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 }

The Thomas Family Concert Co.

25 September 2015

Of all the different genres of vintage musicians in my photograph collection, it is images of the family bands that I find most intriguing. In past times, choosing to make music a family lifestyle was unlike other family occupations like farming or shop keeping. Compared to the thousands of antique photos of families in front of their farmhouse or corner store, I think a portrait of a musical family posed with their instruments has a special quality that reveals much more about the subjects than what the camera sees. This is a story about one of those family bands that has an extra special quality. 

I'd like to introduce you to the Thomas family of Hartford, Connecticut,

Father is on double bass, and stands next to his wife with two daughters in front.
The youngest girl holds a pair of drumsticks, while her older sister has a violin..

Next to them are three more girls, a brass trio on tuba, cornet, and slide trombone.

Placed carefully on the floor in front of them are a tenor horn, a snare drum, and another violin and cornet.
The mother and her five daughters are dressed in long dark dresses with the puffy sleeves
that were fashionable in the 1890s. As you can see, the special quality
of these seven musicians, is that they are an African-American family band.

The location for this cabinet card comes from the photographer's mark, J. Nyser of  2 Ford Street, Hartford, Conn. The time frame is supported by the  fancy scalloped edges which were a characteristic of photos produced in the 1890s. But the best clue for identification is written clearly on the back.

The Thomas Family Concert Co.
290 Pearl St.

In 1921 a fire in the basement of the Commerce Building in Washington, D.C. destroyed 99% of the United States Census records for 1890. This catastrophe incinerated the records of 62,979,766 people living in the US on June 2, 1890, except for just 6,160 names that were recovered from the fire. The tragic consequences for genealogists and historians is that today there is a 20 year hole between 1880 and 1900, a time period large enough to hide a generation of human activity. Finding information about someone in an American photograph from the 1890s always presents a very difficult challenge.

That is why I am pleased to say that I was able to discover the Thomas family in other archival records. 

The first step seemed easy enough. Who lived in Hartford, CT at 290 Pearl St.?

The answer was conveniently found in Geer's 1897 Hartford City Directory.
Under the surname Thomas was Milton H. foreman. 56 Com. h. 290 Pearl.

1897 Hartford CT city directory

In 1896, Milton H. Thomas was also listed at the address 290 Pearl St., but in the previous city directories for 1894, 1893, and 1892 his home address was 210 Windsor St. During those years, his occupation was listed as ostler (stable hand), driver, and then foreman. Significantly, the directories from 1890 and earlier did not have his name.

<< The directory also listed a Philip Thomas who kept a restaurant and home at 290 Pearl. I suspect he was a uncle or distant cousin, as I did not find his name attached to earlier records for any of Milton's siblings. >>

* * *

As an aside to my story, I must show you the listing for another well known resident of Hartford, CT, found just between Tuzzilo, Twaddell, Twaddle,  , Twardoks, Twarz, and Tweed.

Twain Mark, Samuel L. Clemens, author "Inno-
cents Abroad," etc. h. 351 Farmington

1897 Hartford CT city directory

The master storyteller, Samuel Clemens, must have chuckled to read his listing every year when the directory was updated. His home is preserved as a national landmark and is only 1.3 miles east of Pearl St.

* * *

One of the curious but useful features of early city directories was a section titled Migrations, which offered several pages of an alphabetized list of those people who had left a city during the previous year. For 1899, Geer's Hartford city directory listed  Thomas  Milton H., Fishkill, N. Y.

1899 Hartford CT city directory

Fishkill, a small village north of New York City along a tiny tributary to the Hudson river, is about 80 miles west of Hartford. In the following year, Milton H. Thomas, age 45, was still living there to be enumerated in 1900 census, along with his wife, Sarah F. Thomas, age 42; daughters, Grace M. Thomas, age 21; Rachel A. Thomas, age 18; Suzie V. Thomas, age 8; and son, Milton H. Thomas, age 2. The youngest children had been born in Connecticut, while the other members of the family were born in New York. Helpfully everyone's birth month and year were a line item on this census. Milton H. Thomas Sr. recorded his occupation as R.R. Laborer, and his two oldest daughters listed theirs as Day Laborer.

