James Zellner photographs of Mauch Chunk

Monday, September 23, 2019

After the recent processing and digitization of the William H. Rau lantern slides collection revealed a beautiful array of forty-six lantern slides, many of them hand-colored, the staff of the Hagley Library began a project to address other unprocessed glass plate images in our collection associated with the Philadelphia photographer William H. Rau. These collections were largely acquired in a flurry of activity during the mid-1970s, after Edwin P. Alexander’s 1971 On the Main Line: The Pennsylvania Railroad in the 19th Century reproduced a number of Rau’s images, beginning what would become a rekindling of interest in the once renowned, but then obscure commercial photographer.

Flagstaff Mountain, group photograph, ca. 1885

The most recent fruits of our labor had us diving into six boxes of 151 glass plate negatives, which had been tentatively associated with William H. Rau based on their subject matter. Like the recently digitized images of the William H. Rau lantern slides (Accession 1971.360) collection, these images depicted scenes from in and around Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania (now Jim Thorpe) and the surrounding region in the later years of the 19th century.

Mauch Chunk, looking across river at mansions, ca. 1885

It quickly became evident, however, that, while these images likely originated from a single photographer, it was unlikely to have been Rau, whose work in documenting the Mauch Chunk region took place during an 1895 commission from the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Using landmarks and other hints hidden in the images, we began a search for answers. Some clues came from a helpful graffiti artist (see below). These images looking out over Mauch Chunk from Prospect Rock indicated that our mystery photographer was active in the region both before and after August 3, 1891. Seen below is an early view from this lookout point, with the initials L.B. marked on the rock.

Mauch Chunk, view from Prospect Rock, ca. 1885

In this later image, the initials L.B. are much faded, but still legible, and joined by new markings. [R?]A.R.E nbody, your tag is inscrutable, but we thank you for your service in dating your work.

Mauch Chunk, view from Prospect Rock, ca. 1885

Other hints likewise suggested that our photographer was active over the course of multiple years, most occurring well before 1895. Some photographs of the town’s center included the offices of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, constructed in 1882. In others, this prominent building is notably absent. The same is true of the Central Railroad of New Jersey’s Mauch Chunk station, constructed in 1888. Mauch Chunk’s second and third courthouses also both appear in this collection. The second was built in 1850 and demolished in 1893; construction on the third was completed on the same site in 1894.

While these landmarks assisted in providing a general time frame for the origins of these glass plate negatives that ruled out William H. Rau as a likely source, we were still left wondering who our photographer was. One other item in our collections provided some assistance in our research. Our Mauch Chunk, the Switzerland of America souvenir viewbook replicated a number of the photographs in this mysterious collection as illustrations. While these illustrations were unattributed, they did provide descriptive details. After scouring our predecessor’s hand and type-written notes from the 1970s . . . we turned to a tool that was unavailable to them. The internet! And the internet delivered! A search using the descriptive text in the souvenir viewbook returned hits to matching stereoviews digitized from the Library of Congress’s Marian S. Carson Collection and the New York Public Library’s Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views, all attributed to either James Zelner or the alternatively spelled James Zellner.

These resources also enabled us to further narrow down a likely date range for many of the images. One of the two otherwise identical series of stereoviews bore the lengthy title Scenery of the Lehigh & Susq. Div., Central Railroad of New Jersey. Stereoscopic Views of the Most Prominent Points in Mauch Chunk, the Switzerland of America: Glen Onoko and the Lehigh Valley, and along the line of the Switch-Back Railroad. It appears likely that this was a re-release of a previously published series, repackaged to capitalize on the 1888 opening of the Central Railroad of New Jersey’s rail station in Mauch Chunk.

Glen Onoko, Packer’s Point, ca. 1890

Further research revealed Zellner to be a local photographer working out of Mauch Chunk. He was born to Charles and Elizabeth Zellner in Beaver Run, Pennsylvania on June 8, 1836. He was the second of eight children. By 1850, the family was living in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, where Zellner would live the rest of his life. During Zellner’s life in Mauch Chunk, he operated out of at least two photography studios, and is credited as being the first operator of a photography gallery in the town. During an unspecified period of time, he was located at the corner of Race and Susquehanna Streets. A city directory from 1873 places him on Broadway, opposite the American Hotel. An 1875 property map locates James Zellner at 158 West Broadway, between J. Brelsford and J. Kirstler, though it is not specified whether this is a storefront or a residence. He died at his home in the Fairview Hill section of Mauch Chunk on November 2, 1897 and was buried in Mauch Chunk Cemetery.

Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway, group posing with car, ca. 1880

While our hunt for unprocessed William H. Rau collections in the stacks continues, we’re pleased to have significantly expanded the public’s digital access to the works of this local talent. You can view the newly digitized (and newly renamed!) James Zellner glass plate negatives (Accession 1974.278) in our Digital Archive by clicking here.


A version of this article was also published at The Hagley Vault on September 24, 2019.

Skylar Harris is the Digitization and Metadata Coordinator at Hagley Museum and Library.​