Big things often start very small. They build over time and become something no one could have foreseen, and the story, whatever it may be, is found not in memory, but in the little bits that are left behind. Taken individually, these little bits, like brush strokes in a painting, don’t tell us much. But pieced together, they form important links in a big picture.
Such is the case of the Port Kennedy Station waybills.
Port Kennedy was a village located on Trooper Road near the Montgomery-Chester County border, where what now US 422 crosses over the Schuylkill River. The village was more or less demolished to make way for it, leaving only a few buildings standing. One of these is the old Philadelphia & Reading Railroad station.
The P&R was built in the late 1830s and early 1840s to haul coal from the anthracite regions of Schuylkill county directly to the Philadelphia markets (in a tremendous “dick move” to the Schuylkill Canal, finished just as construction was ramping up on the railroad). Along its route along the river up from the Belmont Inclined Plane, a number of villages sprang up, including Port Kennedy, which acted as a station for the large lime-producing industry in the area.
At the close of the 19th century, another industry was founded in the area that would dramatically alter the landscape of the area: the Ehret Magnesia Manufacturing Company. Founded in 1897, the company, in spite of its name, quarried the surrounding hills to produce what was then the miracle fireproof material: asbestos. The fibrous silicate mineral was used in many applications, from fireproof shingles to electrical and pipe insulation, and though it was observed even in the 19th century that it could be hazardous, nothing was changed for many years.
Ehret shipped many carloads of asbestos-containing materials out of Port Kennedy, through the village’s combined passenger and freight station. Built in 1904, the station served the village through 1966. Though refurbished a decade later for SEPTA’s short-lived service to Pottstown, a disastrous wreck and fire put an end to such service in 1981. The station, then renamed Valley Forge Park, was boarded up and closed, and has sat idled ever since.
By 1997, it became clear that Ehret and its successors had polluted the area with tons of asbestos, creating a tremendous health hazard. Cleanup only began just a few years ago, and some work in the remains of Port Kennedy is still ongoing.
But the Station itself still had its secrets. Somebody broke into the station recently and scattered some of its contents to the wind, where I happened upon them while jogging along the old bridle trail. Included among them: waybills for the delivery asbestos to Ehret, evidently for disposal in the park — which got the official O.K. at the time from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Even in the span of a month, which these cover, several thousand bags of fiber were delivered. When one considers that these practices continued over decades, it is a truly frightening prospect.
These little waybills, scattered about, tell us nothing if we cannot piece together the larger story. With the resources available to us at the end of a few keyboard strokes, such things are indeed possible.
ADDENDUM: As it so happens I had a nice talk with the folks from the National Park Service, who politely informed me that not only is the structure on Federal land, but anything found thereon, even if it was grandfathered in, belongs to the Federal Government. Though well-intentioned, my efforts were against the law. No harm no foul in this case, the waybills have been given to the archives at Valley Forge and I have learned a most valuable lesson. I hope you all shall too — if you ever chance upon any similar situation, or find something in a National Park, find a Park Ranger and report it, or give him or her what you’ve found, they will be most thankful!
As in any job, there are days when it can be slog to work in the archives; for example, sitting through any lecture by Dr. Cox . . . or watching Powerpoint after Powerpoint at a conference.
But then something comes along and all but makes up for it, that takes all that built-up cynicism and grudges and washes them all away.
Meet Messrs. John Boyer. and John Jaquett.
I first saw John Boyer in an eBay auction. His face was staring back at me from a tiny penny photograph from a West Chester photographer that no one had ever heard of. There were many others, but I only managed to snag him and another, Ella Melton (who has her own story). I wish I could have saved them all.
But I won Boyer’s portrait, and went to the Chester County Historical Society to see what I could find.
John was one of the nine children of Eli and Olivia (nee Powell) Boyer, of West Chester. He was 18 years old when he sat for this portrait. This is likely the only photograph of the young man ever taken, and one of only a handful of photographs by the photographer to have survived.
His father was a native of West Goshen Township, but in 1899, when this photograph was taken, he worked as a brickmaker and moved his family to 315 East Barnard Street.
John Boyer worked as a waiter at the West Chester State Normal School for a time, and was active in the Liberty Cornet Band and the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, Peace and Plenty Lodge. He later moved to Brooklyn, New York, to work for the Vosburgh Electric Company. Ill health forced his return home. He died at the Barnard Street home of his parents on July 27, 1907, and was interred in the Chestnut Grove Cemetery.
