Cover image for Wood Hicks and Bark Peelers: A Visual History of Pennsylvania’s Railroad Lumbering Communities; The Photographic Legacy of William T. Clarke By Ronald E. Ostman, Harry Littell, and with an Introduction byLinda A. Ries

Wood Hicks and Bark Peelers

A Visual History of Pennsylvania’s Railroad Lumbering Communities; The Photographic Legacy of William T. Clarke

Ronald E. Ostman and Harry Littell with an Introduction by Linda A. Ries


$39.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-07207-4

Available as an e-book

252 pages
10.5" × 9"
121 duotone illustrations
Published in collaboration with the Lumber Heritage Region of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

Keystone Books

Wood Hicks and Bark Peelers

A Visual History of Pennsylvania’s Railroad Lumbering Communities; The Photographic Legacy of William T. Clarke

Ronald E. Ostman and Harry Littell with an Introduction by Linda A. Ries

“A detailed look at a bygone world.”


  • Media
  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
In Wood Hicks and Bark Peelers, Ronald E. Ostman and Harry Littell draw on the stunning documentary photography of William T. Clarke to tell the story of Pennsylvania’s lumber heyday, a time when loggers serving the needs of a rapidly growing and globalizing country forever altered the dense forests of the state’s northern tier.

Discovered in a shed in upstate New York and a barn in Pennsylvania after decades of obscurity, Clarke’s photographs offer an unprecedented view of the logging, lumbering, and wood industries during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They show the great forests in the process of coming down and the trains that hauled away the felled trees and trimmed logs. And they show the workers—cruisers, jobbers, skidders, teamsters, carpenters, swampers, wood hicks, and bark peelers—their camps and workplaces, their families, their communities. The work was demanding and dangerous; the work sites and housing were unsanitary and unsavory. The changes the newly industrialized logging business wrought were immensely important to the nation’s growth at the same time that they were fantastically—and tragically—transformative of the landscape.

An extraordinary look at a little-known photographer’s work and the people and industry he documented, this book reveals, in sharp detail, the history of the third phase of lumber in America.

“A detailed look at a bygone world.”
“Valuable historical documents, the images fascinate, also, through their depiction of the environment devastated by logging activity and of the strange locomotives and heavy machinery, iron dinosaurs in the forest landscape. . . . This volume will be of equal interest to readers exploring nineteenth-century photography, Pennsylvania history, the logging industry, or environmentalism.”
“Gorgeous, detail-packed photographs.”
“In this era of digital photos and selfie sticks, the art and technique behind Clarke’s photos is striking.”
“In addition to piecing together Clarke’s enigmatic life, the book builds on the story of the 131 found negatives, interspersing several other Clarke logging photographs preserved by the State Archives. Readers will come away with a solid understanding of the loggers’ lives, especially of those who resided near the communities of Galeton, Potter County, and Port Allegany, McKean County.”
“It is the scope of these photographs—discovered, preserved, and now reprinted for the first time in over a century—that makes this more than just another coffee table book. . . . Wood Hicks and Bark Peelers is an important contribution to the environmental sector of public history in Pennsylvania.”
“What a glorious feast for the eye! William T. Clarke’s images remind us that nineteenth-century Pennsylvanians lived in a wooden world: the trees still standing, and those cut for homes, trestles, railroad ties, tools, and fuel, reveal how incredibly useful the state’s forests were, for those lives depended on them. Even better, Clarke makes this story human—the faces, poses, and clothing leap off the page, bringing a lost world back to life.”
Wood Hicks and Bark Peelers is a brilliant photographic history that is not to be missed. The fabulous late nineteenth-century original photographs are rich with insight and context. Augmented with great storytelling, the images and text come together to create a beautifully haunting history of Pennsylvania's railroad lumbering companies.”

Ronald E. Ostman and Harry Littell have collaborated on a number of books, most recently (with Mary Jordan and Joyce Hatch) Dear Friend Amelia: The Civil War Letters of Private John Tidd and Great Possibilities: 150 Photographs by Verne Morton. Ostman is Graduate Professor of Communication Emeritus, Cornell University. Littell is Associate Professor and Chair of Photography, Tompkins Cortland Community College, Dryden, New York.



