Photography and the Rural City: Easton, Pa. in 1900

Bushkill Creek and Snyder's Rock Mill

Easton, consolidated only 13 years before the publication of this book, remained quiet and rustic on its fringes. Gustavus Eschenbach’s large-format 1900 volume, The Forks of the Delaware pictorially captures an Easton poised between the onrushing world of industry and a vestigial pastoralism reminiscent of the town’s colonial origins. Intended for limited distribution via subscription, The Forks of the Delaware resembles in both form and content the modern coffee table book. With over 200 photographic prints, Eschenbach’s compendium provides something for every taste. For the nostalgic: a “rural scene” of cows wading lazily in Bushkill Creek as Snyder’s Rock Mill watches sleepily from the opposite bank. For the more hard-headed Rotarian: a photo from the Northampton County courthouse steeple looking south at Lehigh and Washington Streets where several blocks of new duplexes sit crammed in half-excavated fields. But both of these photos show a turn-of-the-century Easton where nature has yet to be neatly segregated from the city; instead nature’s roughness permeates the borders of the town’s growing urban form. Indeed, Eschenbach’s tiny footnote for his “rural scene” mentions that the bucolic view is merely “beyond Thirteenth Street.” Today in this thoroughly urbanized area the memory of the sluggish creek is suggested only in “Bushkill Street.” Likewise in the photo of new duplexes one need not peer across the river to where homes cluster haphazardly around farms to view untrammeled nature. In the interior of the block, scrub vegetation pokes through boulder strewn soil and narrow paths appear the only human imposition.

While Bethlehem in 1900 is dominated by the ominous form of the Steel Company works, and Allentown with its red brick silk mills and rowhomes appears prosperous and commercial, on the far eastern end of the Lehigh River, Easton seems still to follow the slow pace of the canal. Eschenbach’s drowsy scenes confirm that while Easton grows, its progress is moderate. The presence of large uninhabited spaces, dirt roads, and farm animals implies that Easton is static or retrogressing in time. The persistence of an agrarian past, by no means uncommon in urbanizing towns of this period, is perhaps attributable to the paucity of space-redefining industries. On the banks of the Lehigh, the Glendon Iron Works left only a small footprint and its employees were very few and required no great blocks of dwellings. Moreover Glendon was eclipsed by the behemoth further west (the Bethlehem Steel Company) and lacking low-skill industries Easton suffered from a weak demographic gravitational pull. While industries like silk mills did eventually appear they did little to swell the town’s population. Easton, too, was a canal town and began to languish as goods passed through and did not stay. For as much as Easton served as an entrepot in the former half of the 19th century, by the end of the century Easton accrued few benefits from being a discrete spot along the towpaths.

 Canal changebridge over Lehigh River

In Eschenbach’s city of wood frame earthiness, of wooden duplexes and old antebellum saltboxes arrayed haphazardly against the rivers, the institutional buildings of Easton loom like Parthenons over the impermanence. Eschenbach’s views of Lafayette College, absent of people, encourage this image of the school as a mortal-less polis. Large Victorian residences are often isolated from ruder dwellings and are situated in cultivated nature: not the nature which remains after construction. Easton Cemetery is the apotheosis of contrived naturality—no different than any other parklike necropolis—but being sanctified space it perseveres and is not eventually obliterated like Snyder’s Rock Mill. Only in the Cemetery and the dead photos of Eschenbach’s “rural scenes” does a rus in urbe persist in Easton. But other institutional structures, with their cold and officious reserve also continued to demand deference. The squat Governor Wolf School building, with its prim pointed arches and Italianate bell tower must have appeared as hostile to 1900 Eastonians as the Governor’s 1834 proposal for compulsory English-language education did to the fiercely independent German farmers.

Though the net benefits of canal transportation may have bypassed Easton, the town was positioned nearly equidistant from both Philadelphia and New York and by the logic of railroad competition land for prime rights-of-way was hotly contested. The Lehigh Valley, the New Jersey Central and the Lehigh and Hudson Railroads all converge and so Eschenbach’s Easton of 1900 is dominated by a complex of trackage, bridges, interlocking towers, and controlled movement. It is a curious overlay of narrow high tech bands of steel over a city of dusty yards, unpainted fences, and fussy clapboard houses. In Eschenbach’s “View of the Delaware River and Morris Canal Basin” Easton is conspicuously absent. The view, with its focus on the elegantly engineered connection between the Morris Canal and railroad suggests the author himself had become enamored of the technical beauty of the interface, or the interface as bare and stark and unfettered by a noisome urban grid.

Eschenbach’s The Forks of the Delaware provides an unequalled record of Easton exerting its will upon the physical landscape and the landscape, in turn, poking through this imposition of rationality. Essentially, Easton is far more layered and textured than other cities in the Valley which experienced continual growth catalyzed by industrialization. Growing spasmodically and yet at a crucial crossroad, haphazard Easton of 1900 owes little to the canal and railroads but is dominated by their precise forms. It is a city where scales clash: small wooden houses collide with peopleless sandstone temples; contrived nature abuts a truly rural periphery; cultivated gardens square with that vegetation not uprooted in construction. It is perhaps a truism that what we call “growth” effaces differences and emplaces uniformity. Thus, perhaps we should be thankful that in its slow growth, Easton allowed the drama of its physical contradictions to unfold before Eschenbach’s camera and subsequently into The Forks of the Delaware.

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