ELLSWORTH — Terri Cormier knew the staircase looked familiar.
The recent past president of the Ellsworth Historical Society, Cormier was looking through a collection of glass plate negatives in the group’s collections. A unique staircase could be seen in one of the shots.
Stored in paper envelopes, the negatives had been kept in a desk for decades at the historical society’s longtime home in the old Hancock County Jail.
“We didn’t know who they belonged to,” Cormier said. “No one seemed to know where they came from, and I could never find anything in writing.”
She believed she knew that particular staircase she had seen, however, and she soon realized why: it was in the house at 47 Park St. in Ellsworth, now home to Hardy Orthodontics and where she once worked for Dr. Walter Dickes. A familiar-looking fireplace further confirmed the location.
Other evidence emerged, meanwhile, that the negatives were connected to the Woodward family, whose members had once lived at that Park Street address.
A third clue to the negatives’ origins was through Google. In searching for old images of Ellsworth online, Cormier found one on the Library of Congress website that she had also seen among the historical society’s glass plate negatives. It showed a fire on Main Street in November of 1905. In the online credit, she found the final clue she needed: “Photo by W.H. Titus.”
“’There it is,’” Cormier recalled thinking. “’There’s our link of who took this picture.’”
William H. Titus was the editor, publisher and owner of The Ellsworth American from 1913 until his death in 1945. He had earlier served as associate editor for more than a decade. Titus married Anne Woodward in the early 1900s, and they lived in the house at 47 Park St. for a period of years.
That triangulation of evidence — the location, the lineage and the Library of Congress — led Cormier to the conclusion that the photos were taken by Titus.
Now, the Ellsworth Historical Society wants to preserve these approximately 200 images of Ellsworth from the late 1800s and early 1900s and share them with the public.
“Our goal is to get these digitized and published, and to have a show and get them out there so everybody can see them,” Cormier said.
To that end, the society is looking to work with Photo Archivist Kevin Johnson at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. In recent years, the museum has become a regional hub for storing and restoring collections of historic images such as the ones from the Titus collection in Ellsworth.
The work costs money, however, and the historical society is now working to raise the money necessary to do the work. The group also wants to store them properly, either at the museum in Searsport or with the proper storage materials in Ellsworth.
To make a contribution to help cover the costs, email [email protected] or call the society’s new president, Bill Fogle, at 667-0034. Though a relatively new Ellsworth resident himself, Fogle has deep roots in the area: his uncle was Deale B. Salisbury, a founding member of the historical society, and Fogle took many of the photos for Salisbury’s book, “Ellsworth: Crossroads of Downeast Maine,” a photographic review of the Hancock County shiretown.
Fogle, like Cormier, is excited about the chance to bring these long-unseen images out of the dark and into the light.
“To see things that no one here has seen, it’s kind of like a free trip back in history,” he said.
Helping the society preserve these images, it seems, would be very much in keeping with the kind of man Titus was. In a publication for the newspaper’s 150th anniversary, it was noted that Titus “continually used his paper and influence for the benefit and betterment of the community and county.”
In 1923, for example, he led a fundraising campaign to replace the worn-out clock in the tower of the Congregational church and completed it in four months — even though he was a member of the Unitarian church. Cormier speculated with a smile that there may have been a little practical self-interest (albeit understandable and forgivable) on the part of Titus, as The American’s office at that time had a view of the church and its clock.
“He could probably look right out of his window and see it,” she said, “and he wanted to see what time it was.”
Titus’s death came in early 1945, as World War II drew to a close in Europe (his passing was not reported on the front page of The American the week he died, though the combat death in Germany of 19-year-old Pfc. Hosea Kenneth Parker from Little Deer Isle was).
The newspaperman and photographer was still working as editor when he died on March 12 of that year from a heart condition. He was 77. His obituary noted he was recognized as the dean of Maine newspaper editors, and said his life had “drawn to a close as he wished — while he still served.”
“No one felt more keenly or discharged more faithfully the duties and obligations incumbent upon an editor,” according to the obituary.
Titus’s name remained on the paper’s editorial page after his death, though it was boxed in with a heavy black line.