Prologue: Discovery and Procedures

Introduction: The Salvation of William T. Clarke

Linda A. Ries

1 The Black Forest

2 The Machine in the Garden

3 Wood Hicks, Bark Peelers, and Other Woods Workers

4 Camp Life

5 Community Life

6 The Pennsylvania Desert

7 A Mighty Transformation

Appendix: Notes on the Photographs





The Salvation of William T. Clarke

Linda A. Ries

We know very little about him. What we do know has been teased from civil records and contemporary publications. Only a handful of his letters survive. With such meager data, we can at least evince a slight figure, suffering from heart problems, arriving around 1887 from his native New York to ply his trade in the Pennsylvania woods. William T. Clarke stopped time and place for us at the turn of the nineteenth century in north-central Pennsylvania. He created a precious visual legacy, enabling for us an appreciation of the landscape and people of that era. Yet he himself is a mystery. To gain further perspective on his life, it is useful to describe Clarke’s world and photography’s place in it. Also, contemporary use of his images, his fascinating relationship with Henry Wharton Shoemaker, and the ultimate salvation of his works warrant additional study.

Like any technology, photography serves to enhance our lives. It is a tool, like a toothbrush or computer, to make existence secure and efficient. Photography’s particular technological purpose is to capture and retain graphic information for later use; a means of creating a record. We now accept image making as a given, a ubiquitous means of documenting ourselves and our surroundings. In the nineteenth century it was a miracle and a revelation. Photography’s commercial introduction in 1839 permanently altered the way humans perceived themselves and their world. For the first time in history, people could see what they looked like without gazing at a reflection or having their portrait painted, the latter something normally reserved for the wealthy. And for the first time, they could graphically record their world: homes, landscapes, anything piquing a curious mind. Images also could be shared with family and colleagues in distant locations. This is photography’s greatest gift: people who cannot readily see a place or person for themselves can appreciate them through the recorded image. This was obviously useful in the immediate sense for the Victorian mindset: friends or relatives plying the gold fields of California or gone soldiering to the Civil War could share their likenesses and surroundings with family and friends back home. There is a deeper value as well to this sharing of visual information: the tool of photography is an extension of the human memory, enabling us to reach back many generations to times and places long past—a great and critical helpmate to the study of ourselves and our history. William T. Clarke did this for us.

By the time he entered the profession, photography was four decades old, well established worldwide as an industry, and accepted as a part of mainstream life. It had been through several format and process changes, from the direct positives of the daguerreotype, ambrotype, and tintype in the 1840s and 1850s to the positive/negative process available commercially around 1855. Until the recent digital era, the photographic negative would dominate the industry. A single negative could produce an infinite number of positive prints on paper, which in turn could be widely disseminated. The earliest negatives had paper substrates, but when Clarke entered photography, they were produced on plate glass. A plate would be coated with a viscous light-sensitive collodion solution that the photographer had to mix and use immediately. While tricky enough to do in a photography studio, the process was compounded when making landscapes. Image makers prior to Clarke had to transport chemicals, the heavy and easily broken glass, and a wooden camera and tripod through the steep Pennsylvania hills often via a horse-drawn wagon; compose and make the exposure; then develop it on the spot in a small darkroom box on the wagon. After paper prints were produced from the collodion glass negatives, the glass was often scraped clean of its emulsion and reused. The degree of difficulty in execution, fragility, and reuse of glass accounts for why there are very few surviving landscape images before 1880 of the Pennsylvania lumber region.

Clarke entered the business in the late 1870s on the cusp of another revolution in photography, initiated by the gelatin dry plate negative. Beginning in April 1880, George Eastman marketed dry plates in Rochester, New York. In his factory, glass was precoated with light-sensitive chemicals suspended in a gelatin emulsion, dried, and shipped to the photographer in light-tight boxes, eliminating the need to formulate and apply collodion on the spot or to process immediately. Flexible film negatives, another technological breakthrough during Clarke’s career, eliminated the need for heavy, bulky, and breakable glass, but they had an inherent problem: the base was made of cellulose nitrate film, chemically unstable and flammable. It is probable Clarke used both the earlier collodion process and later, nitrate film, but the chances of any of his negatives from these processes surviving today are unlikely.

