Crossing bridges and connecting the dots

gas works and long bridge rincon pointResearching the life of my subject has been fraught with trials. While research is rarely easy my particular problem is that  he died a few years before the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. This catastrophe destroyed San Francisco’s Hall of Records, a repository that contained the paper proof of vital occurrences such as births and deaths, divorces and medical records. The fire also destroyed thousands of homes and business that contained the other kinds of records one desperately needs to reconstruct a life: business documents, diaries, photographs, personal artifacts and letters.

Fortunately the really big events (especially if you were famous) were often covered by the local newspapers so I have been able to reconstruct the benchmarks to some degree. What has been most frustrating is discovering the small things. My subject left a moderate sized collection of papers at the California Historical Society which must have been stored at his family’s country estate on the Peninsula.  Most of his friends however lived in the City so, to my infinite sorrow, their papers were lost as well.

Idly searching the web recently I found something that blew me away – a photographic database from a photographer that worked on the ground floor of the Lick House, a fashionable hotel just a stone’s throw away from the Mechanics’ Institute. The Society of California Pioneers  owns the “show room catalog” that belonged to the photography firm Lawrence and Houseworth. Not only did I find photos of three bridges built by my subject but now that I am aware of Lawrence and Houseworth’s existence I can pull all the stops and  – I hope – find more photos by them that document my subject’s life. So far, I found some residing at the Library of Congress, one of which, to my joy was another bridge. The Library of Congress has some 900 images taken by Lawrence and Houseworth given to them in 1867.

The Society of Pioneers has an eclectic collection certainly worthy of a research stop. At the very least your visit will enable you to meet their excellent staff and reference librarian (if you are serious about research you should be collecting and befriending all librarians) but plan your visit quickly! The Society is packing up its things, preparing to relocate to the Presidio. The photographic collection of Lawrence and Houseworth should keep you busy until they unpack – it is completely online.


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