ELLSWORTH — At its annual meeting this year, the Ellsworth Historical Society will debut a treasure trove of historical images, allowing residents a chance to spend “an evening in downtown Ellsworth and the surrounding countryside as it was in 1900.”
The society’s former president, Terri Cormier, discovered these images in 2019. They were stored on glass plate negatives in envelopes in a large cabinet over at the Old Jail on State Street. At the time Cormier had no idea who took the photos, but it was clear that the subject matter was Ellsworth of an age gone by.
“Some of [the photos] are formal, but many are personal and reflect camp life, which included sunning on the beach or having a picnic on the grass in full skirts, neckties and jackets,” said the society’s current president, Bill Fogle. “The photographs depict events such as a circus parading down Main Street and a banjo concert taking place in an open area that is now the Camden National Bank building.”
After some web research, Cormier was able to piece together that the photos were taken by none other than the former editor, publisher and owner of The Ellsworth American, William H. Titus, in the early 1900s.
Titus ran the American from 1913 until his death in 1945. He had earlier served as associate editor for more than a decade.
The photos were taken on glass plate negatives, a technique that was common at the time. Using glass instead of paper allowed for a sharper, more detailed negative that could be used to create multiple prints. What makes the Titus photos somewhat unique is the fact that he was using an improved method of glass plate technology that had only recently become available.
“The glass plates used by Titus were a relatively new technology called ‘dry plate,’” Fogle explained, “which differed from the earlier ‘wet plate’ process in that there were no time requirements for exposure and development, allowing the photographer to take the camera into the field and expose the plates, and later develop them, at his leisure. Thus, we have the beginnings of ‘informal’ photography, which tells a richer story of town and country life than the formal portraits and composed images of the earlier process.”
A specialist’s knowledge was required to develop and digitize the negatives, so the society worked with the Penobscot Marine Museum, using money it received through a Maine State Bicentennial Grant from the Maine Arts Commission.
Now that the work has finished, Fogle and Cormier will debut the photos with a special video and educational presentation prepared for their meeting on Monday, May 9, at 7 p.m. at the Ellsworth Public Library.
Residents will get the chance to see, among many other things, pictures of the Union River overflowing its banks during a spring freshet in 1901; lumber mills that stood before Leonard Lake and the hydroelectric dam were created; and wooden buildings that lined lower Main Street before the 1933 fire.
“These images help the viewer have a richer understanding of Ellsworth’s past during the time that preceded the well-documented 1920s,” Fogle explained. “These images, most of which have never been seen before, are a free trip into the past for the viewers, like finding an unopened diary.”