1900 US Census, Fishkill, NY

But the most useful data is on the row for Sarah. She and Milton, ages 42 and 45 respectively, had been married for 26 years. Getting wed at age 16 was certainly not uncommon in this earlier century, and the result for Sarah, recorded in the next two boxes, was that she was the mother of 8 children of whom only 6 were living. That meant that there were certainly at least four more Thomas children on the missing 1890 census. Quite enough for a good size band.

The next step was to see if the Thomas's were in the 1880 census. Out of 682 residents of the village, there was Milton H. Thomas, age 36, Laborer; wife, Sarah, age 25; and three daughters, Sarah L., age 5; Mary E., age 3; and Grace M., age 1.

1880 US Census, Fishkill, NY

Putting the two records together, we can now account for enough daughters to give names to the Thomas Family Band. Deciding on the oldest girl is difficult as they are all close in age, but I think the cornet player is Sarah L. Thomas, the eldest daughter ; the tuba is Mary E. Thomas; the trombone is Grace M. Thomas; the violin is Rachel A. Thomas; and the youngest, dressed in white with the drumsticks, is Suzie V. Thomas.

The Thomas Family Concert Co., circa 1898, Hartford, CT

Based on the 290 Pearl St. address for Milton Thomas in the city directories, it seems safe to say that the photograph was taken between 1895 and 1899. But I think we can narrow it down even more. Suzie, the youngest girl, was born in October 1891 and in this photo she appears to be close to 5 or 6 years old. Milton H. Thomas Jr., the son who is not in the photo, was born in September 1897. Looking closely, I would venture to say Mrs. Thomas does not appear pregnant, so I think it was taken in the previous years, 1896 or even 1895. That would make the approximate ages for the five sisters as follows: Sarah L. - age 21; Mary E. - 19; Grace M. - 18; Rachel A. - 14, and Suzie V. - age 5.

I rarely get to make estimates like this, so readers are welcome to offer any alternate labeling for the Thomas family.

* * *

The various records for Milton Thomas, a black man who lived in Hartford, Ct with his family from 1892 to 1897, and in Fishkill, NY before and after that period, seem clear enough to make a good identification of the members of the Thomas family in this photograph.

But how do we interpret the note on the back? The Thomas Family Concert Co. strongly suggests a professional musical ensemble. With their multiple brass and string instruments, Milton's family definitely have the same polished look that is found in photos of similar groups of family musicians. This type of photograph was reproduced in large numbers to promote the concert tours of a theatrical company and sell as souvenirs of the show. The striking difference with the Thomas family of course, is that this is an African American family. It is difficult to imagine how they managed in the 1890s to find theaters that would book a concert of a black musical troupe that was predominately female.

Nonetheless that is what The Thomas Family Concert Company implies.

Fort Dodge IA Times
February 18, 1892

Historic newspaper archives offer a wealth of detail on daily life, that is missing in the dry statistics of directories and census books. I found the earliest reference to a performance by a Thomas family in a newspaper published a long ways from Hartford in Monticello, Iowa in July 1889.  It reports only that "a traveling troupe known as the
Thomas family gave a concert at the
Methodist church last night."

Two similar short notices appeared in a newspaper in Davenport, IA in November 1891. But the first mention of the Thomas Family Concert Co. came in a February 1892 notice in the Fort Dodge , IA Times, where they "gave a good show at the school house" in nearby Barnum, IA.

Thomas is a very common English/Welsh surname, and there is no mention of the group's race, so this is not a positive link. But there was an immigration of African Americans to Iowa  in the 1880s, especially in the Fort Dodge area, where they found employment in the coal mines and railroad yards. It is intriguing that the last notice in this clipping says, "Banjo Joe held forth at the school house last Saturday night to a full house. He is a 'Joe' on the banjo."

* * *

There were no more newspaper reports of concerts by a Thomas Family until 1897, and this time from Minnesota. The Worthington, MN Advance offered a review and a kind of quote from Mr. Thomas.

Worthington, MN Advance
November 18, 1897

The Thomas family gave a concert at the Congregational church Saturday night to a small audience. The entertainment was fair. Of them the Pipestone Star says: "The members of the Thomas Familiy Concert Co. are certainly enjoying their tour through this section. The family travels in three large covered wagons which are fitted up as near like home as possible. The two larger wagons are nicely heated by stoves, and the family lives right in these houses on wheels, and Mr. Thomas saqys they enjoy it greatly – especially when the weather is good" 

* *

I readily admit that it's a long stretch to conjecture that these reports are of the same Thomas family of Hartford, CT,  as Worthington, MN is in southwest Minnesota, about 140 miles northwest from Fort Dodge, IA. Again there is no mention of race or even gender, both characteristics of the Thomas family in my photo that seem remarkable enough that they would have included that description in a newspaper report. However, like the report from 1889, this newspaper also mentions a church. Could that provide a meaningful connection for the Thomas family? 

