Riverboat photo to help students pose questions

As part of the digital project under development for our history of mass communication course, I have chosen a photograph of Prescott, Wisconsin, dating from about 1876. Students will be asked to examine the image to see what sense they might make of it.

Steamboat Centennial at Prescott
The steamboat Centennial appears in a photograph from about 1876 made at the levee in Prescott, Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society)

The image comes from the UW-La Crosse Historic Steamboat Photographs collection. It shows the steamboat Centennial at the levee in Prescott. Next to it is a smaller boat called the Plow Boy. On board the Centennial are dozens of passengers, and many people also can be seen on the levee.

The photograph is interesting historically because it was made about 20 years after The Prescott Paraclete, the first newspaper in the community, began publication. The newspaper’s editor was a booster of Prescott, convinced that the town would grow to rival other river communities as a major port. Is the photograph evidence that his wish was realized? Anyone who has been to Prescott would know that’s not the case, so what story does the image tell us?

Students would be asked to develop a list of questions about the image and then to research it and its context using various digital resources. As part of examining the image, students would be directed to the online collection at UW-La Crosse, where they would be able to read the metadata for the image and learn more about the Centennial and what happened to it. However, that would still leave them with many unanswered questions, as well as new ones.

The image shows several buildings in Prescott. Where were the buildings located and are they still standing? Among the people on the levee are a number of men and women who appear to be smartly dressed. Why? Was the image made during a particular event for which people might have gotten dressed up, or did people in Prescott typically wear nice clothes? The metadata offers no clues, so students would have to consult other sources to try to make sense of the image.

Ultimately, students may only be able to partly satisfy their curiosity about the image. But that really would not be the purpose of the assignment. Rather, the point would be to raise questions about the image and to practice analytical skills and search strategies in their efforts to answer them.