While we’ve all become armchair travelers this past year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us take daily strolls across what was once a must-see tourist destination, the subject of postcards, photographs, and letters. At the turn of the 20th century, the Cabin John Bridge was on the itinerary of the capital’s visitors and locals alike. “We went to Cabin John Bridge,” wrote Mabel Hubbard Bell to her “darling Alec” in 1899. “We really had an awfully good time, and the heat was tempered by breezes and clouds.” Leisurely drives to the Cabin John Bridge were mentioned on several occasions in Mabel’s correspondence to her husband, Alexander Graham Bell, when they lived in Washington D.C.
The industrious photographer Alexander J. Yowell took every advantage of this popular tourist attraction and moved to the area in 1891. He set up his photography studio in a rustic wooden house under the elegant bridge, where one could purchase “a beautiful photogravure of Cabin John Bridge sent to any part of the world, post paid, for 15 cents, or a photograph for 30 cents.”
In a stroke of marketing genius, Yowell deemed himself “Successor to John of the Cabin” after the legend of the mysterious stranger who lived along the creek. He put out a twelve page pamphlet entitled The Cabin of John: A World-renowned Architectural Structure, A Famous Hotel and Pleasure Resort in which he described the history and specifications of the Cabin John Bridge.
The pamphlet recounted in great detail the story of “John” the squatter, clothed in animal skins, who lived in a cabin in the woods and from whom Cabin John and its creek, bridge, and hotel all derived their names. It praised the first class reputation of the Cabin John Hotel resort and included a page of “Questions Answered” that covered any curious query a tourist might have had. Designed by Montgomery C. Meigs and completed in 1864, the Cabin John Bridge was the world’s largest single arch span bridge with a span of 220 feet. Sightseers flocked to the spot to view the bridge and enjoy the hotel.
Yowell concluded, “I will cheerfully give any information I can, and will accord you every courtesy that will tend to make your visit profitable and pleasant, and should you desire to have a picture of yourself taken under the largest stone arch Bridge in the world, rest assured that you will be fairly and honorably treated.” Who wouldn’t pay 15 to 30 cents after such a sales pitch?
There may be many images by Alex J. Yowell out there—in his pamphlet he noted the “thousands of specimens” of his work around the world. Perhaps Yowell’s most widely recognized photograph, at least by Cabin John residents, is a view downstream with the photographer’s quaint cabin on the right side of the frame, the arch of the monumental bridge containing the tranquil scene.
Richard Cook has two wonderful examples of Yowell’s tintypes in his private collection. Tintypes were popular throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and commonly used by open air and street photographers. The negatives were applied to black enameled metal plates, so the image could be processed within moments and handed to the customer on the spot.
One image shows three gentlemen in waistcoats and ties, holding their bowler hats while posed below the bridge’s arch. Another tintype, dated 1893, depicts four young women perched on a bench in a classical pose against the stonework of the bridge. Wearing long dresses and decorative hats, one of the women holds a parasol; another raises a piece of fruit in her hand, plucked from the upside down hat in her lap, the hat perhaps that of the nearest young lady in the foreground. Each of the tintypes are mounted in a mat paper frame that included Yowell’s calling card of sorts: a description of the Cabin John Bridge and its impressive dimensions, compliments of the photographer.
Alex J. Yowell was born on April, 15 1857 in Virginia. He and his wife Sarah had five sons. His eldest, Leroy, was also a photographer in 1900, and perhaps helped run his father’s studio. After the heyday of the bridge and hotel, Yowell remained in Washington D.C. where he worked as a printer and was a member of the Freemasons. He died November 22, 1939.
By Rachel Donnan
[See photos by accessing the article in the Village News Archive: 2021 March Newsletter]