* * *

Richmond, VA Planet
December 11, 1897

Newspaper research uncovered one more report from Virginia of a traveling Thomas family in 1897. The  newspaper's Virginia location might seem more incredible than Minnesota except that it clearly ties into African American culture. The Richmond, VA Planet was a weekly journal established in 1883 for a nationwide African American readership. Its editor for many decades was John Mitchell, Jr. (1863 – 1929) who was a black businessman, newspaper editor, civil rights activist, and politician from Richmond. 

Because Mitchell's journal focused on issues important to African Americans, it regularly ran reports from cities outside of Virginia. One of these was entitled Bridgeport Jottings and carried the news from Bridgeport, CT. On December 11, 1897 the last item said, "The Thomas family of Hartford is still stopping at Rev. R J H. Taylors' The amount raised by the members of the Bethel A.M.E. Church was $124.21."  

The church was a parish of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, which featured in my story earlier this year on the Rev. Charles E. Stewart and his A&M College Band of Greensboro, NC.

* * *

Richmond, VA Planet weekly newspaper

The address in Hartford for Milton Thomas is practically in the center of downtown Hartford. Pearl St. is quite short, running along only 4 blocks, and roughly parallel to Bushnell Park which is where the Connecticut State House is located. The distance from 290 Pearl St. to the capitol building is less than 4/10ths of a mile, which Google Maps considers a brisk 8 minute walk. 

The Pearl St. block that the Thomas family knew is today mostly a large parking lot. But in 1900 it was very different, as we can see on the wonderfully detailed Sanborn Fire Insurance Map for this area of Hartford, CT.  In the center I've marked 290 Pearl St., captioned on the map as 3 tenements, brick built. Across the street is a fire station, (which is still there, though rebuilt), and next to it is a church –  the Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church. When Milton and the girls looked to the other direction from the church they saw the Y.M.C.A. buildings which included an auditorium that was undoubtedly used for music concerts.

You will also note that I've marked Mr. Nyser's photography studio which was just around the corner at No. 2 Ford St. The bottom right corner shows part of the Park River which once divided this section of downtown Hartford from Bushnell Park. This riverlet was frequently subject to flooding as it fed into the Connecticut River, and in 1940 it was completely covered over. Many present day residents of Hartford probably don't know of its existence. 

Sanford Fire Insurance Map
1900 Hartford, CT, plat 9

The 1897 Hartford city directory provides a description and illustration of the African Methodist Episcopal Church that the Thomas family knew.  The 34' by 60' building was erected in 1857 at a cost of $6,000. It had seats for 445 people and a congregation of 130. The pastor was Rev. J. Sulla Cooper.

African Methodist Episcopal Zions Church
1897 Hartford CT city directory

The archives of the Connecticut Historical Society provided this next photo of the Zions A.M.E. church taken in 1897. A caption on the back identifies the building on the right as the fire house for the hook & ladder company. The photographer is not identified but it's quite possible Mr. Nyser made it, given that his photo shop was only a block away,

A. M. E. Zions Church, circa 1897
Source: Connecticut Historical Society

African American churches, and especially the A.M.E. church, played a major role throughout the turbulent 19th century in shaping and sustaining black culture in the United States. I believe that Milton and Sarah Thomas were members of Hartford's Zion A.M.E. church and used their family band as a kind of musical missionary group to black churches in other parts of the country. That they we able to do this in the 1890s is truly remarkable.

The evidence here is very sketchy at best, and I recognize that the newspaper reports may be about a completely different Thomas Family Concert Co. But I think it makes sense that a black family band would find performance opportunities in black churches, and that they would tour in states where white people were not flagrantly racist and had supported the Union side of the Civil War. 

 * * *

There were more records for Milton H. Thomas, that helped in his identification. For all the faults of labeling people  by race, (and religion too!) the initial B in these early census documents made finding his family much easier that if he had been white. I learned that his father, Alexander Thomas, and his grandfather, Joseph Thomas, had called Fishkill, NY home for many years, going back to the 1840 census. This meant that Milton came from the heritage of free blacks, which I imagine gave him a different perspective in aiding the emancipated former slaves that were developing new communities in Iowa and Minnesota.

