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  • Jerry King Musser

Photographic Memory

At the turn into the 20th century, Columbia boasted dozens of photographers. This would be natural for a railroad town, considering all the comings and goings with people wanted a photograph to document their travels. Some photographers were better than others. Some stayed longer. And, many of them moved from one studio to another within Columbia. We aren't even sure where some of them held a studio. And, not unlike today, many photographers didn't consider photographing themselves. So, finding a photographic likeness of any Columbia photographer is next to impossible. Well... it IS impossible. For sure, we don't know much about many of these artisans.


There was one photographer who stands out, William Bailey. Sure, he stands out because his body of work is noteworthy for its quality. Yet, easily, William Bailey was prolific, leaving us with a bounty of examples over a hundred years later (just not one image of William, himself). William was born in Tamaqua, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania on the 15th of November, 1853. His parents, David (1829-1901) and Lydia Schmidt (1830-1903), stayed in Tamaqua after William left with his wife, Henrietta Wertman, sometime before 1892, when they relocated to Columbia.


William's parents, David and Lydia.

William (along with her brother, Elmer) learned photography from his father. David, considered one of the pioneer citizens, began as a carpenter when he settled in Tamaqua, coming from Albany Township, Berks County. But, soon, he begin a photographic business, making him one of the very first commercial photographers in the country. David was a member of the Patriotic Order of Sons of America, and the Knights of the Golden Eagle. He was well respected in Tamaqua. When William moved to Columbia, it seems he picked up his father's newly chosen trade but was also infected by his father's sense of citizenship and honor.


David Baily's Tamaqua studio.

William had his studio in a few different locations in Columbia but finally settled at 36 North Third Street (very close to where one finds the entrance to present-day Kettleworks Micro Brewery). However, on various fire insurance maps of the 1890s, number '36' doesn't appear, but number '34' does, and that location clearly shows 'photo.' writen by the map maker. Perhaps that street number was shared with a single structure and William identified his location as '36.' A few Columbia photographers had their studios on upper floors, and used a new number, but William boasted in some advertisements that his studio was "on the ground floor" to emphasize ease of access for visitors.


It's curious to note the varied spelling of William's surname ('Bailey') and that of his father ('Baily'). Did William have a falling out with his father and decided to vary his name to distance himself emotionally as well as physically? Possible. But, it should be noted that many surnames at that time (and especially earlier) varied, as spelling was less important than the phonetic utterance. Indeed, looking through William's geneaology, previous generations seemed to flip from 'Baily' to 'Bailey' and back again. Indeed, William's great-great-great grandfather, Johannes Abraham (1702-1763, born in Hessen, Germany)—the first of the line to come to America, spelled the family name as "Baehli."


Likely shot outside the entrance to William's studio on Third Street.

In September 1890, William had a serious scare. His wife, 'Etta,' and their three children had taken a train to Tamaqua to visit family. Word came that the train wrecked a short distance north of Reading. William was beside himself. Reports came in that many were hurt and others killed. For more than 24 hours, he was frantic. Late, the next day, he finally got word that his wife and children were safe. They had taken the last car in the train, and that last car was the only one escaping destruction.


Henrietta remained in William's life for another 34 years. She died in 1924 of natural causes. William retired from his business two years later. By the 1930s, he moved into Columbia's Central Hotel where he was taken care of by his son, Earl (who, by then, had also taken up the photography trade). William died at Columbia Hospital on the 25th of February, 1937, aged 83. William and his loyal companion, Henrietta, remain at rest, beside one another, at Columbia's Mount Bethel Cemetery.


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