridge had only been completed in 1855 by  John Augustus Roebling, the same engineer who built many of America's great suspension bridges including the Brooklyn Bridge. This structure had a railroad tracks on the top (built to accommodate three different gauges) and a wagon/pedestrian roadway beneath. It was made primarily with wooden trusses which deteriorated in Niagara's fierce weather and necessitated replacement with iron beams in 1880.  

Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge c. 1876
Source: Wikipedia

No one was ever foolhardy and wealthy enough (until modern times) to rig a wire across the whole of the great Niagara Falls, though it was always a popular setting for other kinds of daredevilry involving barrels and small boats. Instead the shorter span alongside the Suspension Bridge provided a perfect viewpoint for watching tightrope walkers and one that could be reserved for an audience that bought tickets. After the Great Blondin made his name synonymous with tightrope walking, other equilibrists competed for a share of Niagara fame. In 1860 the Great Farini, a.k.a. Willie Hunt (1838-1929), a Canadian (though he was born in New York) made several crossings. However his real fame in the circus world came from inventing the apparatus for the human cannon ball stunt.

Harrisburg, PA Telegraph
July 10, 1876

In July 1876, the American centennial year, a young woman announced that she would walk across the Niagara rapids on a manila rope cable 2¼ inches in diameter. Her name was Maria Spelterini and she was supposedly Italian and claimed to have started rope walking at the age of three.

Her first attempt, starting from the New York side, was exceptional for its speed as she finished in only eight minutes. Not content with providing just one thrill, she hopped back on and recrossed to the American side. On July 26, 1876 the Somerset, PA Herald reported that:

The lady was attired with green buskins, tights the color nature gives the Caucasian race, a tunic of scarlet, and shining green bodice. Her head was covered only by its luxuriant growth of flowing brown hair. Bands at either side of the river played inspiring music, but every eye was fixed upon the form of the daring woman who was now passing up the ascent to the further shore. A few more seconds of intense interest, at least to those who were lookers-on, and she stood upon the shining shore of Her Majesty's dominion. The accomplishment of her passage was the signal for applause from both banks and the bridge. 

Then they waited, probably ten minutes. At the expiration of that time the Signorina again appeared, balance-pole in hand, and stepping lightly upon the rope began the return journey. Steadily she came back across the long line, stopping at the centre to rest upon one knee, then again stepping forward with measured and steady tread. When within a few rods if the final destination she stood immovable for a moment while an enterprising photographer secured her presentment. Then she traversed the remaining distance until safe again on terra firm, and thus the exhibition of the day closed.

The Signorina Spelterina is twenty-three years of age, dark, with an essentially Italian cast of countenance. square built, and probably turning one hundred and fifty pounds. Her features are quite regular, her expression intelligent, her manner engaging. From the time she was three years old she has continually practiced upon the tight rope and slack wire.

Here is that picture of her return journey
looking south towards the old Suspension Bridge and Niagara Falls .
In 1876 the Cantilever Bridge in Dixon's photo had not yet been built.

Thousands of people turned out, despite temperatures near 105° F, but very few paid 25¢ for a place in the fenced areas on either end of the rope or on the bridge. Over the next few days  Mlle. Spelterini tried adding acrobatic tricks to her performance like walking with fruit baskets on her feet; with a sack over her head; even backwards. But though the crowds still came to watch, they would not buy tickets for a better view. And it is most unlikely that she received any royalties from the photographer Charles Bierstadt who published thousands of stereo view cards of her exploits.

This past September my wife and I visited Niagara Falls on a tour of New York. This is the view I saw of the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge which replaced the old Cantilever Bridge in 1897. Just to the right the river makes a bend into the infamous Niagara whirlpool. Today one can ride a gondola cable car across this part of the river, but people really see only a fraction of the torrent that Blondin, Spelterini, and Dixon experienced. The water that travels twenty miles from Lake Erie down the roaring Niagara river has been diverted so many times for hydroelectric power that the depth and breath of the rapids, not to mention the famous falls, is now greatly reduced.


Niagara River Gorge
September 2014

News about Mlle. Spelterini's astonishing feat  traveled fast on the telegraph wires and made the newspapers from California to Texas. Her reputation as the only woman to take the Niagara challenge undoubtedly allowed her agents to charge more for her future wire-walking appearances. Her Wikipedia entry notes her recovery from a fall at an 1877 performance in Argentina. But after that she seems to have disappeared from the circus life.

In my research I did stumble onto one very brief report in the July 25, 1876 edition of the Philadelphia Times that said Maria Spelterini was actually not Italian but Irish, and that her real name was Sarah McGinnis.

Cairo, IL Bulletin
August 10, 1876

By 1890 Samuel J. Dixon was the seventh person to make a successful attempt to walk a tightrope across the Niagara River. The previous daredevil was Stephen Peer who made several crossings in June 1887. Tragically, after having imbibed a bit too much during the celebrations afterwards, Peer  attempted to climb onto the rope at night and fell to his death.