By the 1910 census, Milton and Sarah (Fanny) were again living in Connecticut, but now in New Haven, with only their son Henry, age 12. Milton was employed as Fireman, Steam Railroad, which was basically work as a coal stoker for train engines. In the 1920 census at age 65, he was alone in New Haven and now a widower living as a lodger in a boarding house. His occupation was Laborer, Rubber Factory.

Born in 1855, Milton was too young to have participated in the Civil War, and too old in 1917 for World War One. Yet the state of Connecticut required him to answer question to determine if he had any skills that could contribute to the war effort. Instead of the limited detail found on the 1917 US draft registration cards, this document discloses some very personal information that is unlike any questionnaire I've ever seen .

Like all proper government paperwork, the affidavit starts with full name and address:
Milton Henry Thomas of 107 Foote St., New Haven, CT.

  • Present trade, occupation?- Fireman.
  • Age?- 63 years.
  • Height?- 4 ft 11 in.
  • Weight?- 183 lbs.
  • Married?- Yes.
  • Dependents?- One
  • Serious physical disability?- Kidney trouble.
  • Can you Ride a horse?- Yes
  • Handle a team?- Yes
  • Drive an automobile?- No
  • Ride a motorcycle?- No
  • Understand telegraphy?-  No 
  • Operate a wireless?- No
  • Experience with steam engine?- Little
  • Electrical machinery?- No
  • Handle a boat, power or sail?- No
  • Coastal navigation?- No
  • High Speed Marine Gasoline Engines?- No
  • Are you a good swimmer?- No

* * *

Finding string bass players was obviously not a high priority for the Connecticut National Guard. But learning Milton's height and weight helps confirm my identification. The wooden body of a double bass is a bit under 44 inches long. Adding 5 inches for the peg, the height to the end of the scroll is nearly 76 inches. Combine that with portliness and I judge Milton Henry Thomas to be a very good fit for the man in my photograph.

For all his reported lack of skills, I think Milton knew much more than he let on that would have been useful to the military. Raising so many daughters (and a son too) required superior organizational abilities, not to mention a generous amount of patience, even if he never really took them on a concert tour of Minnesota in three covered wagons.

I'm also sure that Sarah Thomas shared in that musical home schooling and taught her children to have poise and confidence when performing in public. Learning to read music brings discipline and order to a young person, but as I always tell my own students, it is the fun that is most important. I expect the Thomas Family Concert Co. enjoyed a joyful household that was always filled with music.

 * * *

Now for the coda.

This very surprised infant sits in the lap of his father, while his mother offers a gentle hand of support, and his faithful Saint Bernard drools on the sheepskin rug of Mr. John C. Nyser, photographer of Hartford, CT.  

I don't know the address of the proud young parents, nor their baby's name, nor the size and weight of their dog. But there is something that I recognized that links these two examples of Mr. Nyser's work. Can you spot it?

Hartford, CT corner of Ford and Pearl Streets, circa 1916
Source: Connecticut History Illustrated

John C. Nyser of No. 2 Ford Street, was one of 15 photographers in Hartford. Nearly all kept studios within a few blocks of Pearl St. Thanks to the archives of Connecticut History Illustrated, I can show you the corner of Ford and Pearl Streets, circa 1916, where John Nyser kept his shop. It's the little shack with PHOTOGRAPHS in big letters on the side.

* * *

I confess that I actually bought this second photo because of the dog, but the bonus came when I compared the backdrop in both photos. Look at the pointy arches on the left and the column's capital on the right. I think they are pretty close to identical. It certainly places the Anonymous family in the same 1890s decade, and perhaps even the same year as the Thomas family.

In my imagination, I see this young family of Hartford pushing a perambulator down Pearl St. They pause as their dog takes a interest in the fire house. Mother smiles as baby responds to the sound of a band floating from across the street. The child listens to the thrum of a deep bass fiddle and tuba. He laughs at the melodious violin and shudders to the squawk of the trombone. The cornet's fanfare encourages father to resume their walk towards Mr. Nyser's shop on Ford St. Their steps align with the rhythmic rattle of a drum. It's a wonderful day to have music in your life.  