The photographer, Havard G. Barrett, was quite the character. He opened his Penny Photograph gallery above the store of Thomas C. Hogue, at the southeast corner of High and Gay Streets, in February 1899. He apparently did not prosper in the venture, and abandoned (quite literally) the establishment after a period of only 5 months. Barrett skipped town in July of that year.
Barrett later returned to West Chester after a period of hiding to open a salesroom for the Cunningham Piano Company at 12 S. Church Street. This venture lasted approximately 6 months, when he was jailed for repeatedly embezzling money from the Philadelphia-based firm. He apparently never returned to West Chester after this last disgrace.
I knew I could not hoard John for myself, so I put digitized the tiny, stamp-sized photograph and put it online, on Flickr and Findagrave, and gave the original to the Historical Society.
Over a year later, I received a message from a member of the Boyer family.He had seen my picture of John, and was absolutely thrilled too see his relative, and wondered where he might find more.
* * *
John Jaquett’s photograph was purchased in a similar manner. John Henry Jaquett was the son of Peter and Ann (24 May 1795-10 January 1888, and was born on 25 July 1824. He married Elizabeth Miller (7 March 1827-1887) in 1850 and settled near Cupola, in Honey Brook Township. Jaquett was the grandson of Nicholas Jaquett and grand-nephew of Peter Jaquett, who served in the Revolutionary War. He was one of eight children, including sister Eliza P., and brothers Thomas, William N., Samuel, Edward, and Issac. Isaac, sadly, would be murdered by a Catholic priest Blasius Pastorius in Norristown in 1875.
A miller before the war, he enlisted on December 16, 1861, in the 99th Pennsylvania Infantry, Co. G, which recruited in Philadelphia and Lancaster County. Together with the rest of his regiment, he served in the battles of Roanoke, Seven Pines, Fredericksburg, Antietam, Bull Run, Wilderness, Gettysburg, and others. During the war, his wife, and three children, viz. Emily Elanora (b. 19 January 1852), Elmer Price (b. 8 April 1855), and Mary Anna (4 May 1860-10 October 1888), were on Relief.
Though his initial enlistment ended at the end of 1863, his reenlistment in 1864 was rewarded with a furlough home, ending on 30 March. As a result of this furlough, a daughter, Cora Therease (d. 22 Sept. 1905), was born on 16 December 1864.
He served out the remainder of the war, miraculously unscathed, with his regiment, and mustered out in August of 1865. He returned to Honey Brook, and after the death of his mother, daughter, and wife in the period of a year, he removed to his son Elmer’s house near Embreeville.
John H. Jaquett died on 1 February 1906 and after services at Honey Brook Methodist Episcopal Church, was interred in Cambridge, Lancaster County.
Several days after I donated him to the Historical Society, a woman came in holding a tiny drawer containing some rolled-up papers. She had bought an old table at an estate sale near Honey Brook, and found a little locked drawer no one noticed. Inside were some papers from the Civil War that belonged to someone named “J Jaquett”.
By providence, it was the very same John Jaquett. The table was his, and contained his papers from the Civil War—his draft ticket, the furlough pass that led to his daughter Cora, and some papers related to the relief his family was granted during the war, and some loose tobacco. She was thrilled when I told her what I had found.
But had I not been curious, I would never have known of these stories, nor would I have been able to share them and make it all worthwhile. And that, to me, is the essence of librarianship/archivy: we connect people, and we help them understand the world that they would not otherwise be able to find.
We are to make use of our gifts; for some of thus, that is simply and inquiring mind and the ability to find things. So take pride, librarian. Take pride, archivist.
You’re doing good.
O, not in cruelty, not in wrath,
The Reaper came that day;
‘T was an angel visited the green earth,
And took the flowers away.
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Reaper and the Flowers” (1839)
The things that can tell us the most about ourselves, about life, often do not sit out in the open. They sit in out-of-the-way places, off those well-trodden paths we know so well. And they hide in the archive, just waiting for someone with the time and the curiosity to unearth their secrets.
For me it began after a particularly difficult week. Needing some space, and some time to collect myself, I set out to explore an area I had never explored before: Audubon, Pawlings, and the lower Perkiomen. A trip to the abandoned paint works, then a long bike ride up to Collegeville and back. But it was at the end of the ride that I saw it. Route 422 had cut through the area, but perched atop a hill near Pawlings Road were a series of white crosses. Intrigued, I took a detour through a farm field to have a look.
There they were: lines of crosses, row on row. Some had names, most did not. Who were these people? Why were they buried there in that forlorn place?
