History-threaded needle in a virtual haystack


           1896 birds-eye view of Annapolis towards the harbor, courtesy of LOC.

                    (higher resolution image here: http://1.usa.gov/rwqym7 )

Often, research is like a series of miner’s tunnels: you start spelunking down one direction, and the next thing you know, you’re following sparkly little history diamonds away from your marked path, into unknown but possibly enriching lodes of cool information. I started off this morning looking for scanned images of Frederick Douglass’s North Star newspaper. I found a few, and one really great copy lead me to the Library of Congress, where more links lead me to 19th century Chesapeake stuff, and then to this: http://1.usa.gov/rN7OlM, an online exhibit called “the Capital and the Bay”. A few more clicks, and I was looking at this wonderfully rich picture of Annapolis in the very last years of the 19th century.

What an amazing resource! What a great little wormhole to fall into! The dirt roads, the schooners in the harbor, the houses all slanty and bunnyhopping over each other, the painted advertisements on the sides of the shops (“BLOCH BROS Mail Pouch Tobacco” advertised twice!), the little Eastport cottages overlooking a marsh in the distance. It’s winter, and the leaves are off the trees. The harbor is bustling, nothing like the ‘ego alley’ we think of today- gone are the slick yachts and ostentatious speed boats that crowd the docks, jockeying for attention. Instead we’ve got smaller, wooden sail craft like the traditional Chesapeake log canoe stacked in rows of threes and four deep to the wharf. This is a working waterfront, crowded with oyster packing houses, muddy and rutted from the wheel tracks of the traditional horsecarts and a few of the new motorized carriages. This is the heart of Annapolis, where the Bay’s winter harvest along with goods and serviced arrived by water as they had for almost 200 years.

And what was I researching again?

You see how this happens, but what a happy problem. Enjoy the image as well as this thought- history is just pulsing just beneath the surface of our everyday lives. The next time you’re on West Street, headed down towards the water, consider those dirt roads, the squashy houses, and that cold, air heavy with the rich smell of Chesapeake marsh and oysters. Nothing and everything has changed.