(Editor's note: Louis Amestoy served on the Ramona Bowl Amphitheater's board of directors from 2004 to 2009. The Ramona Outdoor Drama is the longest-running outdoor drama in the United States and celebrates its centennial in 2022.)
Call it a historical intersection. Why else would a 128-year-old photo album connect Kerrville, Texas, with Los Angeles, California?
Yes, an intersection of transportation breakthroughs, coupled with a best-selling novel and a technological shift, all contribute to a magnificent collection of photographs from 1893 that chronicle an eastward journey by train.
The only problem is that we don't know for sure. There's circumstantial evidence about the tale of the 1893 photo album — captured by an unknown photographer.
When my friend Joe Herring Jr. told me about an album of vacation photographs from 1893, I was immediately intrigued by the story, but this was far more than snapshots — it was a stunning collection of travel photojournalism.
On Saturday, I got my first look at Herring's pop-up museum at Pint and Plow. The album features a stay in San Antonio and Kerrville before the unknown photographer moves to California. Herring focuses on the Kerrville element, and what's fascinating about the photos is that it captures some of the work-life around Kerrville at the time.
Joe Herring Jr.'s pop-up museum at Pint and Plow tells the Kerrville connection to the photo album.
The year 1893 is also an interesting one in American history, with the magnificent Chicago World's Fair lauding technological achievements. Thomas Edison was experimenting with movies. The country would later face an economic panic and depression. You see one example of change after another in the photos — mostly electrification and phone lines.
For Herring, the prize is that these are some of the earliest known photos of Kerrville. Years ago, as the story goes, sharp-eyed Lanza Teague spotted the collection on eBay and let Herring know about the find. The problem is that the owner wanted far more than Teague or Herring were willing to pay.
"But we regretted it," Herring said of not purchasing the collection, which eventually was acquired by Yale University. There are 19 photos of Kerrville in the collection.
Herring got to see life in Kerrville far earlier than was previously captured.
"Until this week, the oldest images of Kerr County in my collection for which I can confirm a date, are of a parade in the downtown area — a Saengerfest parade — from September, 1896," Herring wrote in his Dec. 5 blog.
Herring's pop-up exhibit at Pint and Plow is a wonderful addition, and I regularly watch people stop and look at the pictures each morning while we do The Lead Live show.
When Herring initially told me about how the album ends in California, but it was his tantalizing mention of photos specifically of missions San Gabriel, San Fernando and Santa Barbara that piqued my interest and got me thinking about intersections.
Ten years before the photographs were taken and carefully placed in a photo album, the Southern Pacific Railroad completed its transcontinental routes from Los Angeles to New Orleans. The connection greatly expanded the power of California's railroad moguls, who were soon moving refrigerated goods east toward Galveston.
In 1884, a cultural phenomenon hit the nation with the publication of Helen Hunt Jackson's novel "Ramona," which deeply romanticized Southern California, especially the Spanish-era missions, many crumbling due to neglect. The book was a bestseller — a financial windfall Jackson never enjoyed; she died of cancer that same year — leading to an unexpected cottage industry — literary tourism.
An early muckraking writer, Jackson was friends with Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Like Stowe, Jackson found an equally important political topic to write about — the U.S. government's treatment of Native Americans. In 1881, she published "A Century of Dishonor." It angered many in the government and failed commercially.
Jackson traveled to Southern California to rest and explore in the wake of this failure. During this trip, she saw the crumbling missions, she saw the treatment of Native Americans, and she learned of the killing of a Cahuilla Indian at the hands of a white man, who won acquittal on a murder charge. From that incident, along with her travels in the state, Jackson wrote about an orphan named half-Indian girl Ramona, who falls in love with the doomed Alessandro. The story is about the racism of the time — solely focused on the degradation of Mission Indians — under the guise of a love story. No one cared about the politics, but the romantic tragedy resonated.
So, if you're heading to California, the places you will want to see is Mission San Gabriel and Mission Santa Barbara, both major settings in the book. San Gabriel was where Ramona was supposed to have been born. Mission Santa Barbara, the Queen of the California missions, is also a set piece in the book — arguably the most magnificent of the state's missions.
