Northern Michigan in Focus: The Story Behind The Photo

A little over a week ago the Mackinac State Historic Parks uploaded a photograph to its Twitter page that went viral. But that led to the question: what’s the story behind the photo?

Corey Adkins found out for this week’s Northern Michigan in Focus.

“The photograph, taken in 1856, is the oldest known photograph of the Straits of Mackinac region. Taken by Reinhard Wernigk, who was staying on the island, he was a professional photographer,” explained Steven Brisson with the Mackinac State Historic Parks.

There’s a lot going on in this photo by Reinhard Wernigk. We’ll start with the house on the left.

“He was guests of the Saltonstall family. In the photograph, the large column house to the left, a stately Greek revival home. That’s where he was staying, the Saltonstall were renting that house from the Abbott family,” said Brisson.

Back in the day, the Abbott family was kind of a big deal on the island.

“The Abbott family were prominent Mackinac Island businessmen and politicians. Judge Abbott had built the home and that was one of the finest homes of the day when he built it. But he had recently passed away, and the home was under the ownership of his brother, who was renting it out that summer,” explained Brisson.

If you look down the picture, you’ll see many landmarks that are still on the island.

“The Biddle house is visible in the photograph, the old courthouse with its cupola, the warehouse of the American Fur Company and, of course, in the distance Fort Mackinac, and that’s what the photographer said he was trying to get a good picture of,” said Brisson.

When it was time for Reinhard to leave, he gave the Saltonstall family this copy of the original. No one knows where the original is, but they could be on the bottom of Lake Michigan.

“He left Mackinac Island headed for Chicago with his wife aboard the steamer Niagara and, shortly after leaving Sheboygan, Wisconsin, the Niagara caught fire and the photographer and his wife perished, as well as many others. So any other photographs that he had taken on Mackinac that summer probably went up in flames and sank with the ship,” explained Brisson.

Sixty people died that day. A few years later the Abbott house burned to the ground. So next time you see a picture floating around the internet, you may want to ask yourself: what’s the story behind the photo?

“Without this in 1856, the next oldest photograph on the island probably dates from at least 10 years later, so it’s really from the middle to late 1860s before you get any other photograph scrapping up of Mackinac Island, so this is a real treasure,” said Brisson.

Categories: Northern Michigan In Focus