I assumed they were connected with St. Gabriel’s Hall—that reform school across the road that my grandfather would occasionally drive by on our way back from Norristown (and sometimes threaten to send me there if I didn’t behave). A quick check of the records showed…, well, nothing. It was referenced in one old database as the Philadelphia Boys Protectory Cemetery, and that was the only lead I had to go on.
The Philadelphia Boys Protectory was founded in 1898, the crowning achievement of Archbishop Ryan. In part to relieve the stress on the overburdened youth and other diocesan services in the city, but also to provide a house of refuge for at-risk boys — those who were orphaned, or from alcoholic or abusive households, or who otherwise need a safe place to live — the institution continues today as part of the St. Gabriel’s system. In its long history, there must have been those who died at that institution who had no one to claim their remains, and who lie there still. But who were they?
A visit to the Diocesan Archives at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook yielded little information, other than the records were not there. But the archivist did have the contact information for the archivist at La Salle University (and for the Congregation of Christian Brothers). He was very welcoming and must be the nicest human being on the face of this earth. He confirmed that yes, he had some records, and that I would be welcome to visit.
The archive at La Salle is like nothing I have ever seen. The archivist had an incredibly unique system in place: no closed-packed shelving, but instead, he had them all on shelving casters. I had used them in factory work, but to use them in an archive was something I had never considered. Raised off the floor and incredibly flexible and adjustable, this strikes me as a rather ingenious solution for many archives that need the flexibility on a budget.
He had put together a history of St. Gabe’s around 1998 to mark that institution’s centennial, and he had consulted a number of sources including work by Bro. Gerald Ronan. Though no official cemetery records exist, Bro. Ronan had combed through the logs of the Infirmarian at the Protectory to confirm what he had learned from word-of-mouth and from other ephemeral notes.
Slowly, a sad story emerged from those notations. The cemetery holds the remains of 47 or more men and boys who lived and worked at the Protectory. Those boys buried there were no older than 17, the youngest 11. Boys like Michael Dwulic, who died at age 17 of cancer. When they died (of many reasons, from disease to accidental drowning in the Schuylkill), no family was there to tend to them, and no one came forward to claim their bodies. Other boys that died at the Protectory were claimed and buried at their local parishes.
But these poor children had no one. Nor did the 16 workmen and staff members buried with them. The staff who died were farmers, laborers, even a professor. For whatever reason, they had no biological families of their own; Herbert Sieber, the laundryman, was one such unfortunate; he died at age 87 at the Protectory from the infirmities of old age. The boys, and the people of the Protectory, were his family, and so he was laid to rest at the institution he had served for many years.
As part of spreading word of these findings, I have posted the information I have found to an online database at http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=cr&CRid=2516808. Though far from perfect, it will at the least give family members a chance to find their long-lost kin.
But that is the value and the power of archives. With a little digging and a little luck, they hold to those earthly questions we find ourselves asking. They allow the dead, those otherwise nameless, mute, dead to speak to us, to guide us in our own earthly pursuits. Without the La Salle archive, those men and boys interred off a grassy patch of road in Audubon would be nothing more than wooden crosses on a hill, instead of the embodied testaments to both unpleasant parts of our past and the good parts. To paraphrase W. H. Auden, no one exists alone — while we are on this earth we must love one another — then die.
In the days of yore, before all that hi-tech transistorized technologies of this era, mankind had to rely upon analog signals for most of his electronic data needs (electronic data that had, of course, not existed until they were created by the supplanting of older technologies). Though these technologies were marvels in and of themselves, they also spawned a host of related systems and technologies to calibrate, check, and adjust them.
Meet the IBM Time System Signal Analyzer, Model B.
This guy was found at a flea market some years ago. Almost totally non-working, its cord had rotted, the contacts were frozen, and the tubes spent. Together with my grandfather, we cleaned, calibrated, repaired, and restored, found a supplier of tubes in the Czech Republic, and got it working again.
Well, all except the meter. D’Arsonval movements, being electromechanical, are prone to failure. Somewhere in this old fellow oxidation has built up, and despite a few quivers here and there, and limited success passing current through the meter to break down the resistance, he is dead.
But the bigger questions were what was this device? What does it do?
An answer appeared out of the blue one fine day: an old manual emerged from some business’ archive, much to my amazement.
Well, it certainly dated the device anyway.
As it turns out, this little analyzer was used with the old electronic attendance and timekeeping systems installed in factories, offices, and many other buildings during the pre-transistor era. A neat system, actually, that would automatically record when people punched in and out, and could send the signals through existing power lines.
The systems were used for a number of years, but quickly fell out of use when digital systems took their place. But thanks be to a lucky find in the archive, this forgotten transitional technology can still be analyzed and understood.