Author to talk about Philipsburg pioneer John Plumbe Jr.

John Plumbe Jr.

PHILIPSBURG — Author Clifford Krainik of Warrenton, Va., who is writing a biography of Philipsburg pioneer John Plumbe Jr. (1809-1857), will be the featured speaker at the annual meeting and dinner of the Philipsburg Historical Foundation.

The banquet will be held at the Parish Hall of Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Philipsburg, beginning at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 10.

The subject will be the career of John Plumbe Jr., who spent his formative years in Philipsburg, trained as a railroad civil engineer in the area, then rose to fame in the 1840’s as a photographer of America’s rich and famous. Making use of the photographic process announced in France by Nicephor Niecpe and Louis Daguerre in 1839, Plumbe set up a network of studios in the United States, creating iconic photos of many notables of the 1840’s, such as President James K. Polk and orator Daniel Webster. In 1846, he took the earliest known photos of the White House and the U. S. Capitol. He used profits from his photographic studios to underwrite promotion of the transcontinental railroad, something he became obsessed with as a railroad civil engineer working in Pennsylvania and Virginia.

“Clifford Krainik has been researching the life of John Plumbe, Jr. for most of his career,” says PHF President Mark Seinfelt. “He has written numerous articles on Plumbe’s photography, his early training as a civil engineer, and his promotion of the transcontinental railroad. Cliff plans to incorporate all of these strains into his power point presentation, but the most visually interesting portion will be on Plumbe’s photography.”

“Cliff Krainik has been collecting specimens of Plumbe’s original daguerreotypes for years, and will be bringing some of these along for display at his presentation,” says PHF Curator Luther Gette. “He will shortly be publishing a book on Plumbe entitled ‘Railroad to the Moon,’ the title based on comments received by Rep. George W. Jones when he introduced Plumbe’s petition for a transcontinental railroad in the U. S. Congress: ‘This produced a great laugh and hurrah in the House, members singing out to me that it would not be long before my constituents would ask Congress to build a railroad to the moon.'”

“John Plumbe, when only 18, started as a civil engineering apprentice on the survey for Hardman Philips’s Philipsburg & Juniata Railroad, intended to connect Philipsburg with the Pennsylvania Canal at Petersburg, Pa.,” says PHF Trustee Paul Springer, also a Plumbe scholar. “He became associated with prominent engineers Moncure and Wirt Robinson, and worked with them on many of their early railroad projects, such as the Petersburg Railroad in Virginia. He became convinced of the practicality of a transcontinental railroad that could unite the growing nation, and began promoting it extensively. He went west to California with the forty-niners, ostensibly looking for gold, but on the way he spent much of his time scouting for railroad routes.”

“John Plumbe’s photography, for which he is now best known, started almost as a sideline for his promotion of the transcontinental railroad,” says Clifford Krainik. “When he found himself running out of money for his promotions in Washington, D. C. and elsewhere, he seized on the new medium of photography as a way to generate cash for further publicity about the railroad. Moving to Dubuque, Iowa in 1836, he continued promoting his schemes, but eventually was brought low by failure of some real estate projects and committed suicide in Dubuque on May 29, 1857. Twelve years later, almost to the day, the first transcontinental railroad was declared open at Promontory Summit in Utah.”

In spite of his tragic end, John Plumbe, Jr. was certainly one of the most fascinating figures ever to have lived in Philipsburg.

For tickets to an extraordinary program on his life and work, at $25 per person for a buffet catered by Paul Adler of Adler’s Market, please call Paul Springer at 814-577-1994, Jeff Sleigh at 814-762-2041, or Luther Gette at 814-342-4842. Tickets may also be ordered online at paulspringer7@gmail.com. Please order tickets by Wednesday, Sept. 26.

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