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
click the link for more shaggy dog stories.

The Citizens Band

18 September 2015

Every band needs the rhythm of a snare drum; 

with alto horns and tenor trombones for the harmony;
clarinets for the melody;
and a piccolo E-flat clarinet for the descant line;

tubas and sousaphones to handle the bass;
and cornets to carry the tune;

and a bass drum with cymbals to keep a steady beat.

A Citizens Band of 21 unnamed musicians
posed on the steps of an unmarked building,
in an unknown town, on May 29, 1915,
as noted by an anonymous photographer on the bass drum.
It was the Saturday before Decoration Day,
now known as Memorial Day.
Dressed in white trousers, shirts, and floppy hats,
the bandsmen seem ready to start the summer season
with a concert in the park.

But where are they?

Hidden in the lettering
on a bench behind the band is a small clue.


So they are not entirely lost,
at least they are a West Virginia Citi
zens Band.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where every story unfolds in black & white.

UPDATE: 20 SEP 2015

Thanks to a very helpful link from anyjazz in the comments,
I think there is a possible identity for the band. 

Bluefield WV Daily Telegraph
February 21, 1915

The clue he found was a report in the Bluefield West Virginia Daily Telegraph from February 21, 1915 of the Graham Citizens Concert Band, which was to give a concert at the Gem Theater of Graham in order to raise funds for the band. 

Town bands from this era often shortened or lengthened their name, so it is always a challenge to try searching with different phrase styles like concert band, citizens band, or cornet band. The band of Graham probably took the formal name of Citizens Concert Band to indicate that they were local amateur musicians who performed concerts, rather than a professional touring ensemble of the vaudeville circuit.  

* * *


The interesting part is that Graham is actually in Virginia, not West Virginia. And it is not called Graham anymore but Bluefield, Virginia. If the band on this postcard is really the Graham Citizens Band, they are part of an older story that is more about the division of North and South rather than east and west. The state of West Virginia dates to 1861 when it rejected the Virginia State legislature's vote to secede from the union. The line that divided the Union and Confederate states also splits the small community of Bluefield into two parts. Bluefield is the larger town, and in 1910 it had a population of about 11,000 while Graham had only 2,000 citizens.  

Graham VA Citizens Concert Band
Bluefield WV Daily Telegraph
March 28, 1915
In the spring of 1915, the Bluefield, WV newspaper published a long feature of several pages on the history of Graham, its sister city across the railroad tracks. There were photos and stories on all the prominent Graham businessmen and civic leaders. There were photos of factories, churches, and stores, and one large photo (though coarse grained in reproduction) of the Graham Citizens Concert Band. It shows 17 musicians dressed in dark military style uniforms, with the band's name clearly marked on the bass drum. In the top right corner is an inset of the band leader, whose name was Prof. Skaggs. The faces are too unclear to make any useful comparison with my band postcard, except standing on the right end of the line is a young drummer. Could he be the same boy who struck the gallant pose in May, 1915?  It's a possibility.

Bluefield WV Daily Telegraph
August 25, 1915
According to another history of Tazewell County, VA, the Graham Citizens Concert Band was formed in 1912 and quickly demonstrated musical talent that got them engaged for concerts throughout Virginia and West Virginia too. They played for political rallies, fraternal societies, and school events. They had their own rehearsal space and raised enough money to buy new instruments valued at $1,400. In August of 1915 the Bluefield Daily Telegraph reported that they had ordered new uniforms in a gray color. Professor Skaggs was writing a new piece of music dedicated to the Graham Grays.

Bluefield WV Daily Telegraph
December 24, 1915

Evidently the uniforms were pretty sharp, as a report from December 24, 1915 announced the wedding of a Graham bandsman, Wade Crockett, who played bass horn. Earlier that year, he met his mighty good looking bride when she was attracted to his new uniform.

I've been unable to find any musical event for May 29, 1915 in the Bluefield WV newspaper. However there was the Graham high school commencement on May 28. And the band also played on Saturdays for Graham's Gem Theater. In the summer of 1915, the newspaper reported that the band numbered 20 musicians, which, when the band leader is added, equals the same number of bandsmen as in the postcard photo. Of course this is only circumstantial and coincidental evidence, but I think the possibility of a match will improve if I can find a match for the building behind the band. It's hard to remove or disguise stone columns, so they may still be standing.    

