Once In a Lifetime River Tour Starts Here! Unfortunately, Everybody’s Dead

I want to show you something.

This is Cincinnati on Sunday, September 24th, 1848—162 years ago. The picture, a daguerreotype taken by Charles Fontayne and William Porter (who were standing on the other side of the Ohio River), is so fantastically sharp you can-with your mouse - step right onto the streets, onto the riverboats, peek through windows, explore rooftops as if you had slipped into the 1840's with a pass key.

For example, take this plate here.

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Daguerrotype

Go to the middle of the picture and click to the bottom of the big street at the center of the photo, the one that stops just above the river. If you look very closely, using the zoom lens, you will find, standing on a small wooden platform at the river edge, two males with a bucket on the ground between them. One is short, the other tall.

Scholars at the Cincinnati Public Library don't know who they are. We can see they are wearing white shirts. Maybe, it being Sunday, they are planning to go to church. As for the bucket (if that is a bucket, it sure looks like one) it is possible they came to the river to get some water. Bad idea, says Cincinnati Librarian Patricia van Skaik because the river in those days was rich with sewage. In fact, the gully you see right behind them?  That's where raw sewage from the street was flushed into the Ohio. A year after this picture was taken, 1849, there was a cholera outbreak in town and if those two fellows were regularly drinking river water, they might not have made it to 1850.

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Daguerrotype

And this plate?

This one shows how Fontayne and Porter took this picture. (Which says the University of Rochester, is "the oldest photograph of an urban area in existence.")

If you go to the last building on the street facing the river, to the left of the Ahearn and Hibberd sign on the ground floor (Oh, by the way, guess who worked to the right of Ahearn and Hibberd? When this picture was taken, one of the greatest American songwriters, Stephen Foster of  "Oh Susanna" and "Swanee River" fame was working as a travel agent with his brother on this very block, but I digress...)

If you go to the last building and click your way out into the town square, right behind the Embassy steamboat (which blew up a year later killing ten people), there you will see a bunch of folks in Sunday clothes and not to far off, a horse and carriage. Also, just to the left on your screen there's a single man staring at the river.

This picture was made by making an exposure. I don't know how long the photographers kept their shutter open but it must have been a while because the single man in the square has a double, a ghost image just behind him, a silhouette. And the carriage that's idling by the people? Click to the left and there it is again, about 30, 40 yards over and pointed in a different direction.

According to Alan Blank at the University of Rochester (where this picture was rehabilitated and put on line):

"The ghost images that you see are caused by the extremely long exposure times of the daguerreotype method. The man and the carriage moved while the photograph was being taken (the man toward the river and the carriage down the main street). According to the experts, that's one of the reasons that the photographers chose to take the picture on Sunday - you can imagine the blur it would cause to have a bursting metropolis full of people going about their daily routines."

So not only can you move around in 1848 Cincinnati when you click your mouse, you can watch the Cincinatians moving around too! Very cool.

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