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Aurora Borealis



          Who would have guessed that mild-mannered Carleton Watkins (1829-1916) harbored beneath his coy everyday manner, a whimsical side to his personality that was manifest when one day he dressed in the costume of a walking camera [Fig. 1a].  Nothing could have been more opposite to a life spent traveling by foot, wagon and boat up and down the Pacific Coast with untold weeks and months in remote locations, than when he pretended to be a camera as we learned in Chapter One.

          The social side of Watkins, the man, can only be adequately grasped by returning to his roots in Oneonta, New York, where we can find a multitude of precedents in his pre-teenage years for his occasionally flamboyant and unabashedly fun adult behavior. Curiously, we know more about how Watkins lived the first ten years of his life (1830-1840) than we do about his first decade on the West Coast (1850-1860), when he laid the groundwork for his everlasting fame as a photographer. 

          The reason we know or can infer so much about Watkins growing up in rural New York State in the 1830s is due to the work of Willard V. Huntington (1856-1915) [Fig. 1b], who was born and raised in Oneonta a full generation behind Watkins.[24] Willard Huntington was a pioneer of the oral history method of historical documentation and compiled several thousand pages [Fig. 1c] of recollections from many surviving old timers who inhabited the several watersheds that converge with the Susquehanna River near Oneonta.[25] Not incidentally, Willard Huntington was the younger brother of Henry E. Huntington (1850-1927), and he was a nephew of Collis P. Huntington (1821-1900), who eventually became the richest man to ever call Oneonta his home.  Collis was also Carleton Watkins's lifelong friend and benefactor.[26]  

          Astonishingly, when Willard Huntington interviewed Watkins in San Francisco on January 21, 1905, he was exclusively concerned with what Watkins remembered about growing up in Oneonta in the 1830s and 1840s, and thus totally ignored the subsequent five decades of his subject's life. 

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[24] Willard V. Huntington, Old Time Notes,  Oneonta, New York, Huntington Memorial Library.  Unpublished typescript in twelve volumes.  With thanks to Sarah Livingston of the HML for her assistance.

[25] The watersheds of the Otego (to the west), Charlotte (to the east) , and Shenevus to the north .

[26] Jennifer A. Watts, "The Photographer and the Railroad Man," California History (Fall 1999), pp. 154-159.