And what about the white trousers, white shirts, white hats? Bluefield and Graham are towns built from the industry of coal mining and railroad traffic. Maybe by the end of the summer, those bright whites had turned into the Graham Grays!

Thanks for that clue, anyjazz. Even if not 100% certain, it makes for a better photo story,

100 in the Shade

11 September 2015

It's hot. Too hot. Even a ride on the trolley car brings no relief.
Who needs music when it's so hot?

The sun flashes off the shiny brass instruments of the Athens, Pennsylvania Band, whose 17 musicians look less than enthusiastic for a concert. Behind them, a banner on a street car trolley reads:
InterState Fair Now On

It is September 16, 1915, and the end of summer has brought record hot temperatures across the northeast. Athens, Pa is situated about 2 miles south of the New York state line at the fork of the Susquehanna and Chemung rivers. In 1910 the population of Athens was 3,796. 

This postcard of the Athens Band was addressed to  Mrs. L. Van Patten, R48, Cato, N.Y.

Athens, Pa.
9/16 /15

I think it was 3 years ago
today that we took those
Mexican pictures in Canadian
This is the big day here
about 100 in the shade

Love from

* * *

New Steel Bridge at Athens, PA taken out by flood.
April 2, 1916

In 1916 the spring weather was cold and very wet.
Record rainfall and melting snow brought the two rivers
on either side of Athens, to a dangerous flood stage. 


Special to The Inquirer.

TOWANDA, Pa., April 2.---A new steel bridge built across the Susquehanna River at Athens, two years ago, at a cost to Bradford county of $68,000, was destroyed by the flood today. The west and middle spans were torn out, leaving the east span intact. A pier built in 1844 and repaired with concrete for the new bridge in 1914, was undermined by the swirling flood waters, which made a hole into which the pier slid, allowing the two spans to tumble into the river.

David A. Keefe, who designed the bridge, witnessed the destruction of the structure to the scene. The State will have to rebuild the bridge.

The Interstate Fair at Athens may have to be abandoned because of the loss of the bridge which is used to reach the grounds. The river remained stationary here today at 18½ feet. Freezing temperature setting in last night has prevented the snow from melting today. All the lowlands are under water.

Abraham Hiltz, aged 70, a farmer, while hurrying along the Lehigh tracks north of Towanda tonight, bent on notifying a neighbor of danger to his livestock from the raging waters of the Susquehanna River nearby, was struck by a fast train and killed. His body was hurled one hundred feet.

Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia, PA
3 Apr 1916

* * *

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone else is enjoying a glass of wine.

Marching to the Sound of a Silent Drummer

05 September 2015

A fine of $50 to $100 will be
imposed for marching over this
bridge in rank and file, or to
music, or by keeping regular step
when passing over this bridge.
Bodies of men or troops must
be ordered and kept out of step
when passing over this bridge.
No musical band will be allowed
to play while crossing except
when seated in wagons or
$5 fine for every horse driven
over this bridge at a faster
rate than a walk.
$5 fine for allowing train
or horses to stop on the bridge
longer than absolutely

* * *

If this imposing sign did not attract your notice,
the uniformed guard with his musket would direct
your attention to the special rules for crossing this bridge. 

This was no ordinary type bridge.
It was the famous suspension bridge above the great Niagara River gorge.
But why would authorities prohibit marching soldiers and musical bands?

This sign is a small detail found in a stereoview card captioned 73 — Entrance of Suspension Bridge, produced by S. J. Mason, photographer of Niagara Falls, N.Y.  Besides the guard, there is a  young woman next to the toll booth (which was presumably also the customs and immigration service) for the New York side of a bridge that connected the United States and Canada. The mesmerizing center perspective shows another man standing 30 feet away for the photograph and another 20 feet further is a two horse carriage with driver. The bridge's box construction makes it look as if it is a covered bridge, which in a way it is, as this is the lower level of a double decker roadway. About 20 feet above this group are the steel rails for the train line that linked the two nations.  

The photographer was Samuel J. Mason (1849-1917) of Niagara Falls, NY. In the 1870 census he was 21 years old and listed his occupation as photographer. He shared the same name as his father who was a printer in Niagara Falls, but the elder Mason died in 1869. In the 1870s decade after the War between the States, S. J. Mason Jr. produced thousands of stereoview cards of Niagara Falls scenes for the tourist trade. When this photo card came up for sale on eBay, it caught my eye for the musical reference in the sign, as much for the fascinating perspective. 

