History Nebraska Blog

Throwback Thursday: New Photographs Reveal Details about 19th Century Lincoln

 The smoking ruins of Leighton and Brown's Drug Store, Lincoln, NE, circa 1880.


Have you ever seen a couple of 1883 fire engines take up an entire downtown Lincoln street as they battle for high-pressure, watery glory in a firefighter’s tournament? Thanks to a new acquisition by the NSHS, now you can. The Society recently acquired seven stereographs that offer never-before-seen street views of Lincoln in the 1870s and 1880s. The stereographs came from a dealer in Omaha after an online auction that ended May 30. Stereographs are two almost identical photographs placed side by side on one piece of cardboard. They are designed to be viewed with a device called a stereoscope. The lenses of the stereoscope allow the viewer to view the two photographs of the same scene as a single three-dimensional image. Karen Keehr, NSHS photo curator, said that these photos are an important addition to the NSHS collection because many images from this time period – especially street scenes – are rare. “The street scenes are more valuable because they tell us about the growth and development of Lincoln,” Keehr said. “Now we have photos from the 1870s, 1880s, 1890s, and the early 1900s, and we can see how Lincoln grew and changed.” The stereographs depict street scenes that include the State Fireman’s Tournament, traffic in front of the Burlington & Missouri Railroad Depot, the smoking ruins of Leighton and Brown's Drug Store, and O Street traffic in its infancy.

 A stereograph of the "Trial of engines during the Fireman's Tournament" Lincoln, NE. Looking NW over Ninth Street from the Post Office building. The Kelly, Burr, Muirs building and the Opelt Hotel are visible in the background, 1883.


Ephraim George Clements, a prolific Lincoln photographer in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,  photographed all seven of the new stereographs. “We know of a lot of photographs by him, but we have not seen these before,” Keehr said. Clements was born in New York and moved to Nebraska in 1869 after fighting in the Civil War and working as a schoolteacher and photographer. He filed a homestead claim near Elmwood in Cass County and then started a photography gallery in Lincoln on the southwest corner of 10th and O Streets. He divided his time between Elmwood and Lincoln until 1872, when he moved permanently to Lincoln. He was a prolific photographer of Lincoln places and people for his own photo gallery, and he was the official Nebraska legislative photographer. The new stereographs’ conditions range from good to excellent. Unlike many artifacts of their age, none of them have any water or mold damage. The earliest print is from around 1872 and the latest is from around 1883.

Photo curator Dell Darling scans a photo in the digital imaging lab at the Nebraska State Historical Society.


Keehr said she’s confident that the NSHS can keep them in excellent condition. “The renovation of the headquarters building that was completed in 2011 made us more secure about taking care of these important artifacts,” Keehr said. The stereographs are currently stored in polyethylene archival plastic and housed in climate-controlled storage. They are now on the historical society’s photograph and artifact collections website, http://nebraskahistory.pastperfectonline.com/, and high resolution digital copies can be made at the NSHS headquarters' Reference Room at 1500 R St. in Lincoln. “I’m excited about new stuff. I’m always excited to see stuff we haven’t seen before, especially people interacting with their environment,” Keehr said.“ I love movement and people in my photos, and these photos have both.”  

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