Edith Irvine’s Earthshaking Images
By Antoinette May
Edith Irvine stepped onto the Stockton stage ready for adventure. As the tiny mining town of Mokelumne Hill faded from view, she sat back. The coach ride was only the beginning. Just twenty-two, she had embarked on a trip round the world.
Very early the next morning, April 18, 1906, she boarded the packet boat that would take her across the bay to San Francisco. Edith thought eagerly of her father who would be waiting. Thomas Irvine was battling claim jumpers who sought to steal the family’s mining interests in the Sierra foothills. She’d stay in San Francisco long enough to cheer him through the upcoming litigation.
As the San Francisco harbor appeared on the horizon, Edith pulled out her camera. She was proud of her photographs and knew they were good. While in high school her work had caught the attention of Prince Andre Poniatowski, who hired her as his photo archivist. The Polish royal was engaged in the monumental task of wresting the Electra Power Plant (forerunner of PG & E) out of the wilderness. Edith’s photographs recorded the impossible dream’s slow morph to practical reality.
Edith focused on the famous San Francisco skyline, then frowned. Why did it look so different! And all those people . . . what was going on? There seemed to be hundreds and hundreds of them pushing and shoving one another to get closer to the dock. Some waved money. Guards attempted to hold them in place. As the boat moved closer, she heard the frightened cry, “Earthquake!” repeated again and again.
As Edith’s boat slipped into its docking position passengers looked at one another in consternation. Did they want to get off or not?
No question about the people on the wharf. They all wanted to get on. Edith gathered up her equipment—camera, plates, collapsible tripod—jamming them into her portmanteau. Never mind the steamer trunk in the hold. She hurried to the gangplank, made her way quickly as possible onto the dock and through the jostling crowds.
On the street beyond Edith spied an abandoned baby buggy just big enough to hold the portmanteau. She lowered the protective veiling and sped off down the street.
It appeared in those initial moments as though all of San Francisco lay in ruins. Edith saw and photographed devastation at every turn, not only the destruction of buildings but the upheaval of lives. Her lens captured people fleeing in every direction, arms filled with all they could salvage, and draft horses lying dead where they had fallen their bodies half-covered with debris.
Edith took pictures all day, returning to Stockton that night to develop her photos. The next day she was back in San Francisco and the day after that. Armed guards had by then been posted by city fathers anxious to conceal the magnitude of the damage. These soldiers saw only a young mother hurrying down the littered street with a baby buggy. Edith saw standing skeletons, classic examples of poor construction that had disintegrated. She saw an old woman, the possessions of a lifetime reduced to a rocking chair, a trunk and the clothes on her back. And she recorded what she saw in nearly 300 glass photo plates.
When Edith finally connected with her father she learned that the paper trail supporting her family’s mining interests had been destroyed in the fire that consumed City Hall. There would be no round the world journey. Instead, Edith returned to Mokelumne
Hill and became a school teacher. It was not a happy life.
Edith had been a lively girl, a tomboy, who loved fast horses and roared down country streets in her model T. She was attractive to men but none, in her mother’s eyes, was good enough for her. Irene Irvine would have preferred that her children never marry and did her utmost to make that wish a reality. Edith’s brother, Bob, was 60 before he escaped the nest.
Edith went so far as to announce her engagement, but Mrs. Irvine squelched that one by crossing a gypsy’s palm with silver. According to local legend, the fortune teller warned Edith that she would die in childbirth. Edith married.
She continued to photograph, memorializing the tiny town that has become a National Heritage, until World War I when the advent of plastic film made picture taking too expensive for her. Despite her personal disappointments Edith is remembered as a “good teacher and fair,” but eventually even this avenue was closed to her.
Plagued by joint pain, Edith was over medicated and became addicted to painkillers. As time passed drugs were laced with alcohol. In 1949, following a visit to the nursing home where her mother lived, Edith drank rubbing alcohol. She died that night and is buried in an unmarked grave within the family plot. Irene Irvine lived on for several years.
Edith’s photographs, stored and forgotten in a basement, survived a garage sale and eventually wound up at Brigham Young University where they are prominently displayed.
Edith Irvine’s photographs of the quake, the Electra power project, and Mokelumne Hill will be on display April 29 through May 27 at the Calaveras County Historical Museum, 30 Main St., San Andreas. Information (209) 754-1058.