Judging by the identified subjects and locations of his surviving negatives, Clarke made his living as an itinerant by traveling to remote farms, homesteads, sawmills, chemical factories, and lumber camps. Much of his income likely came from contracting with lumber companies, especially the Goodyear Lumber Company, based in Buffalo, New York, to make images of their logging operations in Pennsylvania’s northern tier counties. The Goodyear brothers, Frank and Charles, were the last operators in that area at the turn of the twentieth century and they took down the final remaining stands of original hemlock and white pine. Clarke was likely also hired on an individual basis by local residents for various purposes; he photographed families standing before their homes; proud shopkeepers and clerks at businesses; and workers at their camps, shops, and mills. Clarke’s activities in this regard were reported periodically in the local papers: for instance, the Potter County Journal listed under “Costello News” for February 12, 1891, that “Mr. Clark of Austin was down the other day & photographed the school of L.D. Ripple.” In this era, making a photograph was a reportable event.

Clarke was not the first to photograph the lumber business in Pennsylvania, nor would he be the last. Several figures deserve mention. Some of the earliest known images of logging in northern Pennsylvania are by J. W. C. Floyd (ca. 1853–1930) of Lock Haven, who made images of the G. B. Merrill Lumber Company operations in Penfield, Clearfield County, in the 1880s. Godfrey Hess (1844–1903) and his apprentice Albert F. Zimmerman (1863–1938) often did portraiture, but they also photographed logging operations in Jersey Shore, Lock Haven; English Center, Eagles Mere; and their hometown of Williamsport, the locus of the state’s lumber region. Also based in Williamsport, Francis Edwin Bradley (1870–1943) made images for the Central Pennsylvania Lumber Company and for the Susquehanna and New York Railroad, which served lumber interests in the region. Nelson Caulkins (1874–1965) photographed timbering around Pine Creek and its tributaries from studios in Galeton and Waterville in the early 1900s, producing his photographic prints primarily on postcard stock. Sadly, Caulkin’s home burned in 1956 and along with it his priceless collection of negatives. George Clark (1880–1967), no relation to William T. Clarke, began his career in Austin but lost his business in the disastrous Austin Dam flood of September 30, 1911. He later established a studio in Galeton. In Bradford County, C. H. Krumm photographed the lumber operations at the now ghost towns of Laquin and Barclay.

Why did these men make these images? Like Clarke, they practiced photography as a livelihood. They made images to please their clients. Today we are tempted to think of their extant work through the lens of “art,” for in terms of composition they surely are in many cases. We should be mindful that the original purpose was to fulfill the terms of a sales agreement and please the sitter or contractor. Composition was secondary to the main task, but Clarke had a wonderful eye for it. A typical landscape photographer’s method of filling the image frame of, for example, camp life was to show a group of people in the foreground, the buildings behind. Clarke did this as well, but he seemed to enjoy adding a vanishing-point perspective, placing his people and structures in the middle of or near to a road or a railroad track, and having it wind off into the distant right or left. This pattern can be seen through many examples in this volume (for example, plate 48), and the unidentified logging camp with a gravity slide (plate 30).

Photographers were also proactive in selling their wares. Local events, especially disasters, whether the Battle of Gettysburg or the Johnstown Flood, were opportunities to make and sell images. In the lumber region, any logging or rafting event or train wreck or other catastrophe—notably, the Austin flood of 1911—would be fair game. Clarke was no exception. His body of work encompasses the aftermath of the flood at Austin, train wrecks along the Buffalo and Susquehanna Railroad, and the swift dramatic rise and fall of the now ghost towns of Betula and Norwich. He is different from his fellow commercial photographers in that he did not seem to specialize in studio portraiture. In the late Victorian era, photographers printed likenesses as cabinet cards, a common and popular format for portraits. Usually these bore the name of the photographer on the front or back as an early form of branding. There seem to be no such extant photographs bearing Clarke’s name or logo. Why did he not do this, especially for one likely suffering from heart problems? It was an easier means of income than the rigors of photographing lumber camps. Henry Shoemaker suggested that it was on “doctor’s orders” that Clarke was to get out and into the hills. We may never know.

