Updated February 22 at 7:59am

Steamship society goes online to ID old vessels

The word “Wikipedia” would have been only gibberish in the late 1930s, when Edward O. Clark began his lifelong hobby of photographing steamships, ferries and other maritime subjects while working on a ferry in Narragansett Bay.

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Steamship society goes online to ID old vessels

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The word “Wikipedia” would have been only gibberish in the late 1930s, when Edward O. Clark began his lifelong hobby of photographing steamships, ferries and other maritime subjects while working on a ferry in Narragansett Bay.

Nevertheless, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit has inspired a new project at the Steamship Historical Society of America that centers on Clark’s photos.

A lifelong member of the society, Clark, who lived for most of his life in Pennsylvania, was also a deeply private man. He amassed a collection of 38,000 color slides depicting ships, ports, steam trains and people before his death in 1994 at the age of 76.

Clark left the photos to the society in his will, but for more than a decade the unidentified images languished in storage, along with thousands of other photos owned by the society dating back to the Civil War era. Some were beginning to deteriorate; early Kodachrome images were turning red and fading.

In 2007, the society received a $50,000 grant from The Champlin Foundations to restore 40,000 photographs. The society hired The Digital Ark, a Newport firm, to process, clean, preserve, scan and prepare all the images for display online at www.sshsa.org.

With the restoration process nearly complete, the historical society is now turning to its members and the general public in a global effort to identify the tens of thousands of images.

Visitors can go online to click through the pictures and e-mail clues about their subjects, while members of the society can access high-resolution versions of the images and add comments directly to the pictures’ pages. The high-quality versions can also be purchased online.

The “Image Porthole” project, found at www.sshsa-db.org, is an example of how historical organizations are using new technologies to broaden their appeal, according to Matthew Schulte, who became the society’s first-ever executive director in 2007 and, along with the president of the society’s board, Robert Cleasby, came up with the idea.

“The world of traditional museums and traditional libraries has changed,” he said. “We just felt that this was a way we could provide a new avenue [to engage people]. They could provide anecdotes, they could tell us historical data, and just identify these vessels, ports and places.”

He added, “It will become tomorrow’s version of a World Book or Wikipedia.”

The photograph project is part of a broader effort by the 73-year-old Steamship Historical Society to reinvigorate itself and reach out to a new generation.

“What we’re doing is reinventing ourselves,” said Schulte, in preparation for the society’s 75th anniversary in 2010.

Although the Steamship Society later opened branches in New York and Baltimore, its roots are in the Providence area. Over the next three years the group hopes to find a permanent home here in the city and is considering the planned Heritage Harbor Museum.

“Being a preservationist … it’s nice to have a place that understands the importance of the past,” he said.

The society currently has 2,000 members in the United States and 300 more abroad, a mixture of maritime tradesmen, historians and hobbyists. Although its roots are in steam vessels, Schulte said the group embraces a wider spectrum than its name might suggest.

“Even though steamships [are] our legacy and our first name, we embrace people from all backgrounds in engine-powered vessels,” he said.

By going online, Schulte said, the group can reach people who would never travel to Providence and visit a brick-and-mortar archive. The photo project has already led nonmembers to send the historical society their own grainy photographs of long-ago ships and steamers.

“If we can provide information with the Internet and reach the world that way, what’s the point of having a big museum as a maritime temple if people can’t go there?” he said. •

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