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Multimedia Moment: A Mystery Sparked by a Century-Old Film

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This post was written by Tom Bober, the Library of Congress 2015-16 Audio-Visual Teacher in Residence. Over the course of his year at Teacher in Residence, Tom will be writing regular posts exploring different aspects of audio-visual materials in the Library’s collection and their use in the classroom.

Over my months at the Library of Congress, I’ve listened to and watched hundreds of audio recordings and films. One stands out as a favorite because of its content and the interest it sparked.

In my first Multimedia Moment post, I focused on the action in actuality street scenes. One of the films, the 1897 Edison film Corner of Madison and State Streets, Chicago, showed people walking across the street with large signs that appeared to be advertisements. I instantly wanted to know what was written on the signs.

Image of Paper Print Film, Corner of Madison and State Streets, Chicago
Image of Paper Print Film, Corner of Madison and State Streets, Chicago

I downloaded the film and watched it frame by frame, making out parts of a sign that read “Electric Park.” I inquired about scans of the film, hoping they would reveal more. I was able to view the original paper print of the film. Viewing it frame by frame, I made out references to a wild west show, a “gypsy park,” and boating, all in relation to an Electric Park. These discoveries raised even more questions, starting with “What is an electric park?”

What followed was research for more information about the film itself, electric parks – what we might call an amusement park – and other questions that came up during my research.

In historic newspapers, I found an 1897 article about an aeronaut at an electric park who fell to his death in a ballooning accident, a 1900 article about a wild west show that had recently been in Chicago, and a 1904 advertisement for Kolze’s Fine Electric Park at the corner of Irving Park Boulevard and NW 64th Street. I explored historic maps of Chicago to track down the location. There I found the intersection of the 1907 Electric Park, now Merrimac Park at the corner of W. Irving Park Road and N. Narragansett Avenue.

Detail from William L. Mitchell, 1896
Detail from William L. Mitchell, 1896

Advertizement for Kolze's Electric Park from Chicago Eagle, September 10, 1904
Advertizement for Kolze’s Electric Park from Chicago Eagle, September 10, 1904

Returning to the film, I hypothesized that the camera was at the southwest corner of Madison and State Street based on a map that showed trolley lines at the intersection and the elevated rail that intersected State Street blocks away. That hypothesis was confirmed when I discovered a photo of State Street from the same intersection and could identify buildings from the film.

I also delved into secondary sources. I read that electric parks were often located at the end of trolley lines to encourage weekend travel. I flew through information on aeronaut balloonists, the dangers that they faced, and their decline after the invention of the airplane.

This is what I love about learning through primary sources. They can make me wonder. They can also answer my questions, and not in a way that simply hands me the answer, but instead makes me search for and reveal findings, possibly leading me in directions I hadn’t intended.

Most recently, I read an 1898 report that the Chicago Electric Transit Company had eight acres near Elston and California Avenue for their power house and an Electric Park. My search continues!

Is there a film or audio recording that has made you want to explore?



Comments (3)

  1. Great post. It actually made me want to explore more about a park from my hometown, Pittsburgh. It’s Kennywood Park and it too was at the end of the trolley line. Thanks for the spark. I look forward to exploring more and I will definitely search for films where Kennywood may be documented.

  2. Kathy McGuigan – The documentary Great Old Amusement Parks by Rick Sebak of WQED Pittsburgh includes a nice section about Kennywood.

  3. This was an amazing post – the mystery that encourages us to research and learn as much as we can is what makes learning exciting and relevant – thank you for sharing your journey – it is what we hope will excite all of our students!

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