Nellie Stockbridge: A tough photographer through tough times

History Corner

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  • Nellie Stockbridge (1868-1965)

  • 1

    Thomas N. Barnard, who hired Nellie Stockbridge

  • Nellie Stockbridge (1868-1965)

  • 1

    Thomas N. Barnard, who hired Nellie Stockbridge

As the 1800s flickered to an end, it must have been culture shock for Nellie Stockbridge to leave central Illinois and move to the rough-and-tumble Wild West of Idaho's Silver Valley, where miners and mine owners were at each other's throats and law and order was on thin ice.

Into that cauldron came the young photographer and her camera, having answered an invitation from Thomas N. Barnard, who owned a photo studio in Wallace. Those were the days when taking pictures meant lugging huge boxy cameras that held 8-by-10-inch glass plate negatives.

Nellie didn't seem to mind any of that and stayed 60 years to record the history that swirled around her in that remote corner of America.

She arrived in 1899 - 10 years after Barnard set up shop in Wallace - while anarchy and insurrection reigned as striking miners roamed the canyons repeating the violence of 1892.

Nellie was first hired to do photo touchup work, but quickly was behind the camera, photographing the turbulent times in which she lived. She took pictures of surrounding mountains and canyons, buildings, cars, shop windows, parades and people. But most memorable are the disasters, mines and miners.

Thomas Barnard left home in Waukon, Iowa, in 1881 at age 19, bound for Miles City, Mont., and worked as a photographer's apprentice. When they found gold at Pritchard Creek on the North Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River two years later, he joined the rush and opened a photo studio in Murray, using a camera he bought from his previous boss for $88.50.

When the gold petered out and silver became king, young Tom moved to Wardner near the Bunker Hill and Sullivan Mine and married Norwegian Laura Larsen. Then they moved to Wallace. Disaster struck in 1890 when a fire burned down his studio, destroying priceless pictures and negatives.

Two years later, mine violence erupted over wages and working conditions and the unions were fighting to gain power. Mine owners battled them at every turn. Wages were low - between $3 and $3.50 a day - and working conditions horrendous. It was a dangerous time in the Silver Valley and local law enforcement couldn't stop the violence. Federal troops were called in and some thousand miners and others were rounded up and held in concentration camps called "bull pens" in Wallace and Wardner.

When the battle ended and the troops left, the men returned to the mines but tensions remained simmering for the next seven years.

As the 1800s came to an end, Barnard was elected mayor of Wallace and also started devoting more time to mining deals and real estate speculation. His photography business needed help. Newly arrived Reverend Henry Black's wife, Clara, recommended her sister Nellie Stockbridge living in central Illinois who was trained in photography. He sent her a wire and Nellie accepted the job.

Her responsibility would be touching up the studio portraits that were the bulk of the business. Barnard was so busy with his other activities that Nellie soon took over most photo assignments.

Barnard ended his term as mayor in April 1899 just as the labor violence that wracked the area in 1892 broke out again, with miners from Burke Canyon shutting down two mines in the narrow valley, then blowing up a concentrator facility in Wardner owned by the Bunker Hill and Sullivan mine. One man was killed.

Most of the Bunker Hill miners escaped, but three of them didn't and were caught by the mob, which killed one of them - while Shoshone County Sheriff Young just stood by and did nothing.

Idaho Territorial Gov. Frank Steunenberg declared martial law and asked President McKinley for help. Soon a federal unit of black troops arrived, and once again, miners were rounded up and held in a bull pen in Kellogg. Amazingly, Nellie was allowed into the compound to take pictures, recording a grim part of Idaho history.

The mine owners won the battle and shortly thereafter, mining operations resumed. Life returned to normal, and Nellie photographed the gritty mining towns from canyon floor to hilltops, and then went underground to take pictures of the men working deep in the mine pits.

The mines were dusty after blasting, then wet, muddy and humid - not a friendly environment for camera work. Exposure and lighting were tricky, and it was difficult keeping the camera equipment dry, clean and safe from damage. Despite the hazards, Nellie's underground photos turned out quite well.

Nellie Stockbridge learned to work hard early in her life. While she was still in high school in Pana, Ill., her father's eyesight began to fail, and she and the older children had to become financially independent as soon as possible.

Patricia Hart and Ivar Nelson in their book "Mining Town" wrote that Stockbridge worked in a millinery shop, and that "Potential suitors were quietly, but persistently, discouraged by her mother on the pretense of the daughter's fragile health, though she almost never saw a doctor in her adult life."

Arriving in Wallace at age 30, she was "slim, small and bespectacled, her hair knotted close to her head...a woman dressed like a mucker and would risk life and limb to photograph floods, fires, and work in the mines...meticulously and modestly dressed, resourceful but refined.

