By mid 2010, it had been almost 30 years since I began my family search. In the process, I had found other descendants of my family in upstate New York, California, and Minnesota who had important artifacts to share, including Bible records, old letters and documents, and photographs. One had the Fisher photo album of the 19th century, which included my great-great grandparents and all of their children. All of their children except for my great grandfather, Andrew Jackson Fisher. Andrew’s picture seemed to missing from divided archives in virtually every descendant branch of the family. When newspapers began to be digitized some years back, I located a story that gave me an idea of why his photos were not to be found. It seems that Andrew had been something of a “rogue.” He had married, adopted a child, disowned her, divorced, took up with an already-married woman, had two children (including my grandfather) with her, and had another relationship with a woman who was over thirty years younger than he was, and had a baby with her when he was 58. Upon his death, this last woman went after the fairly significant estate, leaving his children and “widow” (“significant other”… is there another name?) to fend for themselves. It became my opinion, which I still hold, that his pictures were all destroyed by the family he had let down.
His personal life aside, he had a fascinating public life. He was a successful coffee, tea, and spice merchant in New York City. He had run for the State Assembly in 1869, and was tied to Tammany Hall. He had also been a volunteer fireman in the 1850s and 1860s.
The volunteer fireman had been replaced by a paid department and steam powered pumpers in 1865, shortly after Andrew had called his fire fighting career to a close. Then in 1885, he joined a brand new organization called the Veteran Firemen’s Association of New York City. They had a clubhouse, hosted firemen’s balls, and traveled together. They raised money for firemen’s widows and orphans.
They had originally organized to march in President Grover Cleveland’s inaugural parade in March of 1885, which they did. The following year, they marched as heroes in the parade to celebrate the dedication of the Statue of Liberty… the first “tickertape” parade. Then, in 1887, they decided to take a trip to San Francisco via train. Yes… coast-to-coast and back in about one month, from early September to early October.
The New York City Firefighters’ Museum informed me that they had photos of all the firemen who had participated in both the Cleveland inaugural and the San Francisco excursion… 168 men in the first, and 104 in the second… but couldn’t identify a single one. These group pictures were created by one of the members who had been a Civil War photographer, David H. Anderson. It looked like that was about as close as I might come to finding a photo of Andrew.
On line, I discovered an antique store in Maine that was selling an original of the Cleveland photo on consignment for the owner. I contacted them and explained the situation. They explained this photo had no key, but perhaps with the permission of the owner, they could open the back and see if a key might be present there. I was asked to be patient as it could take some time.
In the meantime, I began researching the San Francisco excursion of 1887, collecting digitized newspaper articles from every locale I could find. They stopped in most major cities along the route, and paraded in their old firemens’ gear with the local firemen. Through these accounts I found three references specifically to Andrew J. Fisher. One in New York City indicated he had been the one in charge of one of the three hotel cars they stayed in while on the rails, the St. Nicholas, and that after the adventure he hosted the group at his home in Harlem. Another from Omaha, Nebraska jokingly said his colleagues were going to try to force him to leave the place in New York from which he had done business for decades. The third, however, couldn’t have been much better. It was from the Salt Lake Herald stating that Andrew had sent a full body photo of himself to another former New York fireman who lived in Utah!
A friend of mine there agreed to visit the State Historical Society. Having no luck, he was told s0mething might be found at the recreated firemen’s hall at This Is The Place Heritage Park, located at the spot where the Mormons came into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. I took that task upon myself and visited the Park in May of 2010. “No research to be done here,” I was told. All they had were things on the wall and on display. Nonetheless, I enjoyed taking in their magnificent collection, which included an old 19th century pumper. Then, on the top floor, I spotted a copy of the 1887 group photo of the New York VFA. It had obviously been sent as a thank you gift to the Salt Lake Firemen for hosting them for a couple of days on their trip to San Francisco. I scanned the faces for anyone who might look like me, or my father, or my grandfather. I found a few candidates, but of course, I could only guess.
Then, at the bottom of the frame, I spotted a rectangular piece of cardstock. And on it was the name of every fireman in the picture, with a number next to it! I reexamined the photo and saw that every figure had a tiny number on it. Back to the key… “91- A. J. Fisher.” I squinted to read the numbers, but an employee with better vision than mine pointed out #91. After almost thirty years, I had found my great grandfather! It was quite a celebration, and family members far and wide were delighted and astonished to learn of the discovery.
But the adventure wasn’t over yet. I again called the antique store in Maine and shared the news with them. I then emailed a copy of Andrew’s enlarged photo to them so all they had to do was find him on their 1885 picture, photograph it, and email it back. No longer would it be necessary to receive permission of the owner to remove the back of the picture. Sure enough, a day or two later, my inbox displayed an email from my new-bestest-friends-in-the-whole-world in Maine, with attachments. Andrew had been found on their photo, too! They sent me several views of it, happy to provide a second solution to this long standing mystery.
Even these several years later, these photos are the most treasured among all my ancestral pictures! As is always the case, you value most what you work hardest for. Never give up… with so many new digital tools, you could be the next person to make a major discovery! Here are the breakthrough photos.