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Historian shares William H. Rau’s photos taken after the 1889 Johnstown flood: From devastation to 20th-century glory

A talk Wednesday at Baker Mansion will appeal to various interests as historian Julie Fether Rockwell of Huntingdon presents a visual commemoration of the 130th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood May 31, 1889 using photos from the historic William H. Rau collection.

In her electronic presentation, Fether Rockwell will share and discuss how the historic 1889 flood changed the landscape and surrounding communities. Those interested in local history, railroads, the Johnstown Flood and photography as art will find the presentation entertaining, organizers said.

Preceding the presentation, Michael Farrow, president of the society’s board of directors, will show the last 15 minutes of a silent movie that shows a re-creation of the breaking of the dam and subsequent flooding of the city. While no admission fee is charged, donations are accepted.

The Pennsylvania Railroad, known as the PRR, commissioned Rau to take photos of various railroad scenes and settings as a means to promote railroad travel, Fether Rockwell said. “He was really the first tourist marketer.”

Her presentation of about 40 slides will focus on Rau’s photos that document the Johnstown “community’s strong resiliency … I will be starting the presentation on top of Cresson Mountain at the Mountain House Hotel built on PRR property and ending near Packsaddle Gap in the Chestnut Ridge Mountains along the Conemaugh River near Boliver,” she said. “I want to illustrate how quickly Johnstown recovered from the devastating 1889 Flood — from complete devastation to a city of great, early 20th-century glory and industrial prowess with the Cambria Steel Co. … “

Rau was a technically accomplished photographer from the 1880s through World War I and was employed by the United States Government who systematically documented the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone Park and other areas. However, he is best known for an elaborate photographic survey of the entire Pennsylvania Railroad Company starting in 1891. Rau traveled in a special rail car equipped with a living area for Rau and his assistant, but its primary function was as a dark room, storage area for photographic negatives and large-format cameras and a variety of lenses.

Formerly of Ebensburg, Fether Rockwell is a master of arts degree candidate at Johns Hopkins University. She has worked extensively with the Rau Collection since 2015.

“I fell in love with the collection the first time I saw it,” Fether Rockwell said. “My passion really is the collection because it’s a testimony to the best of the 19th Century photographic process. People don’t realize the gem they have here so this talk is a great opportunity for people to learn about it.”

Every other year, The Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art displays a portion of the Rau collection — the next one is set for December and is entitled “William H. Rau: Connecting to Community.” The show will be guest curated by members of the community. The Rau collection is jointly owned by The Altoona Area Public Library and SAMA. More than 600 images in the Altoona Area Public Library’s collection have been restored by the Conservation Center for the Art and Historic Artifacts of Philadelphia. The project is a partnership of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Heritage Preservation Commission, the library, the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum, the Pennsylvania Department of Community Affairs, the Allegheny Ridge State Heritage Park and SAMA.

The collection is stored in a temperature and humidity-controlled environment at SAMA’s Altoona location at 1216 11th Ave. to best preserve Rau’s artistry, according to Fether Rockwell. “The collection rarely comes out because of its fragility,” she said.

Rau printed his images on albumen photographic paper, a paper coated with egg white mixed with ammonium or sodium chloride. Using a contact printing process, sunlight to expose the image and controlling exposure time, Rau’s prints offer crisp detail, strong contract of light and dark, combined with and a distinctive yellow hue as the albumen ages. Rau strictly controlled all aspects of the picture-making process, from equipment used, scene composition, through the development and printing processes, Fether Rockwell said.

“We are hoping this talk gets the community excited about these photographs,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.

If you go

What: “Remains of a Tragedy, Rebirth of a City: PRR Photographs by William Rau after the Johnstown Flood,” by Julie Fether Rockwell. Rau is shown in the photo above.

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 24

Where: Lecture room, basement level, Baker Mansion, 3419 Oak Lane

Entrance: Admission is free; Donations will be accepted.

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