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A Summer Spent Under Glass

Lisa Crunk, Photo Archivist
Naval History and Heritage Command

A great find in an archive is often the result of a daunting and sometimes even an overwhelming project, in this case, the rehousing of the entire glass plate negative collection in the photo archive at the Naval History and Heritage Command.

The rehousing project began in advance of the archive branch’s impending move to a new storage facility on the Washington Navy Yard in the next few years. The glass negative collection had gone unprocessed and housed in less than ideal storage containers, given their fragility, not to mention weight. Two hundred cubic feet of glass weighs a lot! To prepare the glass negatives for the move, I began the process of not only rehousing it but processing the most significant collections beginning in June of this year.

Rehousing consisted of interleaving each negative between a sheet of archival foam then re-boxing to a more appropriate size box. Using the right box size is key; having small glass negatives in a large box can cause unnecessary shifting, potentially leading to breakage. Having a box packed too tightly with glass plate negatives can lead to breakage if the box is too heavy to lift properly.

Given the age, over 100 years old, and the fragility of glass plate negatives, it is essential to make sure the materials are well protected for the next 100 years. The term “glass plate negative” refers to two separate formats: the collodion wet plate negative and the gelatin dry plate.

Both of these formats consist of a light sensitive emulsion that is fixed to the glass plate base with a binder. In these days of instant digital photography, it can be hard to imagine the effort it took to create these type of images. It’s for these reasons that archivists take extra special care of them–they’re a lost art.

As June merged into July, I began to come across numerous boxes (at least 50, many of which were still taped shut) labeled “US Naval Electronics History Project”. Beneath that title was a city and state of a US naval radio station location, most of which were from either Alaska or California.

I have been unable to determine exactly what the “US Naval Electronics History Project” was, though it became evident that these glass plate negatives were indeed very special. There were literally hundreds of them organized by radio station location.

I decided this would make an excellent project for digitization and exhibit development, something that the staff of the photo archive are rarely able to do given the volume of our collections. With over one million photos in our collections, we don’t have the time to catalog all of them at the item level or develop special digital exhibits for the website.

What would become the US Naval Alaska Radio Station Photo Collection (UG 10 and UG 20) and the US Naval California Radio Station Photo Collection (UG 21) included the digitization of over 100 glass plate slides dating as early as 1904. The photos cover the earliest representation of imagery associated with the Alaskan Naval Radio Expeditions (1911 and 1914) and the 1906 completion of the West Coast chain of Navy wireless stations.

Both collections provide outstanding coverage of nearly naval radio stations in both California and Alaska as it relates to both radio equipment and station construction. Of specific note is the representation of imagery associated with the Alaskan Naval Radio Expeditions of 1911 and 1914 by the USS Buffalo and the 1912 expedition of USS Nero.

These expeditions involved a mix of naval and civilian personnel – the 1912 expedition consisted of two officers, 32 civilians (including radio experts and manual laborers) and 38 enlisted men, many of which are represented in the photographs. The stations at Sitka and Cordova pre-date these expeditions, 1907 and 1908, and the imagery related to these sites is particularly significant both historically and visually.  

While a picture can indeed be worth a thousand words, without context, it can be difficult to determine exactly what you are looking at. I felt that the images would be significantly less meaningful without additional historical information on the stations themselves. I began to research the history of each radio station included in the collection – seven in California and eight in Alaska. For some stations, there is a considerable amount of material, both official US Navy documentation as well as first-hand accounts of the Sailors who were stationed there. For other stations, there is a lack of information.

The results of the cataloging, digitization, and historical research are finding aids for both the Alaska and California glass plate negatives, including complete box lists, as well as digital exhibits utilizing GIS Story Map software.

The GIS Story Map digital exhibits allows the viewer to see the exact location of each station and the year in which it was constructed. The Alaska radio station digital exhibit also includes the route map of the USS Nero and USS Buffalo, which supported in the construction of several stations. Included throughout the digital exhibits are direct quotes from former sailors (and one wife) on life at the station.

While the digital images shown in the exhibits are only a small sample of the overall collection, the difficulties of station remoteness, lack of resources, and at times extreme climates can be felt in the stories of those who were indeed pioneers in US Navy radio.

As of September, I have completed the project of the California and Alaska collection – it took nearly an entire summer. There are of course many more glass plate negative collections yet to be processed and rehoused – with any luck the next “great find” will be among them.

The finding aids for the two collections can be found here:

Alaska: https://www.history.navy.mil/our-collections/photography/technology/communications/radio/ug-20-us-naval-radio-station-photo-collection.html

California: https://www.history.navy.mil/our-collections/photography/technology/communications/radio/ug-21–us-naval-california-radio-station-collection.html