Somehow Peer's rope cable was saved for three years and Dixon chose to use it for his walk in 1890.  

He used a much smaller wire cable the following year in 1891.

Chicago Daily Tribune
July 18, 1891

Dixon got more advance promotion and hoped to sell more tickets so this time he crossed from Canada and then returned back on the wire, something he had not done the previous year. He also added some gymnastic stunts with a hoop. Of course a camera was arranged to catch him in the most dramatic pose.

* *

Samuel J. Dixon was 39 years of age. He had a wife, Sarah, age 39, and two daughters, Ella, 14.and Elanor, 13. His mother, age 60, also lived in their home in Toronto. He had a successful photography studio in Canada and evidently one in New York City on the corner of Broadway and 34th according to the backstamp on some of his other photographs.

What compelled him to take up such a dangerous idea as to walk a tight wire stretched across the Niagara Gorge? The newspaper descriptions of his demeanor suggest he had a fearless but calm disposition. He was not considered reckless or impulsive by the people who knew him. Perhaps there was a drive for fame and money.

We can never know because later that year on the 2nd of  October 1891, Samuel J. Dixon drowned while swimming in a small lake north of Toronto. He was awaiting friends to go on a hunting trip and ventured out into a lake by himself where presumably he took a cramp.

His widow seems to have run the photo studio for a few more years, as it was still listed in the 1896 Toronto city directory.  Beyond that his legacy as a funambulist seems to have eclipsed his career in photography.

The happy musical family may have sat for S. J. Dixon or perhaps one of his assistants, but the events of his life and the date of death do help to date their photo to around 1890. Do you think they might have traveled to see him perform high above the Niagara rapids?  

Note: I failed to look something up when I posted my story yesterday on Samuel J. Dixon, but I am now struck by an irony in his remarks made after his first crossing of the Niagara.  He said that he took a "small infusion of eau de vie with a little soda."  

Eau de vie is a French brandy made of distilled fruits.
It translates as "water of life". 

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where good balance is always appreciated


21 Wits said...

Wow, you are a source of incredible information and photos, which are very pleasing. Your O Canada song always reminds me of riding the bus with high school students from Speech class on a way to a competition and they burst out singing "O Canada!" live from Minnesota. I really don't know why they did, but it's a great song indeed. Even the bus driver sang with us. Music makes the world go round and round.

La Nightingail said...

Boy - when your time is at hand, your time is at hand! To have crossed the Niagara Rapids that many times - even to doing tricks & such in front of great audiences, & then leave this life in such a mundane way. Makes you wonder. Nice connection with music, photography, and wires! I wonder why Maria changed her name? Seems like Sarah McGinnis would have been a perfectly good name? But we'll likely never know the reason so - oh well. :)

Nigel Aspdin (Derby, UK) said...

I think that Dixon had an early copy of Photoshop Elements. I cannot imagine a photographer having the skills to do what he appears to do but I am a natural sceptic !!!

Barbara Rogers said...

Some photographers aren't happy just taking pictures, and obviously want to be in front of the camera. I still wish we could find out who that lovely family were. Oh doesn't always answer my questions. Most enjoyable trail from there to here and across those ropes and wires.

Anonymous said...

I just can't understand people who want to go tightrope walking. I have trouble even reading about it ! But what a wealth of information you have given us. Amazing how people don't think their given name is glamorous enough for the entertainment industry,

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

You did it again! How you managed to deftly weave together photography, music and a perfect match to the post amazes me. Even though the post is wonderful, it's the feat of wit and research I admire most.

Brett Payne said...

What an interesting Diversion - with a capital D - Mike, but somehow I feel the story behind your charming musical family was perhaps even more intriguing, if only we could discover what it was.

The 1890s were filled with Electric Light Galleries and Studios, everyone trying to cash in on the new technology which did away with those magnsium powders which produced a haze of white smoke.

Boobook said...

I was enjoying your blog post and half way through I thought you were 'off-topic' this week ... and then you surprised me. Well done, as usual.

Jofeath said...

How ironic that SJ Dixon could survive such amazing tight rope walking feats only to die of cramp while swimming! A marvellous and fascinating post, as ever. I hope the father and sons were real musicians, not just posing for SJD's photograph. They could have had a lovely family band if the younger children also took up instruments.

Wendy said...

You're not a blogger -- you're a magician. I wonder if there is any photo prompt that could stump you. Electricity - power lines - high wires - photographers - AND musicians, no less. Once again, I bow to the master.

Tattered and Lost said...

I'm hoping the family of musicians had enough sense to stay far away from the Falls when the fella did his walk. I do remember how the aerialist scared me at the circus. It just seemed there had to be an easier way to make a living.

Again, you created a whole wonderful world to enter.


  © Blogger template Shush by 2009

Back to TOP