The bulk of the surviving Clarke negatives are of landscapes showing the lumber industry. Some seem to be deliberately made as a series for the Goodyear Lumber Company or other companies, visually explaining how timber is cut, transported to sawmills, sawed into boards, and shipped to market. The fact that the human subjects are deliberately posed, as in, for example, a tree feller in midchop, suggests that Clarke was producing images for a company publication or promotional campaign, a hypothesis supported by the explanatory captions for a grouping of negatives in numerical sequence showing timbering along Nine Mile Run, “After the Crash to the Ground” (WTC 3821), “Making Logs” (WTC 3822) and “Sawing the Tree into Logs, Nine Mile, Potter County” (WTC 3823b). Some of his negatives were made with a stereoview camera, a device producing two slightly offset images on one plate; when the images were printed and placed beside each other and viewed through a stereoscope, a three-dimensional effect was produced. Viewing theme-related series of stereos was a wildly popular Victorian pastime. It was lucrative for photographers to photograph far-flung scenes and put them on stereoview cards. We do know Clarke made and sold stereoview cards, and as surviving ones at the Potter County Historical Society attest, some were part of a series on the Goodyear-owned Buffalo and Susquehanna Railroad. Whether stereo or not, all the dated negatives now at the Pennsylvania State Archives include the Goodyear operations in and around Potato Creek and between Keating Summit, Norwich, and Betula between 1910 and 1917. Other groupings include Austin before and after the 1911 dam break and logging in the Hammersley region of northwestern Clinton County. Homes and businesses in the East Fork Valley of the Sinnemahoning Creek in Potter County are well represented, especially the area around Jamison, Logue, and Hull’s (Conrad), where Clarke made his home. There do not seem to be any existing Goodyear publications using these images. However, a lithograph of a locomotive on Rich Lumber Company Keystone Railroad stationery (plate 73) was copied from a Clarke photograph (plate 10), a shining example of corporate use of his images.

Clarke also made and sold landscape images to noncommercial interests and individuals, some of the images being published in newspapers, magazines, and books. The halftone printing process, a fast and cheap method of mechanically reproducing photographic images, was beginning to be widely used in commercial publishing at the turn of the twentieth century. In the 1890s American newspapers began featuring halftones relating to newsworthy people and events, for pictures on a printed page would draw the reader’s attention, as they still do today. Clarke likely supplied some halftones to Potter and McKean County papers for local features and to help sell issues. In addition to such use, and worthy of note here, his timbering images also were seized on as a powerful tool for reform by Progressive Era crusaders, especially those trying to save the destruction of the Pennsylvania forests by lumber interests. We now call these documentary photographs, those which dramatically underscore an author’s intent to sway the reader to a specific point of view. For example, Clarke’s image of a grand giant hemlock in the forest along Indian Run near Norwich (plate 1) was captioned as “The Forest Primeval—the Black Forest” and featured as the frontispiece for a 1916 Pennsylvania Wild Life League pamphlet, which argued for increased legislative appropriation for managing the Commonwealth’s forests. The not-so-subtle implication that the magnificent old hemlock and its companions were doomed would not be lost on readers.