My interest in the Niagara River came about when I was researching a story that I wrote earlier this year entitled – O Canada!, which was about a photograph of a happy musical family from Canada. The photographer was another S. J. – Samuel J. Dixon from Toronto, Ontario, who undoubtedly knew Mason as Dixon was a gregarious fellow and a member of the Canadian-American photographers guild that met in Buffalo. But S. J. Dixon also held membership in one of the most exclusive clubs in the 19th century world – people who had successfully walked across the Niagara River without using a bridge. Dixon was a very talented tight rope walker.

In 1890 and again in 1891, S. J. Dixon crossed the Niagara River gorge on a rope cable 7/8" in diameter strung hundreds of feet above the roar of the dramatic rapids next to the Niagara Cantilever Bridge. This bridge opened in 1883, and was constructed of steel girders in a cantilever design. Unlike the suspension bridge, it was used only for a railway crossing. Several stereo photos were made of Dixon's terrifying stunt, which today would no doubt be recorded on a GoPro video camera clipped to his hat. His first walk in 1890 was a no-return ticket beginning from the New York side. The second crossing the next summer was a round trip starting in Canada. Tragically, Dixon died only a few months later in October 1891 when he drowned while swimming in an Ontario lake. 

However Dixon was not the first person to venture their life on this extreme sport. (Nor the last fool for that matter) There were several others including a woman with the euphonious name, Maria Spelterini. She performed this feat several times in the summer of 1876.

The bridge in the background of her stereoview photo is the first Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge, the same one with a double decker roadway as seen in S. J. Mason's photo. The bridge spans 825 feet and is 250 feet above the river. It was completed in 1855 using one of the earliest suspension type designs. But bridge engineering was more an art than an exact science in the 1850s. We can see that Mlle. Spelterini's rope cable is understandably steadied with guy ropes that angle down to lower slopes. There are even sand bags, seen on the right, to dampen any upward motion, as the uphill climb was considered more difficult for wire walkers.

But look closely and we can see that guy ropes or wires are also connected to the bridge. This next image of one of Spelterini's 1876 Niagara exploits, also from a stereoview card, shows the wires to better effect.

And yes, she is walking across the Niagara gorge on a tight rope with two fruit baskets on her feet.

Maria Spelterini crossing the Niagara River, July 1876
Source: Wikipedia

Notice the multitude of people watching her performance from the bridge. They paid good money for a ticket to see Spelterini from that vantage point. And for an hour or so during her walk, there were probably very few people on the other side of the bridge looking at the falls. I would venture that there is also a band or two playing music, while safely seated in a wagon of course, to enliven the thrill of the occasion. 

Niagara River Suspension Bridge, circa 1860
Source: Wikimedia
Even in this bucolic print of the great Niagara River Suspension Bridge from 1860, we can see guy wires. Very few people have the nerve of Dixon or Spelterini. When a bridge shakes, most people wish they had stayed home. The Niagara River area has some of the fiercest winter weather in North America, and wind gusts along the gorge can be incredibly strong. Two engineers worked on this bridge. The first one, Charles Ellet, Jr. (1810–1862), began the foundation work in 1845 by building a temporary bridge that used an ingenious idea of a kite to get the first cables across the chasm.
However Ellet had disputes with the Niagara bridge's investors and left in the project in 1848.  His successor was John A. Roebling (1806–1869), whose greatest project was the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. He had a better understanding of the effects of wind, rain, and snow on the span's roadway vibration, and added the guy wires to increase the structure's stability. When it was finished in 1855 it was the first railway suspension bridge in the world. Train speed was restricted to 5 mph.

The Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge's wooden beams, trusses, and braces lasted until 1880 when they were replaced with steel and iron components. But there were too many limitations on the design to handle the increasingly heavier rail traffic, so it was dismantled in 1897 and replaced by the Lower Steel Arch Bridge, later renamed the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge.

Sign on the Albert Bridge
across the River Thames, London, England
Source: Wikipedia

Years ago when I lived in London, I noted a similar sign that was attached to the Albert Bridge that crosses the River Thames

All troops
must break step
when marching
over this bridge.

