Atwood Museum Offers Tantalizing Sneak Peak At Treasure Trove Of Old Photos

By: Tim Wood

Panoramic photograph of the Chatham Twin Lights probably taken between 1910 and 1922; the northern tower was moved to Eastham in 1923. COURTESY CHATHAM HISTORICAL SOCIETY

CHATHAM – In the late spring of 2016, Christine Padgett walked into the Atwood House Museum with a box of photographic negatives. It didn't take museum Archivist Jean Young long to realize the significance of the material.

“I knew immediately when she brought in the box,” Young said, especially when she saw a number glass plate and panoramic negatives. “I told her she made my year!”

The photographs did indeed turn out to have historical significance, capturing views of Chatham and other Cape towns from the early years of the 20th century, many of which no longer exist. Of most interest are the panoramics, which show, among other scenes, the Chatham Twin Lighthouses, the Mitchell River Bridge, and numerous shoreline views.

On Oct. 7 and 8, seven of the panoramic photos – along with contemporary views of the same scenes – will be featured in “Double Take,” a sneak preview of a larger exhibit of the collection planned for next year.

The William and Jacqueline Cotter Memorial Collection is named for Padgett's grandparents, who discovered the negatives in the attic of the Mayflower Shop when they owned the downtown store. It's unclear when they found the box, Young said, but they probably had it for “quite some time,” since William Cotter became one of the owners of the shop in 1949.

The provenance of the negatives themselves is uncertain, though they likely date from the days when today's Mayflower Shop was the Mayflower Studio, a photographic studio operated by at least two different photographers, Charles Smallhoff and Harold Sawyer. Both were known for creating postcards from photographs taken locally in the early years of the last century. Some of the panoramics may, in fact, have been cropped and used as postcards, said Andy Young, Jean Young's husband who helped with the project.

The collection includes 30 glass plate negatives and 62 acetate negatives, which range in size from three by four inches to eight by 10 inches; the 62 panoramics measure 3.5 by 11.5 inches. None are dated, but there are clues within the photographs. There are several of the Twin Lighthouses; since the north tower was moved to Eastham in 1923, the photos must have been taken prior to that date. The Youngs estimate the photos were taken between about 1910 and 1922.

Since the museum lacks the ability to scan negatives of the size of the panoramics, Joe Mault of Orleans Camera and Video was enlisted to help with the process of digitizing and restoring the photographs, and “gave his heart and soul to this,” Jean Young said. Thanks to a grant, the museum was able to scan and restore 38 of the panoramics, and have thus far paired about a dozen with modern versions of the same scenes. They've been enlarged to a width of 48 inches for display; the seven in the sneak preview are also available for sale as “then and now” prints pairing antique black and white and modern views in color.

Those pairings reveal how much has changed in the last century as well as providing links to the more distant past. In the far right corner of the panorama of the Twin Lights, for instance, the remnants of the previous lighthouses, which were undermined by erosion in 1879, can be seen. Views along the water show a shoreline crowded with shanties.

“We've lost an awful lot of that,” noted Andy Young. The photos “supply us with a huge amount of visual data that we're losing quickly, more quickly than ever.”

Replicating the scenes was in some cases relatively simply – although just getting the angle of the Coast Guard Station roof to match the older scene was a bit of a challenge – and in others difficult, he said. Some photos show a shoreline that is clear of all vegetation; modern views in the same location were often “completely obscured by trees and bushes and houses.”

A view of the Twin Lights from the outer beach eerily reflects a break up of North Beach similar to what is currently happening; the beach appears to be connected to the mainland at Mattaquasson Point, roughly opposite the current intersection of Main Street and Shore Road.

Some scenes, like the lighthouses, are easy to identify. Others are more difficult to pinpoint. Several show boats foundering in the water just offshore; one appears to be a steamship, the other a smaller fishing boat. A few of the scenes are in Harwich, others are obviously not Chatham. “One we have has a stone wall in the front. Stone walls are not common here,” Andy Young said. With the larger exhibit next season, the museum hopes to display some of the unknown locations in the hope that they can be identified.

The Columbus Day weekend sneak peak includes panoramics of Stage Harbor, the Twin Lights and the Old Village, the Twin Lights and the overlook, Little and Big Mill Ponds, Oyster River, the Mitchell River view to the east, and the Mitchell River view to the west, all paired with contemporary photos taken in the past year by Andy Young.

There are many, many more surprises likely in that box brought into the Stage Harbor Road museum so unexpectedly more than a year ago.

“It would be wonderful to digitize the entire collection, but the museum doesn't have the money to do it,” said Jean Young. Proceeds from sales of the panoramic prints will be used to continue digitizing and restoring the collection.