The most notable contemporary use of Clarke images as documentary tools for reform was by Henry Wharton Shoemaker (1880–1958), a dominant figure in Clarke’s later history. From a wealthy family, Shoemaker spent summers at Restless Oaks, a property owned by his mother’s family in McElhattan, Clinton County. There he witnessed firsthand the timbering of the breathtaking old-growth stands of hardwoods, white pine, and hemlock, and the land’s subsequent abandonment by logging companies, with no thought of replanting. Deeply affected by this experience, he became, among other things, a proponent of environmental conservation. Nostalgic yearning for this time, place, and a people forever gone became a recurring theme in Shoemaker’s works. A true Renaissance man, he was owner and publisher of the Altoona Tribune, U.S. minister to Bulgaria, state folklorist and archivist, collector of Pennsylvania folktales, and prolific author. He promulgated the myths in regard to Princess Nita-nee, the Nittany Lion, the Indian Steps in Huntingdon County, and many others, as a champion for the history and culture of the Commonwealth. He also may have coined the term “Black Forest” of Pennsylvania. Scholars criticize him, and rightly so, for fabricating or altering facts to enhance the drama and passion in stories he collected or wrote. Historian and folklorist Homer T. Rosenberger stated that when Shoemaker “took pen in hand it ran away with him,” going on to add, “Had Henry W. Shoemaker done more careful writing and had he let his readers know what part of his writing was fact and what part was fiction, his writings would be useful to the historian today.” For us, Shoemaker has unfortunately marred the historical William T. Clarke.

Shoemaker used a number of Clarke images in his books over a ten-year period. The power of publishing Clarke’s logging images was not lost on Shoemaker, who wisely understood photography’s ability to graphically advance his Ruskin-like theme: the loss of the veritable Eden that was Penn’s woods. The book Black Forest Souvenirs, for example, illustrated with halftones made from twenty Clarke images, depicts life in the forest, lumbering activities, and the like. Shoemaker assigned them generic captions, such as “Black Forest Camp Life” and “Bark Peelers at Work.” Interestingly, and oddly, the images he chose have little or no direct bearing on the stories—Shoemaker likely needed them to break copy and decorate pages—the desire to attract the eye with an image and an inducement to read the text. The same is true for the volumes Eldorado Found (in this case the Eden, or Eldorado, is the Seven Mountains) and The Indian Steps. Shoemaker also manipulated captions for Clarke images to reflect distain for the lumber companies, often referring to them in text as “the Despoilers.” A Clarke view of lumbermen posing with logs in Eldorado Found is titled “The Despoilers Again. A Group of Black Forest Loggers.”

Shoemaker and Clarke seem to have shared the same feelings about the loss of the original forests. This is demonstrated by a Clarke letter to Shoemaker, dated August 12, 1912. It discusses types of images available to Shoemaker for his books and is especially poignant, revealing bits of Clarke’s life and business:

Conrad, Potter Co. Pa. Aug 12, 1912

Mr. H. W. Shoemaker

Riverside Conn.

Returning here Saturday I found your latest awaiting and note remarks of your book about ready from the publishers I should have been much pleased if you could have had others to go with those you had on hand. However I am glad that you had some prints to make use of. Perhaps later you may be able to use others that I will soon forward—Most of them may be 5x7 prints as I have been making such size of late years. The ones you have are from 8x10 negatives. Think you will be much pleased with the assortment I will send. (Negatives) subjects of rafting are about the only ones I have not on hand. Some may be smaller than 5x7 being Steroscopic & right here. If you have a scope you will want them for what may well be of more pleasure than to sit & look at those scenes just as they were? Would it be much troubl to forward me a list of the subjects you have I think I annexed title to prints when I sent them & now forget what ones. Certainly will be pleased to receive the Copy of the Work you mention and hope for you the very best of success. Before closing it no doubt will be of interest for you to know that the Goodyear Co. operations are now on Potato Creek over in McKean Co. Railroad starting at Keating Summitt crossing Penn R.R. tracks near Liberty going up Saoffel [?] lick through the old Liberty works and also the Riches (Gardeau) works Railroad passes at the mouth of old Gardeau Coal Mine going on down through timber until new towns of Norwich and Betula are reached about 14 miles from Keating Summitt and 6 miles from Colegrove up stream At Norwich are located Saw Mill, Kindlewood, & R.R. Shops At Betula one mile from Norwich is a Heading and Stave Plant with Wood Alcohol plant being constructed I mention these places as I think you know the location When I made first trip of the R.R. road it simply was a ride back to former days when I was much a young man haveing been on some of the runs in 1887 As you mention the last of the hill forest are about gone And this is the last of it (Around this vicinity) Even at that what a hurry for the fastest mill ever run in this country is now eating up the trees at a rate of 275,000 to 300,000 per 24 hours Why? When the Hemlock can not last there more than 7 or 8 years at most Emporium Co. expects to be done with hardwood at the Summitt by spring also at Austin in Year or two Remember I will be at your service to assist if possible such as you may wish etc

