Photo History

Burns Library posts digitized images from the Boston Gas photo archives on Internet

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

When it dispatched turn-of-the-century photographers to record the laying of gas mains throughout the city, the Boston Gas Co. sought to capture the march of progress.

But the cameras also preserved a priceless view of a Boston now lost, where sailing ships plied harbor wharves and mustachioed laborers from Galway and Cork excavated downtown streets with shovels and sheer brawn.

Hundreds of these photos of a vanished age have recently been posted on the Internet by the Burns Library, which houses a collection of Boston Gas Co. photos and documents in its archives. The project is the first of several planned in the coming months to digitize images of holdings in Burns and post them online for a world-wide audience.

This image is among those digitized and posted on the Internet by Burns Library.

"To me, it's another world," University Archivist Ronald Patkus said of the collection of 4,500 photographs taken between 1882 and 1972 for the Boston Gas Co. records.

Some 400 of the images from the late 19th and early 20th centuries were posted in June to the Burns Library World Wide Web site, where they are expected to attract interest from Web-surfing scholars of urban planning and Boston and labor history. The site, at www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/ulib/Burns/digital.html, recorded 500 hits from visitors across the country in the first week the photos were available.

Patkus, himself a Boston historian, regards the Boston Gas photos as "a treasure." The photographers, he added, "captured views of Boston that otherwise would have been lost. To me, they're invaluable."

Patkus said these photos are particularly noteworthy for their depiction of common laborers, most of them immigrants, who would not otherwise have been likely to have their portraits taken. Bricklayers and hod-carriers, looking proud in battered trilbies, pose stiff-backed in a portrait taken during the 1887 construction of a buttress at Commercial Point in Dorchester. A 1901 photo shows workers peering up from a trench running the length of Chauncy Street, as if the Battle of the Somme were being rehearsed in downtown Boston.

"Traditionally, the people we're interested in are presidents or other political figures, and the well-to-do," Patkus said. "This collection captures working people. It provides a view of another class of people, the people who were laying the gas pipes. To me, that is much more important than photos of bankers sitting in their chairs."

Patkus expects the Web exhibit to attract visitors who will want to view the Boston Gas photo collection in person.

"Anyone, not just an archivist, has a visceral reaction to holding these photos in his hands," he said. "They do so evoke a different period. It's similar to the pleasure of leafing through a rare book.

"To me, collecting is one thing," said Patkus, "but the purpose of materials is for people to interact with them and use them. If they just sit on the shelf, what's the point?"

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