EDENTON — If a photo is worth 1,000 words, think of the number of memories it stirs.
In what can only be described as a serendipitous discovery, PNC Bank officials in Edenton recently stumbled on a photo album in a locked cabinet within the downtown branch’s vault. Inside lay a treasure trove of faded black and white images more than a century old. Most of the photos accompanied brief summaries, apparent recollections from old timers with keen memories, many since deceased, or at least handed-down knowledge of the town’s colorful history.
And this fortuitous find arrives as the town launches the 300th anniversary of its founding.
“With the 300th, it was perfect timing,” said Deborah Lee, PNC branch manager. “Whoever did it (album) tried to find out as much as they possibly could,” she added about the unknown author of the collection.
“I wish I knew who did it so I could give them credit. They obviously did their homework,” she added.
A need for more vault space to accommodate safety deposit boxes prompted the removal of items, including the small cabinet. Before then, not much consideration had been given to the contents inside. Once unlatched, they discovered items not perused for years. Along with the album of old photos of a past Edenton, there were photos of previous banking events, Lee said.
“My thinking is that there was a banker who was a historian,” Lee said. “PNC is really interested in the legacy of all its banks.”
Also inside lay a file full of every receipt and correspondence about the 1911 construction of the Bank of Edenton, which now serves as Town Hall. Construction of the former bank cost just under $14,000. PNC donated the building to the town in 1971, Lee said.
But it’s the yellowed photographs that captivate the casual observer. So much that some think the images could go a long way at generating attention for the 300th anniversary. If nothing else, the photos can help integrate locals, especially those reared here, into the celebration.
“I think it enhances everything that we’re trying to do, not just about the colonial period, but over the last 300 years,” said Gregg Nathan, executive director of the Edenton Historical Commission.
Because photos provide a window to the past, they also offer evidence of progress.
“People love to be reminded where we’ve been as well as where we’re going,” Nathan added.
The photos show Edenton before there were bridges. One depicts the ferries that carried travelers to surrounding towns. Or, there’s the one that piggybacked trains to the other side of the sound.
Shots of the 1767 Chowan Courthouse show different stages of the historic building, including when there was no electricity in town or when the building was white with shutters.
Photos show horse and buggy navigating dirt streets. Another reveals Model-T cars parked outside the Woodard Hotel later known as the Penelope Barker Hotel, located where the former Belks and Edenton Furniture stood.
Before the Steamers made Hicks Field famous for baseball, it served as the town’s first exhibit building and grandstand as well as a racetrack.
Others show livestock roaming the lawns of the same homes celebrated today as historical pillars.
Another photograph shows a swarm of people outside the Bay View Hotel with horse-drawn carriages awaiting passengers. The Bay View with its ornate balconies would eventually be the same site as the Hinton Hotel, which the county is currently trying to sell through Preservation North Carolina, or face possible demolition.
Many of the photos pose a surreal setting for those familiar with the town.
“Some of the photos I can stand in the exact same spot as the photographer did then. It’s like stepping into a dream,” said Joy Harvill, EHC volunteer.
Many of those photographed gaze into the camera without any idea of their eventual posterity.
Harvill mentions a young girl standing in the middle of a then dirt Granville Street near Church Street.
“I wonder who that little girl is?” Harvill said. “She’s probably never seen anything like that before (a photographer holding a camera).”
The photos that lack descriptions beg for details to a bevy of questions.
For that reason as well as to create excitement about the town’s 300th birthday party that runs throughout the year, the EHC has posted the photographs on its website in hopes of learning more about the images. To view, visit www.ehcnc.org.