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Vanished faces of a West Virginia boom town

The story goes that two veterans of the Civil War came into town for a Memorial Day parade and, while there, they decided to step into Finley Taylor's studio and pose for the intriguing photograph that appears with today's column: old soldiers from opposing sides sitting peaceably, even brotherly, in their uniforms, long after the great conflict that divided the nation.

That's one version of events. Another has the two men posing for the picture, then leaving Taylor's studio, becoming testy and almost coming to blows along the parade route.

No one seems to have the real, full story because Taylor, a busy photographer in the central West Virginia town of Richwood, did not keep meticulous records of his customers. Nor did he keep a journal.

Taylor's legacy is thousands of splendid photographs — many of them from glass negatives — of the people of a wilderness hamlet that became a lumber boomtown after the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad ran a spur to it in 1901.

Luther Baker and Mark Romano, two West Virginia men who have celebrated Taylor's fine photography in books, have confirmed the name of one of the men. A descendant identified the fellow in the Union uniform on the right as Peter Hamilton Craig, a corporal in the 2nd West Virginia Volunteer Cavalry. A report in a local newspaper suggests the photo was taken in 1926, when Craig would have been about 82 years old. He died at 95 in 1939.

Neither Baker nor Romano know for sure the identity of the man in Confederate gray, but they continue to work on that. And while it might seem important to know the whole story of this particular photo, fascinating as it is, I fear we miss the larger picture by focusing too much on the old soldiers.

This Finley Taylor was an exceptional photographer, and attention must be paid. He made a living taking portraits and family photographs in his Richwood studio, but he apparently realized, as the town grew, that there was an important story to tell in the wilderness beyond.

In the early 20th century, hundreds of immigrant families from Eastern Europe and Italy settled the area, and logging companies established camps in the virgin forest. With the help of the B&O, Richwood became home for lumber mills, a paper plant and the largest clothespin factory in the world. Its population grew from 24 in 1900 to 7,000 by 1927. It eventually reached a peak of 10,000.

Taylor lugged a Rochester field camera into what was known as the Cranberry Wilderness to capture the lives of loggers and their families as men cut hardwoods, and horses and mules hauled logs from thousands of acres over a 30-year period.

His photos captured the hard sweat of lumberjacks and the colossal scale of their harvest. Taylor caught in sepia both the isolation and the camaraderie of camp life. His images show the temporary nature of shanty living along the rails as well as the festive, communal moments of Richwood on a Sunday afternoon.

Some of his photos appeared in Baker's 2003 book, "Richwood."

Even more have been published over the last year in a three-volume series called "Last Photographers" — so titled, Romano says, as a paean to the pre-digital age, when men and women used cameras, film and harsh chemical developer to record people and places.

Romano, a photographer and teacher of photography in Cowen, W.Va., has collected thousands of Taylor's negatives. He collaborated on the series with writer and photojournalist Anne Johnson. They have created a record of a long-gone era, when men with axes and saws cleared all the trees in the Cranberry Wilderness. Some 47,000 acres of that area have recovered and is now preserved as part of the Monongahela National Forest.

You can see a selection of Finley Taylor's photographs in a Darkroom gallery. You can also hear a brief conversation I had with Romano about his "Last Photographers" project on the most recent episode of my Roughly Speaking podcast.


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