This bridge has a modified cable-stayed design and was opened for traffic in 1873 as a way to alleviate the congestion on the other bridges in London. Its structure has not adapted well to the weight and quantity of modern vehicles, and it has needed numerous re-fitments. The sign however was a 19th century response to the growing public concern over the safety of bridges. As every small child knows, London bridges can fall down.

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One of these notable bridge failures occurred in 1831 with the collapse of the Broughton Suspension Bridge, an iron chain suspension design built in 1826, which crosses the River Irwell near Salford, Greater Manchester, England. On April 12, 1831 a troop of 74 soldiers returning to barracks were marching 4 abreast across the bridge. When they felt a rhythmic vibration in the road, they began to whistle a suitable marching song to follow the beat. Suddenly they heard a loud SNAP! like gunfire. A bolt holding the suspension chains together broke, and within seconds, an iron column supporting the chains toppled into the river. Over 40 men were thrown into the river, though fortunately no lives were lost as the river was quite shallow.

Public confidence in civil engineering began to diminish. 

Catastrophe of the Yarmouth Suspension Bridge
across the River Bure, Yarmouth, England - May 2, 1845
Source: Wikipedia
On May 2, 1845, thousands of people had gathered in Yarmouth, England to watch Nelson the Clown, a popular entertainer with William Cooke’s Circus, undertake to swim in a barrel drawn by four geese from Haven Bridge at Hall Quay to the Yarmouth Suspension Bridge at North Quay. I would bet there was a brass band performing too. As he neared the suspension bridge several hundred people crushed onto the bridge for a better view. The mass proved too much for one of the vertical rods that connected the roadway to the suspension chains. It snapped. Then another and another failed. One side of the bridge rolled over, spilling hundreds of people into the water. The accident killed 79 people, with many more injured. The fate of the clown or the geese is not recorded.

Pont de la Basse-Chaîne, Angers Bridge
across the Maine River, Angers, France - view circa 1839
Source: Wikipedia

In Angers, France a chain suspension bridge was built to cross the Maine River in 1839.  The bridge did unremarkable service for over a decade until April 16, 1850 when a battalion of soldiers marched across it during a thunderstorm. The high winds caused the bridge roadway to violently oscillate, making the soldiers step to "feel like they were drunk". This time, an anchor point for a suspension cable broke, producing a a noise like "a badly done volley from a firing squad". About 487 soldiers and civilians were on the bridge at that time and most were suddenly pitched into the river. Unlike the rivers of England, the Maine River is deep and tragically 226 men perished in the collapse. 

Collapse of Pont de la Basse-Chaîne, Angers Bridge
across Maine River, Angers, France - April 16, 1850
Source: Wikipedia

So when the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge was constructed in 1855, the possibility of a bridge suddenly collapsing due to the vibration and dynamic load of marching soldiers or bandsmen was not an irrational or preposterous concern. Most recently the Millennium Bridge in London, a 144 metres (472 ft) pedestrian bridge between Southwark Bridge and Blackfriars Railway Bridge, startled the first walkers when the roadway exhibited a pronounced if not terrifying sway. The design had not accounted for the collective energy of foot steps. I was able to experience this myself that year, and it was nothing like the comforting vibration of the trains running next to the Hungerford foot bridge that is upstream on the Thames.   

Today's engineers have the science and technology to measure and test their plans. In the 19th century, civil engineers needed guts as much as brain powered calculations to justify their designs. When you read the life story of John Augustus Roebling, you begin to understand the full effects of real stress, in both human and engineering terms.

There is a very clever video on YouTube of a physics effect called harmonic resonance. The Ikeguchi Laboratory in Japan has produced several of these in different configurations, but their demonstration explains how marching footsteps develop synchronicity. On a square platform, suspended by cables at the corners, are 100 windup metronomes. They are a common musician's tool for measuring tempo and I have a similar model under the Tik-Tok brand. Moving  a weight on the inverted pendulum changes the tempo, but all of these metronomes are set at the same rate. However they are started at random times. If you wait for at least a minute in the 6 minute video, you will see the way the cacophony of ticks gradually corrects itself until all the metronomes are swinging along in perfect military precision.

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This next video is of a pedestrian bridge in Grantham, PA near or on the campus of Messiah College. It records the various types of vibration that unstable bridges are susceptible to.
The bridge could almost be a ride at an amusement park.

Does it have a sign prohibiting marching bands and requiring soldiers to break step?

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This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where no one crosses a bridge until they get there.


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