Colorizing the Past

Claire Enkosky - June 18th, 2014

I recently learned how to colorize black-and-white photographs with a course on (thanks for the opportunity, NY 3Rs Association!).  Naturally, I put these new-found skills to use on some of the wonderful old photographs accessible on New York Heritage.

Choosing a collection to pluck photos from was difficult; there are so many and they all have gems!  After falling down the rabbit hole of browsing collections, I decided on the George W. Fenner World War I Photographs of Syracuse, NY, a collection from the Onondaga County Public Library's Local History & Genealogy Department.

Fenner was a staff photographer for the local paper in Syracuse and these professional-quality photos of his show how Central New York responded to the Great War.

These men are both clergymen: Pastor Frederick W. Betts and Rev. George S. Mahon. Betts was born in Illinois but came to New York to study at St. Lawrence University from 1884 to 1885. He moved to Syracuse to become the minister of the First Church, a position he held until his death in 1932. (Incidentally, he served as president on the Board of Syracuse Public Library, so we are particularly grateful for his civic contributions). Mahon was the founding Roman Catholic priest of the Church of the Holy Rosary in 1913 on the west side of Syracuse and served his parish until his death in 1930.

But what might they have looked like in color?! These proud Syracuse citizens became my dignified colorization guinea pigs.


Can you tell what the tricks of colorizing are?   Step one was to increase the dynamic range, making whites whiter and blacks blacker.  Step two was to clean up the scratches and dust that are inherent with scanned images of 100 year old photos.  Step three, the most intensive and time consuming, is to treat your cleaned up image in Photoshop like a coloring book from  your childhood.  Using pens, brushes, and layers, you can colorize areas and then fiddle with the result using hue & saturation levels.

Admittedly, my final products are not of expert quality, but they were fun to make and, I hope, pose as a reminder that these black and white photographs were of real, living people in the not-so-very-distant past.


This woman was photographed by Fenner during the 1917 Fourth of July Parade in Syracuse.  Each star on her flag represents a son; she had five boys in service during World War I.   This photograph appeared on page 3 of the Syracuse Herald on Monday Evening, November 26, 1917.

Proud as I may be of my new coloring skills, I still have a while to go before I can do in Photoshop what some people did so well by hand:

Mrs. Packard, a matriarch of the wealthy Packard family of Lakewood, NY, was brought to colorful life the old fashioned way, with colored pencils and time.

Recording Disasters: Floods of 1913

Claire Enkosky - June 12th, 2014

Generally, New York State is a quiet place.  We're not tornado central, our earthquakes are pretty tame, and it's been a long time since a tsunami has reached Oneonta.

That said, we have had our fair share of terrible storms and consequential floods.  A lot of those floods from the 20th Century were documented carefully and are now available on New York Heritage.


In early 1913, a severe winter storm hit the Eastern, Midwest, and Southern parts of the United States.  It was the most geographically widespread natural disaster the United States had suffered up to that point in its history, and the effects of the storm reverberated.

In the case of the Albany area, it meant some destructive flooding of main thoroughfares.  The Watervliet Public Library has a collection of images from this 1913 flood:

1913 Flood in Watervliet, NY - 14th Street & 1st Avenue

1913 Flood in Watervliet, NY - 14th Street & Second Avenue, Looking West

1913 Flood in Watervliet, NY - Second Avenue

The St. Lawrence County Historical Association has some records of 1913's damage in Helena, after an ice jam on the St. Regis River caused flooding.

Helena Flood, 1913

Helena Flood, 1913

Helena Flood, 1913

The March 1913 floods were so severe in other parts of the country that Salvation Army members from New York City traveled to Dayton, Ohio to help out:

Members of the Salvation Army relief corps about to depart for the Dayton, Ohio flood, March 1913. Appear to be posed on the roof of a building.

Why head to Dayton?  A 1913 issue of the Westfield Republican newspaper reported on March 26th that "the mayor of Dayton... has telegraphed that 5,000 perished in his city in the flood after the breaking of the levees of the Big Miami river."  Furthermore, according to the article, three-quarters of the city were underwater, and a substantial number of buildings were on fire.  100 years later, we know that fewer than 500 Daytonians actually lost their lives, but that's still a whole lot!

But in New York State, engineering prevailed against Mother Nature in many places. In Rochester, the aqueduct once declared the longest stone bridge in America survived the flooding of March 1913. The Rochester Museum & Science Center collection includes some images of this aqueduct holding back the swirling Genesee waters.

Flood waters swirl around the aqueduct near Broad Street

Aqueduct arches under flood waters