Dubuque’s National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium is noted for its living displays, but did you know that the Dubuque County Historical Society archives more than 35,000 artifacts? Collection Manager Tish Boyer is enthusiastic about the collection – and that’s a good thing since she’s in the process of creating an inventory which will detail the year each piece was added to the collection, who donated it, and each artifact’s significance.
Many of the historical artifacts were donated to the Historical Society. That’s the case with two albums of Henry Bosse’s blue, river photos titled The Mississippi River between Minneapolis, Minn. and St. Louis, Mo., 1883-1891.
According to an inscription on the title page, on October 22, 1937, A.L. Richards, an assistant engineer with the Rock Island District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, presented the albums to his friend M.S. Heagy, a Rock Island banker who had worked as a clerk with the Corps. Over the years, the albums were passed along until they arrived in Dubuque’s Historical Society’s archives.
Who was Henry Bosse? Why and when did he take blue photos of the Mississippi River? And what’s so special about them?
Henry Bosse was born November 13, 1844 near Magdeburg, Prussia on the estate of his grandfather, Count Neihardt von Gneisenau, a general said to have played a role in Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Tracing Bosse’s ancestry back a few more generations, we find renowned French engravers.
Bosse studied engineering, art, and music at the provincial capital of Magdeburg. In 1865 at the age of 21, he sailed from Glasgow, Scotland, to Montreal, Canada. By 1870, he had moved to the U.S. and settled in Chicago where he co-owned a book and stationery shop. The business was destroyed by the great Chicago fire in 1871.
In 1874, Bosse began working as a draftsman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Chicago, but was soon transferred to the Corps’ River and Harbor Improvement Office on the Mississippi River in St. Paul, MN. Another transfer in 1878 moved Bosse downriver to the Corps’ Rock Island, IL District where he worked as a draftsman and cartographer.
In 1882, under the supervision of Rock Island District Engineer Maj. Alexander Mackenzie, Bosse began the ten-year task of surveying and mapping the Upper Mississippi River from the St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis to the confluence of the Illinois River and the Mississippi upstream from St. Louis, MO.
During the late 19th century, Mississippi River navigation was in its infancy as steamboats began negotiating the river’s treacherous rapids, sandbars, and snags. The Mississippi was changing – moving from a wild, untamed river to an important route of travel and commerce.
While river traffic increased, railroads expanded and hired workers to build bridges. The map Bosse drew along with his assistant, A.J. Stibolt, ranked as the most accurate depiction of the Mississippi available at the time and provided a crucial reference in the engineering of bridges, locks, and levees.
Photography was not part of his assignment, but Bosse took his camera and a supply of glass plates on his map-making expedition. As he mapped, he also took some 300 images of the river, the shoreline, bridges, and boats. Bosse’s river photos are thought to offer the first photographic map of a major river.
Bosse printed his photos as blue cyanotypes, using a simple, low cost process that combined just two chemicals to produce cyan blueprints. He bound some of his cyanotypes in leather albums – framing them in oval masks and titling them in black ink. He presented albums to a few friends and fellow Corps employees, including his boss Alexander Mackenzie.
Bosse developed some negatives as albumen or silver prints and exhibited the soft-toned sepia photographs at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. The photos set a new standard which some call a turning point in photographic history.
In December 1903, Henry Bosse died unexpectedly in a Davenport, IA hospital at the age of 58. His photographs were all but forgotten after his death. In 1990, antique dealer Mike Conner found one of Bosse’s albums in the attic of a Washington, D.C. home once inhabited by Alexander Mackenzie. Conner sold the album to Sotheby’s for $60,000. Charles Wehrenberg, a San Francisco collector, purchased the album. He’s sold some individual images for as much as $25,000.
Where are the rest of Bosse’s albums? The Rock Island District of the Army Corps of Engineers has two cyanotype albums along with the 1893 World’s Fair album, several unbound prints, and some glass plates. All but a half-dozen of Bosse’s glass-plate negatives were broken when movers dropped them during an office reorganization.
The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, holds the album presented to Dr. William Mayo on the occasion of his retirement from the University of Minnesota, Board of Regents. The St. Paul District of the Army Corps of Engineers owns the Bosse album William Thompson’s widow presented to the dredge boat William A. Thompson on the occasion of its 1937 christening. A few individual cyanotypes reside in art galleries, historical museums, and private collections across the U.S.
If you would like to see Bosse’s photos, visit www.RiverMuseum.com. Click on “Collections,” “Historical Collections,” “Online Collection,” and search for Henry Bosse. Check out Bosse’s Dubuque photos at 19126.96.36.199, 81, and 82, and 19188.8.131.52, 54, and 55. I guarantee you’ll be impressed with the color and clarity of the historic depictions of Dubuque and the Mississippi River.