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Northampton native uploads rare 1899 footage of U.S. President William McKinley on Mount Tom

  • U.S. President William McKinley and First Lady Ida McKinley at the Summit House on Mount Tom in 1899.  — Courtesy of the Holyoke Public Library History Room

  • —Library of Congress

  • —Library of Congress



Staff Writer
Friday, February 24, 2017

President William McKinley's visit to Northampton, South Hadley and Holyoke in 1899 came with great fanfare: parades, public gatherings and accolades at the commencement ceremonies at Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges.

Nearly 118 years after the four-day tour, the public, for the first time online, can relive a small portion of it through 30 seconds of film that captures McKinley and First Lady Ida McKinley exiting the Summit House at Mount Tom, in what is believed to be the oldest surviving motion picture footage taken in western Massachusetts.

"I thought it was an amazing piece of film," says Art Donahue, a Northampton native who uploaded the video to YouTube this week. "I was amazed to find the film existed, and I thought everyone should see it."

Donahue said in a phone interview Thursday from his Franklin home that film history has long fascinated him and he learned about this "amazingly old footage" in the early 1990s, while working at the Boston TV station WCVB Channel 5, following stints at WWLP Channel 22 and WFSB in Hartford in the 1970s and 1980s

After obtaining a list of the 3,000 paper prints of films held at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. in the 1990s, Donahue pulled out every film with a New England copyright — about 100 films in total — and then narrowed the list further to those shot in Massachusetts. 

Seeing footage of McKinley on Mount Tom was among the films that impressed Donahue. His copy of the film sat on a shelf for about 20 years, and he ultimately gave a copy to the Holyoke Public Library, he said. He finally uploaded it to YouTube on Wednesday night. 

"I had hiked the ridge path many times and skied at the Mount Tom Ski Area for many years," Donahue said. “I was always fascinated by that film. I can’t say conclusively that it’s not on the Internet, but I can’t find it anywhere.” 

McKinley's 1899 visit to the region coincided with the graduation of his niece, Grace Howe McKinley, from Mount Holyoke College.

The 25th president and his entourage arrived in Holyoke on Saturday, June 17, where they were met by prominent politicians and citizens, ate lunch and then viewed an afternoon parade put on by 53 organizations from the city.

On June 18, he attended church services in South Hadley and the baccalaureate exercises at Mount Holyoke College. 

The following day, McKinley came to Northampton in the morning for a parade, attending ivy exercises and receiving a doctor of laws degree at Smith College, and then went on the trip to the Summit House for lunch. It was during his trip up the mountain that McKinley declared the view as being "the most beautiful mountain outlook in the whole world,” according to historical accounts later published in the Gazette. 

Finally, the Mount Holyoke College commencement happened on Tuesday, June 20, where he presented diplomas to the 64 graduates and received a doctor of civil law degree from the college.

Having known about the film, Donahue requested and received the video from the Library of Congress.

The brief clip shows the president well dressed and doffing his cap to the crowds of spectators, and the first lady in a dress and holding a bouquet of flowers against the left side of her face.

Still, Donahue said he remains amazed at the abilities of G.W. "Billy" Bitzer, the famed cameraman who shot the film, and later worked with film director D.W. Griffith.

First, Bitzer had to get the 68-millimeter Biograph camera to the summit via an electric-powered car on the Mount Tom Railroad, which had been built in 1897. Weighing 200 pounds, the camera was a large 2-foot square box with a 100-pound, 2 -1/2 horsepower motor attached to the back, and powered by heavy storage batteries, according to an account Donahue published about the event. 

Next, Bitzer and an assistant had to lift the camera onto a tripod. The camera made a lot of noise as it operated and blew out perforations from the film as it went through the machine, Donahue said.

Finally, because the footage likely was shot late in the day, with the sun low in the sky, capturing the first couple was not easy. It is one of the reasons filmmakers soon after migrated to Hollywood, where lighting conditions were better, Donahue said.

The footage also shows a Summit House constructed by Holyoke politician and businessman William Loomis, which included observation decks and a restaurant, which was destroyed by fire in 1901. Loomis also created the Mountain Park amusement park at the base. A second summit house was built and burned in 1929 and was never rebuilt. The amusement park remained open until 1987.

Donahue speculates that the film of the president and first lady may have been shown in both the Bioscope projector inside the Summit House and in Mutoscope flip viewers at Mountain Park. Another film Bitzer shot going down the incline, which would probably also have been shown to visitors, is now lost, according to Donahue’s research. 

Donahue said the short film of McKinley at Mount Tom only survived through an oddity of the pre-1912 copyright law.

Because Library of Congress officials didn't want nitrate film sent to them, owing to the risks of fire and explosions, contact prints were made. This also fit in with copyright law requiring filmmakers treat their movies as still photographs.

This meant that each frame, or a total of 160 feet of film for the McKinley footage, had to be flattened and photographed — an extensive and time consuming process.

But once done, these prints were held in storage until the 1940s, at which time all of the original film not preserved in a similar manner had decomposed. During the 1940s, the lost prints were recovered in a forgotten vault, and during the 1950s, Kemp Niver, a former Los Angeles policeman rephotographed over two million feet of paper prints frame-by-frame with a team of assistants.

Donahue notes that putting the video on YouTube will supplement other moving pictures of McKinley online, including footage of his inaugurations in 1897 and 1901.

"There are films of him, but not many," Donahue said.

On Sept. 14, 1901, a cameraman had planned to film McKinley leaving the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. But before that happened, McKinley was assassinated by Leon Czolgosz, Donahue noted. 

Though more than a century old, the footage is not the oldest shot in Massachusetts. That fame, Donahue said, belongs to an 1896 version of Rip Van Winkle filmed on Cape Cod.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.