Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Afloat on the Ohio - Image Gallery Essay

Reuben Gold Thwaites Photographs

Reuben Gold Thwaites Photographs: Monongahela River and Ohio River | Wisconsin Historical Society
A man transports nitroglycerin in a boat which has a red danger flag at the bow (unseen against the dark background).

Man in a Boat Hauling Nitroglycerin, 1894

Shippingport, Pennsylvania. A man transports nitroglycerin in a boat with a red danger flag at the bow (unseen against the dark background). View the original source document: WHI 58993

In the spring and summer of 1894, noted American historian and Wisconsin Historical Society director, Reuben Gold Thwaites, traveled with his family down the Monongahela and Ohio rivers, taking photos along the way. His photographs of the six-week trip offer unique insight to the gateway to the nation's interior.

Thwaites was accompanied by his wife Jessie, their 10-year-old son Frederick and Jessie's brother, William Daniel Turvill. Starting at Brownsville, Pennsylvania, on May 4, 1894, they traveled down the Monongahela River in a 15-foot rowboat to the place where it joins the Allegheny to form the Ohio River. From this historic place at Pittsburgh, the Forks of the Ohio, the family began its 981-mile trip down the main stem. In all, the river sojourn traversed nearly 1,100 miles and ended on July 11, 1894.

EnlargeMiddle-aged Thwaites in a suit viewing papers at his desk.

Ruben Gold Thwaites in His Office, 1892

Thwaites at his desk at the Wisconsin Historical Society. View the original source document: WHI 38028

Writing about the journey in Afloat on the Ohio, Thwaites said that he was interested in gathering local color for his studies of the Western United States. Noting the importance of the Ohio River in the development of the West, he added:

I wished to know the great waterway intimately in its various phases, - to see with my own eyes what the borderers saw: in imagination, to redress the pioneer state, and reopen it.

About the Photography Techniques

Thwaites used a #2 Kodak camera to take the circular black-and-white images. Thwaites was an early adopter of the Kodak #2 camera. He purchased one in 1891 to document his travels on a bicycle through England.

This particular Kodak model, introduced in 1889, was one of the first cameras designed with the amateur in mind. It replaced the heavy, cumbersome glass plate with flexible film on a long roll. Photographers could shoot the entire roll and then send the camera into Kodak to have the film developed and prints made. It was from this generation of camera that Eastman Kodak coined the slogan, "You push the button, we do the rest."

More about Thwaites' Photographs

In 1997, a little more than a century after the river trip, Robert Reid and Dan Fuller published "Pilgrims on the Ohio, the River Journey and Photographs of Reuben Gold Thwaites, 1894." The book includes 74 of Thwaites' photographs of the trip as well as his narrative descriptions of the images. Essays by Reid and Fuller discuss Thwaites' life and the development and influence of the Kodak #2 in the history of photography.

Thwaites and His Wisconsin Life

Reuben Gold Thwaites came to Wisconsin in 1866, working on various newspapers in Oshkosh, before heading to Yale University for graduate school in 1874. He returned to Wisconsin two years later and settled in Madison, where he served as managing editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. In 1885, he became the assistant to Society Director Lyman C. Draper, succeeding him after Draper's retirement in 1887. His energy and skill helped make the Society one of the leading organizations of its kind and made Thwaites "the best known non-political man in Wisconsin."

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