Investigating the Background of a Photograph

This photo from the 1930s shows a tugboat that is busy pushing a cargo ship to a dock next to an adjacent cargo ship.

When I consider a photograph as a potential candidate for our History in Photographs website, I want to understand the history of the photograph. It was an important moment in someone’s life, and it represents some point of history. Sometimes the context is obvious, sometimes it is hidden, and sometimes we speculate. Knowing the approximate place it was taken helps to frame it into a clearer perspective.

About a week ago I started to look into a file that I scanned in December 2017.  The negatives that came with the file at the time were interesting to me particularly because they were nautical related. One picture that I thought was Boston Harbor was not overly interesting, but for some reason, I thought it needed to be better understood.

Boys growing up in my era of the 1950s and ’60s loved tugboats. Tugs were always scurrying about the harbor busy with work and on a mission. The picture shown above had a tug busily pushing a cargo ship to a dock next to an adjacent cargo ship.

I suspected it was Boston because:

  • The negatives were from that area when I bought them.
  • Many of the other negatives had ships under construction that were documented to be built in Boston such as the Cristobal that was built by the Pan American Railway at the Boston Quincy Shipyard in 1938.
  • Fort Independence, in the Boston Harbor, looks to be in the background.

Trying to go further than this was difficult. I could imagine the photographer of these photographs was captivated by all the building going on in Quincy in the late 1930s. The world at this point was becoming much more connected and was at the peak of a large network of cargo ships. It was also on the brink of WWII.

A large merchant fleet was built by private industry for the US Government to use during WWI. Hog Island Shipyard, near Philadelphia, employed 30,000 workers. This pace slowed down during times of peace and the economy absorbed the ships built in the activity of WWI. According to NPS.gov, production fell to 23 ships for the entire 1930, but by the year 1940 that had changed, and the building of the US Merchant Fleet was booming as America launched 4,600 ships between 1940-1945.

I tried to read the name on the bow of this ship in the photo for hours and could not make it out. It is “The City of ?”  There were a lot of ships named after cities, and there were also a lot of cargo ships.

A year later, I just happened to notice the name that was on the side of the tugboat.

Pulling this out a year later I just happened to notice the name that was on the side of the tugboat. While the funnel mark is unique to the owner of the ship lines, I had been unable to identify this one before (I need WorthPoint to expand it’s Marks Library to ship funnels); however, this mark was about to become relevant. The name I had just made out on the side of the tug was “Clare H.” I then went onto Google and looked up “Tug Clare H.” Lo and behold, I found an early 1900’s ship model of the Clare H. Doane. This was an “Aha” moment. The ship model is almost identical except for the funnel mark of “D,” which would ostensibly relate to the Doane surname. I found this particularly an exciting moment since I live on and even helped restore Doanes Wharf in Kennebunk, Maine. Doanes is a well known New England name in the maritime industry. I had discovered the name of the tug, identified what I think to be Fort Independence, and was ready to reapproach the cargo ship.

I did another Google search for “City of  —– cargo ship 1930s.” I came up with some extremely similar ships but nothing that appeared to account for the name on the ship and what appeared to be the lettering of the city name. I did immediately notice ”City of Barboa” and “City of Paris.” These were a part of a fleet of cargo ships the Ellerman Lines of Glasglow had built after WWI when restoring their fleet that had been ravaged by the WWI submarines of Germany. The funnel lines, again unique to a ship’s line, were identical. Thus I had found the owners of the ship, and I could conclude that this cargo ship was of this family.

The lines helped to identify the maker of this ship.

This was enough for me for now. It was clear that this ship was part of the Ellerman fleet in the late 1930s. They owned 105 ships at the outset of WWII and many entered into the service of the British Government. Unfortunately, 60 were sunk. Unknowingly, or perhaps otherwise, the photographer was in Boston taking photographs of the shipbuilding in Quincy at the brink of WWII. He apparently was drawn to the tug and cargo ship. This ship may or may not have survived that war, and the fate of its crew is unknown. The ship was likely supplying the British efforts at this point and carrying cargo for the UK from Boston; a harbinger of the coming war.

I think I solved this mystery!


Will Seippel is the founder, president, and CEO of WorthPoint. Will has been an avid collector since 1974 and dealer of just about all things antique—with an emphasis on ephemera— since 1984. He is also the creator and founder of HIP, a website devoted to recording the best of the world’s history that has been saved on film.

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