The Museum this month: The “Holy Grail” of Fishers Island Photographs

Since its founding in 1960, the Henry L. Ferguson Museum (HLFM) has made a sustained effort to gather photographs that document all aspects of the history of Fishers Island. The HLFM collection currently holds more than 10,000 photographic prints and negatives with thousands more in digital format only. Although many historical events and topics are well covered, there are many that remain elusive. Museum Director Pierce Rafferty recently revealed the single outlier image that has remained for years at the top of his “most wanted” Fishers Island photographs list. But first, the back story:

The Wreck of the Steamer Atlantic on North Hill, Fishers Island, November 27, 1846.

After suffering a boiler accident several miles beyond the mouth of New London Harbor, the steamer Atlantic, bound for New York, found herself at the mercy of the elements in the midst of a furious gale. Throughout Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1846, she dragged her anchors as the waves and wind slowly pushed her towards Fishers Island’s north shore. She moved in fits and starts as her anchors held and then gave way. At 4:30 a.m. on Friday, November 27th, the last anchor cables snapped and she crashed onto the rocks on the north side of North Hill. The latest research reveals that 42 people perished and 64 survived. (Because the passenger log aboard the Atlantic was never completed, the numbers will always remain uncertain.) Another consequence was that the wreck spurred the building of a lighthouse on adjacent North Dumpling that was completed and lit by 1849.

The shipwreck was covered extensively in the nation’s press for weeks on end. The fact that the Atlantic was a new steamer and that the slow-moving disaster occurred during and just after Thanksgiving, a time of national celebration, heightened the sense of loss. There were numerous poems that commemorated the tragedy, including one that school children regularly recited.

Nathaniel Currier’s legendary printmaking firm (later Currier & Ives) published not one, but two popular hand-colored prints illustrating the death throes of the doomed Atlantic.

However, most surprisingly, at least one photograph was also made in 1846 at the scene of the wreck on Fishers Island. The fact that this photograph existed was initially discovered because E. Williams Pratt, whose studio was on Bank Street in New London, had placed an advertisement in the New London papers that turned up in a search of Fishers Island stories in early American newspapers. In the ad, Pratt promoted his daguerreotype of the wreck as superior to other renditions. He touted that his image was “taken at Fisher’s Island, the real scene, and not from a painted picture. It is, therefore, more accurate than any sketch can be.” Ironically, the only real proof that Pratt’s daguerreotype ever existed derives from a sketch made from his original daguerreotype that was published in the New York Herald on December 10, 1846.

Despite extensive searches, no trace of Pratt’s original daguerreotype has ever been found. It has totally vanished. Hope springs eternal that it may still exist today overlooked in a private collection, or perhaps as an uncatalogued object in a larger, more public institution. In addition to the historical importance of its subject, this image may well have been the first photograph ever taken on Fishers Island. It precedes by more than three decades the next known photograph taken here. For these reasons, this long-lost daguerreotype is the “Most Wanted” of all the thousands of photographs ever taken on Fishers Island that have yet to be discovered. It is, without a doubt, our photographic “holy grail.”

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