Very Truly Yours

W. T. Clarke

The letter confirms and provides interesting details about Clarke’s business: that Clarke was working in a five-by-seven-inch format and had been earlier working in the larger eight-by-ten-inch size; and that he had been in the area by at least 1887. He says he can send Shoemaker “an assortment,” suggesting that he kept a stock file of his negatives to be printed on demand. He tries to interest Shoemaker in purchasing some stereo images as well. The poignant coda at the letter’s end is especially notable. After describing the speed and efficiency of the new sawmill at Norwich, he questions, “Why?” It is the only written expression we have of Clarke’s emotions regarding the transformation of the forests. It proves he recognized he was a witness to their destruction and lamented their passing and must have realized the images he made were more than for just immediate use; they recorded a significant event. He knew he was creating, through photography, a legacy, an extension of the human memory for this time and place.

In a 1923 letter, Shoemaker claims to have been corresponding with Clarke for twenty-five years, which would have taken their relationship to 1898. While Clarke probably considered Shoemaker a customer and a friend, Shoemaker’s relationship with Clarke was a bit more complicated. Shoemaker viewed Clarke as more than a photographer plying his trade and lifted him through his writings to a more dramatic literary plane. Clarke himself, and his images, were springboards for furthering Shoemaker’s theme of forest and lifeways lost. The photographer’s life of rambling about the Pennsylvania woods inspired Shoemaker to fictionalize him into a muse for at least two stories. In both, Shoemaker presents Clarke as the “Old Mortality” of the Pennsylvania woods, a wistful gadabout, photographing what intrigued him. This appellation is worthy of note, for Old Mortality is the nickname of Robert Paterson, a real-life eighteenth-century Scot who spent forty years wandering about the lowland hills cutting and carving gravestones for old Covenanters. Paterson is also a character in a novel of the same name by Sir Walter Scott. Some of this romantic comparison can be considered true, for there are extant Clarke images obviously taken for sheer interest and amusement. Also, in both tales, Clarke is the narrator of a story within a story, and his photographs are key to the plot, being catalysts for advancing the tale. “An Antique Dealer’s Romance” appeared in 1931, a year after Clarke’s death, in Some Old Deserted Houses in the Central Pennsylvania Mountains. In “An Antique Dealer’s Romance” Clarke is both narrator and character, telling the story of a Chinese immigrant, Charley John, who is prompted to tell his tragic story after viewing a Clarke photograph of a young woman from the lumber region. The second story, an unfinished manuscript titled “Women’s Part in Pennsylvania Lumbering Days,” is undated. Similarly, in “Women’s Part,” a young man becomes obsessed with a Clarke image of a beautiful mountain woman doing a man’s job of spudding bark.

For both stories, Shoemaker exaggerated Clarke’s backstory. He portrayed Clarke as being from “Rasselas,” not Rochester, New York, serving in World War I in the U.S. Signal Corps (“selected by George Eastman himself”), attaining the rank of major, and being awarded the Croix de Guerre by the grateful people of France. Investigation into New York and Pennsylvania military records have found no evidence to support either his service or his receiving the Croix de Guerre. In 1917 Clarke would have been fifty-eight, too old to serve, and with probable health problems, not fit for duty. A place named Rasselas does appear in Pennsylvania, but not in New York. One wonders why Shoemaker waited until Clarke’s death to include him in stories, perhaps as tribute, perhaps to permit embellishment of character. Perhaps both.

