Photo Detective: Old Lumber Camp Photo

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Most family photos depict clean and tidy ancestors in studios. But photographers also traveled to their customers, taking photos in homes and workplaces. This photo of a lumber camp has been passed through four generation of Christy Parent’s family, but its story has been lost.

Parent knew her great-grandmother had two images copied, retouched and merged to create this photo. Parent believes the original photos belonged to her great-great-grandmother Catherine Mahany, who was raised in a convent and had two siblings. In 1904, she married Alfred Eckhart. They lived in Michigan and Illinois.

Parent wanted to learn more about Catharine Mahany. A breakthrough came when Parent’s mother found the faded original image (not shown), which has a mat captioned “October 1874 Camp on Medix Run, Clearfield Co. Pa.” An online search with this new information located a biographical sketch of a John Mahany of Benezette Township, Elk County, Pa.. It helps explain why Catherine Mahany was raised in a convent: Her mother died and her father remarried. And she actually had four siblings. Perhaps her father couldn’t care for the children, or his new wife wanted them raised elsewhere.

The sketch retells John’s work history as a lumbering foreman from 1864 to 1877, and again in 1883. He’s probably in this picture. In 1874, he would’ve been 30. Eliminating men who look older or younger can narrow the possibilities. But Parent will need to compare facial features of the men with other images of John Mahany to make a positive ID.

This case proves how important it is to seek originals whenever possible. You never know what information might be missing from a copy.
1. Nineteenth-century photographers created panoramic photos by piecing together multiple images of a scene. 
2. Laborers often wore flannel shirts, suspenders and work trousers. Jeans were common by the 1870s, two decades after Levi Strauss established his company. Flannel shirts, worn year-round for warmth and reputed health properties, came in plaid and checks, in addition to the solid colors these men wear.
3. These buildings may be barracks. Workers in lumber camps often stayed there during the season—24 to 28 weeks in northern climates. It was a winter trade; no logs were cut until the first snow. Transporting the logs lasted until at least March, according to History of the Lumber Industry of America by James Elliott Defebaugh (available on Internet Archive). 
4. Photographers usually duplicated these group shots for the men and the company, so other copies of this picture likely exist in archives and family collections. Sharing this image on a site such as Flickr, Dead Fred or Ancient Faces might result in more information about the lumber camp.
See more of Maureen A. Taylor’s mystery photo investigations on the Photo Detective Blog and in her book Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries.
 From the October/November 2013 Family Tree Magazine