Historic Gems Discovered During Research

-Brian Lindner, Archives Month Committee Member, National Life

Have you ever been to a flea market and come home with a remarkable find for which you paid next-to-nothing?  We’ve all heard of people acquiring some object only to discover much later that it has some amazing historic or monetary value – have you seen at least one episode of Antiques Roadshow?  It happens.  Researching in any archive has the same potential.  You may discover the most amazing story only because you stumbled across it while looking for something entirely unrelated.

A few years ago, I was at the Vermont State Archives and Record Center in Middlesex.  While waiting for the newspaper microfilm I needed to research a decades old, cold case homicide, I stopped to look at the contents of a bookshelf I had walked by roughly one or two million times.  After rummaging through a few books on the shelf, I spotted a binder labeled “Houston Studios.”  Holy Cow!!!! 

E.T. Houston was a Waterbury fixture for decades. For years I had half-heartedly searched for his photographic collection.  Had any of his works survived?  I had even looked for his collection while researching old train wrecks in/around Waterbury.  Although his photos appear with some regularity on e-Bay, they are mostly formal portraits of (now) nameless persons.  For years this historic collection remained elusive, but thanks to shear dumb luck, here was a large collection of his oversized negatives of extremely detailed images.

I quickly focused on Houston’s photos showing the early stages of construction of the Waterbury Dam built by the Civilian Conservation Corps 1935-38.  There were views up the river, down the river, over the massive CCC Camp Charles Smith and under the ledges where the dam would begin to seriously leak during the 1980s.  There were views of the conduit under the dam where the Little River was rechanneled, the rock quarries, the steam shovels, dump trucks and rock crushing gear used by the C’s during construction.  Even my mother’s one-room schoolhouse, which had been moved downstream for use as a CCC building during the dam’s construction, was visible!  This was remarkable documentation of how the (then) world’s largest earth-filled dam had been built from local materials.

One of Houston’s photographs of the early stage of construction of Waterbury Dam. This view is looking downstream toward the Winooski River valley. CCC Camp Charles Smith is in the distance. When completed, the flood control dam filled this entire valley from left to right. Courtesy Vermont State Archives & Records Administration.

In 2021 the U.S. Corps of Engineers was working to determine the next steps in a rehab of the flood control gates at the far end of the dam.  They discovered the engineering plans were no place to be found in government archives.  The plans had vanished.  Low and behold – I was able to send them to Middlesex where they could see, in full detail, the early stages of construction.  In many ways, the Houston photographs were better and more informative than the original blueprints could have ever been.

Another historic gem that rates high in excitement – at least for me – happened in 2018.  I was working on a project to document the deadliest automobile crashes in Vermont.  I discovered one in Newbury from December 11, 1952 when Doctor Stanley Dwinell and his three young sons had died after he drove in front of an oncoming train.  It turned out there had been an earlier head-on train wreck at this same crossing on October 30, 1948.  I wondered if the earlier wreck had any pertinence to the doctor’s crash.  At the Archives, I ordered the newspaper microfilms to see how the earlier train wreck story had been reported in 1948.  However, the spectacular, head-on, multiple-fatal, train wreck was NOT the banner headline.  What?  The headline instead was “Russians Kill East Hardwick Man.”

From the Caledonian Record, November 1, 1948.

Off I went on a new project.  Why would the Russians murder someone from Hardwick, Vermont?  The story turned out to be one of international importance. 

At the time Irving Ross was killed in Vienna, the Cold War was going strong.  The U.S. Army, the State Department and even the White House got dragged into the case that was reported in nearly every newspaper in America.  The Russians shut down the investigation, prevented the Austrian police from participating, and blocked every attempt by U.S. authorities to determine what had happened, late at night, in Soviet-controlled territory when Ross had a former Hungarian princess with him in a remote area of Vienna.  She barely survived.  At the same time the Russians were beating Ross to death with the butts of their rifles, Ross’s young wife and three daughters were finishing packing for their scheduled transatlantic voyage to join Ross in Vienna with departure intended on the next day.  Instead of leaving, their house filled up with state troopers and men in dark suits.  The daughters were even split up and taken by troopers to separate locations.  Nobody knew if the Russians might also be after Ross’ family.

The full story is too long to tell here but declassified Army and State Department documents in the U.S. National Archives tell of Ross working on the Marshall Plan (America’s effort to pump millions of dollars into rebuilding Europe following the Second World War) while unofficially tinkering in the dangerous world of spying.  He ventured into the black market and repeatedly ventured into Soviet-occupied areas where he was pointedly told to never show up again.  He showed up again and it cost him his life.  Approaching the 70th anniversary of the murder, in 2018 Austrian newspapers, television and magazines began to recall one of the more famous unsolved murders in their country’s history.  The answers probably reside in some obscure Russian archive.  Ross is buried in the Sanborn Cemetery in East Hardwick.

And lastly, there was the history “gem” I discovered at the U.S. National Archives in College Park, MD.  I was there researching the most famous aviation photographs taken of American bombers over Germany during World War Two.  A pile of binders under one table was a bit of a nuisance, but I didn’t pay much attention despite my bumping into them repeatedly.  An archivist was assisting me with a question when I off-handedly mentioned the binders that had been slightly in my way.  She asked, “Do you know what those are?”  “No,” I said.  “I have no idea.”  “THOSE,” she said, “are Eva Braun’s personal photo albums.”  (Actually, these are high-quality copies for researchers to use.  The original albums themselves are not on display.)

A rather graying and dumpy looking Hitler in one of Braun’s photographs. He would never have allowed a photo such as this to be published. Courtesy the U.S. National Archives.

That would be the Eva Braun, as in Hitler’s mistress who became his wife in the final hours of their lives.  The next day I dropped my own research and slowly looked through all those albums.  If you want to see an unguarded Adolph Hitler, this is where to look.  He is seen tying his shoes, blowing his nose, and in many other moments that would never have seen the light in any Nazi press.  All the Nazi elite appear in Braun’s albums along with photos from her childhood. 

When you head into any archive to research Topic #1 – the only reason you are there…….be prepared to stumble across another historic gem that might spin you off into an entirely new and potentially more exciting direction.

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