Shoemaker’s relationship with the photographer is paramount in the final chapter of Clarke’s story, for it is one thing to create photographs and quite another to preserve them. Sometime after Clarke’s return to Rochester in 1917, Shoemaker realized the significance and potential use of Clarke’s body of work for the Commonwealth—it was a valuable means by which state government could illustrate the loss of the old-growth forests and further advocate the need for wiser management. By this time Shoemaker was a member of the Pennsylvania State Forest Commission, headed by Gifford Pinchot. The Forest Commission was assigned the large task of creating Pennsylvania’s system of parks and forests out of land forsaken in part by lumber companies and other natural resource extractors. As America’s first professionally trained forester, Pinchot had earlier established the United States Forest Service with President Theodore Roosevelt and served as its first director. No doubt Shoemaker received Pinchot’s enthusiastic approbation to seek, find, and save Clarke’s photographs. It is possible efforts to do this began as early as 1918, when Governor Martin Brumbaugh appointed Shoemaker to the commission. The hunt was still on in 1922, for a May 22 letter to Shoemaker from A. C. Vorse, the chief of the Office of Information, Department of Forestry, stated, “District Forester Port believes he is on the trail of W. T. Clarke.” Through the combined efforts of Shoemaker, other state officials, and W. W. Thompson of the newly formed Potter County Historical Society, Clarke, and his negatives, were found in early 1923. Clarke had said his negatives were left in a barn near Betula, his last Pennsylvania home. Upon discovery, however, the barn had leaked sometime between 1917 and 1923, and many of the plates were rendered unusable.

Shoemaker gave alternate accounts of how the negatives were salvaged. In “An Antique Dealer’s Romance,” he wrote of finally meeting Clarke in February 1922 at a barn in Norwich where the negatives were stored, three thousand in number. In “Women’s Part,” he states that he and Joseph S. Illick, the Department of Forestry’s chief of research, met Clarke in Betula in February 1923, the negatives numbered five thousand, and fifteen hundred were in good condition. A subsequent letter from Shoemaker to Clarke, of January 18, 1923, thanking Clarke for the plates, describes their meeting; this is presumably more accurate than the above accounts. They met at Richardson’s Drug Store in Betula around January 14 and spent an evening talking and telling stories. This was the only time the two ever met face to face.

Two different accounts in Potter County newspapers claim that 300 and 150 plates, respectively, were salvaged, with businessman W. W. Thompson assisting in the discovery.


State Officials for Years Try to Locate W. T. Clark, Woods Photographer, Who Worked in Northern Pennsylvania All During Lumbering Days. W. W. Thompson of Coudersport Finds Him in Rochester. Has Many Valuable Pictures.

W. W. Thompson of this place is much pleased that he has finally been able to locate W. T. Clark, who for years was a photographer in Potter County. Clark made a specialty of pictures of lumber camps, log trains, woodsmen, etc., and since these views are no longer obtainable his old negatives have great historical value. Mr. Clark, after leaving Potter County went to Betula, McKean County, where he continued his profession until lumbering was on the decline. He then went to Rochester where all trace of him was lost until a few days ago when a letter from Mr. Thompson reached him. An appointment was made with Clark by State Officials who met him in Betula. The wanted negatives had been stored by Clark in the basement of a barn and most of them had been ruined by water coming through a leaky roof, but some 300 have been found unharmed and copies of these will be saved for the State records. Mr. Thompson for his part in the hunt for the Photographer has requested that a complete set of the pictures be presented to the Potter County Historical Society.

An additional version is from an undated newspaper clipping at the Potter County Historical Society:


Colonel Shoemaker, who has been active in a search for pictures taken by W. T. Clark, a one-time photographer at Cross Fork, has at last succeeded in locating Mr. Clark at Rochester, and finds that he has the negatives of a large number of pictures taken years ago of lumber camps, log trains, woodsmen and other scenes connected with lumber operations. W.W. Thompson, who has also been active in trying to secure these pictures, received word from Mr. Shoemaker that he thinks about 150 negatives can be saved, a good many having been destroyed when stored away in the basement of a leaky barn. It is expected that a set of these pictures will be secured for the Potter County Historical Society, through the efforts of Mr. Thompson.