"While no adventurer, Nellie Stockbridge was a dedicated photographer and businesswoman. Leisure was alien to her; she worked herself to exhaustion."

In 1907, Barnard sold a quarter interest in his photography business to Nellie, and built the Barnard Building in Wallace on Cedar Street between Sixth and Seventh. Four months later they moved the studio into the new building.

The following year, Tom Barnard was 47 and slowing down - possibly from the effects of the tuberculosis that would eventually take his life. He and his wife, Laura, moved to Spokane and Nellie took over the studio. Two years later the Barnards moved to Los Angeles where Tom died in 1916.

Most of Nellie's work was studio portrait photography, but she was also called "to photograph mines and mills, shop openings, remodelings, window displays, new buildings, shiny fleets of new trucks, and accidents (for insurance claims)," duly recording the history of a wild and growing area on the western frontier.

Being an astute businesswoman, Nellie also sold "china, picture frames, figurines, and calendar art" at her studio shop. Her best customers were the prostitutes who plied their trade just a few paces away on the "less respectable" side of Cedar Street, with many spending their earnings generously on gifts for family and friends.

Then came the Great Fire of 1910. A long dry spell left much of North Idaho and western Montana a tinderbox. Lightning strikes set the forests on fire and some 3 million acres burned, costing an estimated 85 lives. One-third of Wallace went up in flames and the towns of Mullan and Avery were barely saved.

Like a good photojournalist, Nellie was there with her camera and took many dramatic pictures of the devastating "Big Burn." It might have been her finest hour.

Interestingly, a great number of her other photos - buildings, mines and mining towns - showed few if any people and scant activity, often giving the appearance of being ghost towns, but which in reality were bustling with life and energy.

In the vast collection of her photos housed by the University of Idaho Library, there are few action shots in her early work - probably because shutter exposures were so slow that images of moving subjects would be blurred.

Poor lighting and gloomy weather also seemed to hamper many of her earlier pictures. What could be more beautiful for photography than a sunny day in the Silver Valley - in any season?

There was a lot to photograph in the Valley all the time Nellie lived there: The mining wars, Teddy Roosevelt's visit in 1903, the railroads, the hustlers, the loggers, the ladies of the night, the Prohibition era bootleggers and other colorful characters, the snow avalanches, floods, train wrecks, mine disasters and much more.

Nellie Stockbridge lived to be 97. She never married, and died in Wallace in 1965, after photographing her part of the world "as she found it, consistently, faithfully, for six decades," leaving a lasting legacy of the frontier West.

Special thanks: History Corner thanks Jordan Wrigley of Special Collections at the University of Idaho Library for helping provide the historic photos for the Nellie Stockbridge story.

Syd Albright is a writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

Commentary

Missing from Nellie Stockbridge's body of work are the magnificent scenes all around the Silver Valley that Yosemite's Ansel Adams might have noticed - the road to Murray, Cataldo Mission, the rivers and lakes, wildlife, flowers and spectacular clouds of North Idaho, the picturesque steamboats, and pictures of everyday people doing everyday things, rather than simply posing for a camera.

Role of the muckers

The "muckers" were usually apprentice miners. In the early days, after the drillers dynamited the underground rock into manageable pieces, the muckers hosed down the area to control the dust, then pulled down any loose rock in the ceiling before shoveling the ore into carts - the first step in transporting it from the mine to the mill for extracting the silver and other metals. It was hard, dirty work - and dangerous. Nellie Stockbridge fearlessly donned coveralls and hauled her bulky camera and equipment deep into the mines to photograph the men at work.

For photo buffs

Nellie Stockbridge "favored her 1903 Century portrait camera and field cameras that used dry-plate glass negatives (she actually used dry-plate negatives occasionally for portraits until World War II) and did not use flexible film negatives at the studio until 1918, although they were available earlier."

- "Mining Town"

Placer Creek after the Big Burn 0f 1910 photo by Nellie Stockbridge

 

Miners held prisoner in bull pen in Kellogg 1899 phot by Nellie Stockbridge

 

Stockbridge photo of miners locked up in bull pen in Kellogg 1899

 

Nellie Stockbridge photo of picnic party on the lake

 

Hecla Mine in Burke photo by Nellie Stockbridge 1910

 

Miners at work in the Amazon Dixie Mine in Sildex, Montana photo by Nellie 1923

 

Nellie's gift shop in Wallace with woman possibly her sister Grace

 

Nellie's bread-and-butter was posed studio photos like this one of Burke boxer Young Firpo

 

Stockbridge photo of moonshine still near Pottsville ID during Prohibition 1923, with Charlie Bloom on left and Sheriff Rene Edward Weniger.

 

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