Time Travel in Town

vintage postcards show how Eau Claire has changed

Tom Giffey

NOW AND THEN. Looking north from the corner of Barstow and Gibson streets in 2016 (top) and 1921. The turret of the Cameron-Drummond-Slagsvold building is visible in the center of each picture.
THEN AND NOW. Looking north from the corner of Barstow and Gibson streets in 1921 and 1916 (below). The turret of the Cameron-Drummond-Slagsvold building is visible in the center of each picture.

David Tank’s Postcards from the Past book series is based upon a simple concept: Take a vintage picture postcard showing a local scene and use a camera to reproduce the image in the present day. The juxtaposition offers a fascinating glimpse into how the places around have – and haven’t – changed over the years.

Perhaps it’s more accurate to say the concept sounds simple: In actuality, it’s a time-consuming process that’s equal parts detective work, scavenger hunt, and art project. Tank’s latest effort has produced Postcards from the Past – Eau Claire, which features nearly 100 pairs of then-and-now photos showing how the city’s architecture and environment have evolved since  the late 19th century. It’s the third book in the series by Tank, an author and photographer who recorded images of Menomonie and Dunn County in the first two volumes.

Tank, an emeritus faculty member at UW-Stout, where he taught writing and mass communication, uses a standard digital SLR camera with a short zoom lens and a wide-angle adapter when he needs it. Occasionally, he’ll use Photoshop to alter his photographs to match the original images, which often were produced with wide-angle lenses. For the new book, he spent chronicled Eau Claire’s streets, churches, schools, parks, and more, using vintage postcards he bought on eBay as his guides.

“The biggest thing that I saw is just how vibrant the changes are in Eau Claire,” Tank says, pointing in particular to the ongoing revival of downtown. In some spots, he notes, the most recent round of construction is actually the third wave of building. Consider, for example, the North Barstow location that, as of this summer, is the site of a new parking ramp. Tank’s book includes a photo of the ramp next to a 1942 postcard of the castle-like civic auditorium that was built on the spot in 1919. Not pictured is the U.S. Post Office that was on the site between 1962 and last year.

Some photos show how little has changed, with landmarks such as the Masonic Temple, the Federal Building (once a post office), and the Cameron-Drummond-Slagsvold Building (i.e., the Stones Throw) remaining virtually identical despite the passage of a century or more.

Other images – including many of downtown streets – show scenes that have changed completely. Of all the long-gone structures shown in the book, Tank believes the biggest loss was the original high school, a lovely turreted building that stood at the corner of Lake and Seminary streets. Seminary Street is now known as Fourth Avenue, and the spot is now occupied by several inconspicuous apartment buildings.

Tank says one of the hardest shots to reproduce was the one on the book’s cover, which looks south along Barstow Street over the bridge crossing the Eau Claire River toward what is now the site of Haymarket Landing. Tank determined the original photo must have been taken from the window of a long-gone building, and getting the shot right was complicated by construction across the river. Fortunately, he managed to capture the image just a few days before a sewage leak discovered over the summer led to a profusion of ugly equipment cluttering up the scene.

Other vintage images simply can’t be reproduced because the landscape has changed, Tank explains. For instance, many postcards of the dam and mill on the Chippewa River exist, but they were apparently were taken from a vantage point atop a long-gone log flume.

Tank believes the renaissance of downtown Eau Claire has stoked public interest in what buildings once stood on particular sites, making his book historical as well as timely. “I’ve had so many comments from people saying they’re looking forward to it,” he says.

A book release for Postcards from the Past – Eau Claire will be at 7pm Friday, Nov. 11, at The Volume One Gallery, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire. Tank will share a presentation featuring photos and stories from the book project. On Saturday, Nov. 12, he will sign copies of his book between 9:30am and noon at the Chippewa Valley Museum in Carson Park. To learn more, and to view a video featuring images from the book, visit postcardsfromthepast.net.

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