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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

The Adventures of Reuben Gold Thwaites

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, July 10, 2005

Last January, I wrote an article about the adventures of Reuben Gold Thwaites and his journey down the Ohio River in 1894. Thwaites was the Secretary of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin from 1885-1913, and is today considered a renowned historian of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Shortly after my article appeared, I was contacted by someone to tell me that a corresponding volume had been published in 1997 providing the photos of Thwaites' 1894 journey. The library now owns that 1997 companion volume.

To refresh the story, Reuben Gold Thwaites journeyed downriver from Brownsville, Pa. to Cairo, Ill. in a 15 ft. rowboat better suited for adventures on Wisconsin lakes. Thwaites was accompanied by his wife, Jessie Inwood Turvill; her brother William Daniel Turvill; and 10 year old son, Frederik T. Thwaites. They departed May 4, 1894, and arrived at journey's end on June 11, 1894.

In 1894, the Ohio River was in transition.  The first locks and dam had been constructed; industry was being constructed along the river, yet nature still abounded all along the route. His journey and its accompanying book tell the story of that Ohio River.

After his death in 1913, Thwaites' book describing the adventure was relegated to the shelves of libraries, and generally forgotten until 1986. That year, his grandson donated a family album to the Wisconsin Historical Society that contained all 84-snapshot photos that Thwaites took with his No. 2 Kodak Box Camera. Interest was renewed in the journey, as these photos complete with their negatives, provided a clear picture of the 1894 Ohio River.

Published in 1997 in a book titled, "Pilgrims on the Ohio, the River Journey & Photographs of Reuben Gold Thwaites, 1894," the adventure has gained a new life with readers of today. Each photo is accompanied by appropriate text from the 1894 book.  An introduction brings the reader up to date, with a history of Reuben Gold Thwaites and the renewed interest in his work.

A history of the introduction of Kodak cameras explains the new interest in "snapshots" of 1894, and how we are fortunate to have these today. The photo history begins with a picture of Jessie Thwaites, dressed as a proper Victorian woman for a river journey.

The upper Ohio River is shown with numerous coal tipples, allowing the mineral to be loaded into wooden barges on the river, or rail cars on railroad lines that parallel the river. The Ohio River in 1894 had only the beginning of slack water navigation, and generally the water level was much lower than today.

Many photos showed extensive sloping stony beaches along the river.  In May, the river had enough water for navigation, but much more shoreline was showing then. The houses are interesting to view.  A close-up shot of the front porch of a house along the river found a porch of rough boards haphazardly white-washed held together with spike nails.

Wheeling is described as the northern-most terminus of many steamboat lines, as mid-summer river levels would not allow shipping on the Upper Ohio River. Two Wheeling photos also show a barren hillside in the background, completely stripped of vegetation and trees.  Is this a result of mining and development, or people's need for firewood for heating?

My favorite photo depicts Cave-In-Rock in Illinois, which even today is a tourist destination.  We grumble today about the commercialization of America, yet in 1894 the Cave had painted on the rocks above the opening "St. Jacobs." A Baltimore patent medicine company had painted its name on rocks along the Ohio River in 1894 as if they were modern billboards.  The Ohio River was the highway in 1894.