We will never know the exact number of original plates discovered. And what of the plates not salvaged, and left behind? The ones considered unusable? Probably Illick and Shoemaker wanted only ones directly relating to the lumbering industry. What about plates Clarke may have made of homes, businesses, and events in the region? These subjects are few in number compared with the existing logging views. This again is part of the Clarke mystery.

Illick, in the Norwich and Betula area on business for the department in January 1923, picked up the plates after the Clarke-Shoemaker meeting and took them to Forestry headquarters in Harrisburg. There they were cleaned, housed in new envelopes, captioned, printed, and added to the agency’s photograph library, which also included glass negatives by the “father of Pennsylvania forestry,” Joseph Trimble Rothrock (1839–1922); Illick; and others. In the 1960s they were transferred to the Pennsylvania State Archives, where they remain. About 470 Clarke plates currently are archived there. It appears the Department of Forestry made a set of prints for the Potter County Historical Society, for the society has a list of at least seventy-two Clarke prints matching captions with ones in Harrisburg.

After their acquisition by the state, the surviving plates were immediately promulgated to illustrate publications regarding the northern tier counties and the lumber industry, especially by the Department of Forests and Waters. In June 1923, only a few months after the plates’ salvation, Pinchot, now governor of Pennsylvania, featured Clarke halftones for an article in American Forestry about timber depletion, among them a 1917 image of the Norwich sawmill and, once again, Clarke’s giant hemlock, previously used by the Wild Life League. Clarke’s images later graced the pages of Victor L. Beebe’s History of Potter County, published in 1934 by the Potter County Historical Society. Over the years the society also included Clarke’s photographs in their newsletter, their journal, and a 1976 bicentennial publication. His images were notably part of a series of studies done in the 1970s of the logging industry by Thomas T. Taber III, Benjamin F. J. Kline Jr., and Walter C. Casler. They have also graced displays in historical societies and museums and orientation areas of state parks and forests of the region as educational tools about the logging era.

Despite his literary flights of fancy, Henry Shoemaker is to be praised for his part in helping to facilitate this last chapter of Clarke’s life: the salvation and preservation of his legacy. Although Clarke stopped time and space for us with his images, Shoemaker ensured they would be around for us to study and enjoy. W. W. Thompson and Joseph S. Illick deserve credit as well.

We now know that Clarke took along a selection of his negatives when he returned to Rochester—over 130 glass plates. We have Lois Barden to praise for ensuring that this second grouping of Clarke’s work lives on. As with the salvaging of the negatives from the leaky barn, she and Harry Littell spent much time cleaning, cataloging, and printing them. Lois generously has made them available for all to study and enjoy. Now, a total of around six hundred original negatives are therefore known to exist. Numerous vintage prints exist in private hands and at historical institutions like the Potter County Historical Society. Examples are lovingly reproduced in these pages; more doubtless will be discovered in the future.

By 1920 almost all of Shoemaker’s “Black Forest” of north-central Pennsylvania was gone, the lumber people departed, and communities like Betula and Norwich had become ghost towns. The record Clarke created through the tool of photography is precious indeed, his unique images testifying to a time and place gone forever. Although Clarke himself will always remain an enigma, his photography, an extension of human memory, has enabled us to visit the distant past and see original portions of the Pennsylvania forests before, during, and after their demise. And thanks to the vision of people like Shoemaker, Rothrock, Illick, and Pinchot, who used Clarke’s images as leverage for their advocacy, much of the areas Clarke photographed in the Black Forest are now reforested. As the region today again undergoes another transformation, this time for natural gas extraction, the preservation and appreciation of images of north-central Pennsylvania are even more imperative. A century ago, William T. Clarke’s camera bore witness to a metamorphosis of the Pennsylvania landscape. We are the beneficiaries of his work. His legacy may be that another photographer will be inspired to take up the lens for the next transformation.

Mailing List

Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.