A magnificent photo from the Yale University collection of Mission Santa Barbara in 1893.
Mission San Gabriel in 1893 (Yale University).
My friend, the late Phil Brigandi, a Southern California historian and one of the foremost experts on "Ramona," wrote this to describe the rush west: "In 1886, railroad competition touched off the most frantic real estate boom in Southern California's history. In less than two years, dozens of towns and hundreds of subdivisions were laid out while thousands of tourists flooded into the region. Ramona became a sort of guidebook for them, and they set out to find the places mentioned in the story."
From left, an 1884 printing of "Ramona" and a biography of the book's author — Helen Hunt Jackson. The book on the bottom is "Ramona" with a foreword by Texas writer Frank Dobie.
Brigandi was right about the boom in Los Angeles. Championed by The Los Angeles Times owners, the Ramona story helped the city boom between 1880 and 1900, growing from 12,000 to more than 100,000. It has never stopped growing.
We now return to Kerrville, about as far away from the Ramona story as possible, but for our travelers, they seemed to want to experience the nation as they made their way west. That's one of the questions that Herring is attempting to determine; what was it about Kerrville?
At the time, a trip to Kerrville would have been a side excursion from San Antonio before boarding the Southern Pacific's train to El Paso and eventually to Los Angeles. Kerrville was at the end of the line. But what the travelers photographed is fascinating.
"The scans are clear and provide details I've never seen in these images," Herring wrote in his blog.
As Herring put it, there are clues in the details, including a fascinating poster for a fair at the Catholic Church. There's a picture of Tivy High School standing on its own in the middle of a field — years before the town grew up around it.
I chatted with Joe about the trip to Kerrville, and I posited that the Hill Country is unique, and maybe that's what brought them here. Describing the Texas Hill Country is sometimes challenging and best experienced in person. Perhaps they were bored in San Antonio, but I think these people were curious.
They also seemed to find Kerrville interesting. The photographer shot 19 pictures in Kerrville — as many as they shot in New Orleans and San Antonio.
What you get from their travels is a remarkable work of photojournalism, which captures slices of life in their stops. In these photos, you get a sense of Kerrville's rugged industriousness, with pictures of men digging artesian wells, branding cattle and the Guadalupe River playing a significant part.
There's a bit of foreshadowing on the trip, and that's the visits to the San Antonio missions — maybe not as famous as their California cousins, but equally impressive in their scale and presence. There's also a trip to the Alamo — a connective element to the Ramona story because it precedes the great American expansion westward.
The other part of this story is the rapidity of change experienced in America. You see it in the daily life they capture. The camera they use could be a Kodak folding No. 5, a high-quality camera that could use glass plates or Kodak's new film. In 1893, the better amateur photographers probably would have stayed with glass plates because the reliability of Kodak's film was questionable.
The camera also had a 1/250th second shutter speed to capture faster-moving images. The steadiness of the shots is remarkable, and you can tell there's a faster shutter from the moving pictures from the train.
In New Orleans, the travelers capture the working areas along Canal Street, and in San Antonio, they photograph the Alamo, the missions and the Army's barracks. There are people of color represented throughout the collection.
By the time they reach California, the family has photographed large swaths of West Texas but seem to skip the portions through New Mexico and Arizona.
Once they reach California, the photojournalism continues by documenting the burgeoning agricultural production, especially citrus, making many Southern California cities the wealthiest in the country by 1893. They travel as far north as Santa Barbara but spend most of their time in Los Angeles, Pasadena and Covina. They are also enthralled by the weather.
There are some interesting nuggets from their trip to California:
- They photographed the Baldwin Cottage, which was later used as a set on "Fantasy Island."
- There's a photograph of Gen. John C. Fremont's California headquarters, where U.S. Army officers would later decide whether to stay in the Army or defect to the Confederacy in 1860. Two of the future generals were Winfield Scott Hancock, who held the Union center at Gettysburg, and James Longstreet, who ordered the doomed attack against Hancock.
- In a picture at Redondo Beach, which is likely Pier 1, the only deep-water pier for steamers, there appears to be a small oil derrick gushing. In the years to come, oil derricks would be a constant presence along the California coast.
The gift of the photographs provides us insight into our past and reminds us how far we've come.