Archival Catastrophes

In my day job, I work as an archival-image researcher. I always keep an eye out for things that I think typify the American experience, like banjo players, crazy preachers, hobos, and disasters.

Sep 2 2010, 12:00am

By Rich Remsberg

In my day job, I work as an archival-image researcher, mostly on PBS documentaries. I look through hundreds of old photographs every day—in archives, private collections, flea markets, people’s basements—and I always keep an eye out for a few things that I think typify the American experience, like banjo players, crazy preachers, hobos, and disasters.

There’s a messy geometry to the following images. They’re not tragedies, despite whatever newscasters or onlookers might say. These pictures all share a cool neutrality, and they don’t assign responsibility. They’re about physical, not moral, failings. In those failings we see the objects held still for our examination. When they functioned normally, we tended to take them for granted. Once they fail, we see their insides laid bare, and we stand in awe of the power they had, right in front of us, moments ago.

And we all like to experience that kind of awe. It allows us a sense of humility and grandeur simultaneously.

Here are some of my favorite images from various archives that, for different reasons in each case, came to mind while thinking about catastrophes.

Poster for the Hanlons’ Le Voyage en Suisse, c. 1900. Artist unknown. Archive: Library of Congress.


It’s not often that pantomime and train wrecks overlap, but the Hanlon Brothers were from an era when mimes were made of tougher stuff.

Their shows were dark and elaborate combinations of acrobatics, music, and illusion based on both clever mechanical devices and sleight of hand. They held patents on theatrical beheading devices, and they had a lot of bits that revolved around floods, broken glass, fighting skeletons, and hooded executions. Human heads figured into their shows prominently and frequently, always being lopped off or appearing in unexpected places. Many of their characters were drunks who did something careless or malevolent with fire. One historian referred to their style as “violent clowning,” a phrase you don’t hear much.

Le Voyage en Suisse (The Trip to Switzerland) is a play about an attempt to break up a marriage. It is mostly set on a train between Paris and Switzerland, where said marriage is to take place. Loaded with complicated components and rigging, the train blows up at the end of act 2, with terrified passengers landing in trees. In act 3, a hotel is destroyed with dynamite.

The Hanlons were a major influence on Buster Keaton, George Méliès, the Marx Brothers, and the Three Stooges, not only for the craftsmanship of their physical comedy but also for their appetite for the chaotic disruption of polite society. Le Voyage en Suisse was their most popular production, touring throughout the US after runs in Paris and London. It ran for 82 weeks, performed every single night except the day President Garfield was assassinated.

Results of hurricane, Miami, September 18, 1926. Photographer: R. S. Clements. Archive: Library of Congress.

In a news photo, it’s the invasion of the abnormal into the mundane that fractures the architecture of our assumptions. A ship on the sidewalk? With news photos, there is no pregnant tension, no chronic lack of ease. It’s all blown open. The ship is on the sidewalk. The plane—or what’s left of it—is on the ground. The tension in the inherent conflicts with which we live every day has been released, and we stare at the naked consequences.

Burned-out shell of Eastern Airlines plane that crashed in a field in North Salem after a mid-air collision with a TWA 707 jet, which then landed safely at Kennedy Airport, December 4, 1965. More than 100 got out alive. Photographer: Syd Greenberg. Archive: Author’s collection (from New York City flea market).

The Naperville train wreck at the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad station, April 26, 1946. Many of the people on the trains were servicemen returning from WWII. All photos this page: Charles Cushman. Archive: Indiana University Archives.

Charles Cushman was an amateur photographer who began shooting with Kodachrome film in 1938, so he shows us in color an era we tend to see mostly in black and white, which means there’s a lack of the sort of abstraction to which we’re accustomed, and a greater sense of immediacy. Color photography, like Cushman’s, is, as critic A. D. Coleman says, “more tactile, more sensory, more persuasive; less like reports about reality and more like actual slices of the real.”

With a reliable gut instinct and a cultured sense of refinement, Cushman spent quite a bit of his time traveling abroad and walking the streets of the cities where he lived, photographically documenting the 20th century. It’s not entirely clear why.

What is clear is that he had a taste for a few things in particular, including slums, street vendors, fires, floods, and accidents. The photos he captured, like the one’s featured below, are the only visual records of historically significant events such as the Naperville train wreck—considered the worst in Chicago-area history—which led to an overhaul of railroad safety regulations.

But Cushman was no journalist. Like the best street photographers, he recognized public space as theater and seemed drawn to the extreme results of ordinary conflict and the drama of sorrow.

The Naperville train wreck, 15 minutes after the No. 39 train plowed into the rear of No. 11. Forty-seven dead—all in last coach of No. 11.

Ruins of fire-swept building at 4600 S. Paulina Street, Chicago, January 16, 1949.

Shoulder of Hwy 4/24. Truck wreck, Contra Costa County, California, May 31, 1957.

Members of the Buffalo Historical Marionettes with the set of Death Takes the Wheel. Photographer unknown. Archive: Library of Congress.

Before there were drivers-ed films like Blood on the Highway and The Bottle and the Throttle, before there was a Highway Safety Foundation, there were the Buffalo Historical Marionettes.

During the Depression, the Federal Theatre Project employed about 200 people in Buffalo, New York, to create and stage puppet shows. The program was under the direction of Esther Wilhelm, who considered herself, in the words of Buffalo Historical Marionette historian Peter Rachleff, “Buffalo’s own Eleanor Roosevelt.” Because of Wilhelm’s vision, the performances had sets, costumes, live orchestras, and subject matter that doesn’t often come up in puppet shows. Judging from the photographs, one of the best was the driver-safety marionette performance Death Takes the Wheel.

Scene from Death Takes the Wheel. Photographer unknown. Archive: Library of Congress.

In the early days of the railroad, there was a lot of room for things to go wrong. Boilers exploded; locomotives collided. Pretty quickly they improved the engines and put more planning into schedules, and railroading became a much safer affair. But people kind of missed the old days. Maybe not the carnage, but the spectacle.

There developed a tradition of staged train wrecks for entertainment’s sake, a sort of large-scale, old-timey demolition derby. The most famous of these took place in 1896 near Waco, Texas. Promoted by a man named Bill Crush, the retired locomotives faced each other on a single piece of track, each with seven cars in tow and packed with explosives.

When Crush, mounted on a white horse, gave the signal by dropping his hat to the ground, the two locomotives started toward each other, building speed. In the last seconds, the engineers and firemen jumped to safety and, traveling at more than 100 miles an hour, the two trains collided.

The collision gave the spectators a little more than they had come for. The boilers exploded on impact, sending pieces of twisted metal into the crowd and the surrounding cotton fields. One photographer had a bolt and washer embedded in his head. Three people were killed, many more injured and scalded, and souvenir hunters, forgetting that the metal was still hot, burned their hands.

Staged train collision near Waco, Texas, September 15, 1896. Photographer: J. C. Deane. Archive: Texas Collection, Baylor University.

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