Post-Civil War America invested heavily in the construction of new public buildings—post offices, courthouses, customs houses, city halls, and state houses. Built in the 1870s, these monuments to Gilded Age architecture were French in style and granite in material. Much of the stone used to build them came from Maine coastal quarries. Clark Island supplied stone for the Hartford, Connecticut, post office, Dix Island for the New York and Philadelphia post offices, Hurricane Island for the St. Louis customs house, and Vinalhaven for the State, War, and Navy Building, now the Executive Office Building, in Washington, D.C. Lucrative government contracts resulted in flourishing offshore island communities of granite workers and their families. Hurricane Island, for example, incorporated as a town in 1878 with a population of 600.
The visual record of these long-gone communities is due in large part to James Polk Armbrust, an entrepreneurial photographer who arrived in Maine about 1871. Born in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, on October 31, 1844, Armbrust learned photography from his father, John D.M. Armbrust. Early in the Civil War, father and son enlisted in the 133rd Pennsylvania Regiment, fighting between 1862 and 1863 at Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, three of the war’s major battles. Upon completion of their initial enlistment in May 1863, they joined a Pennsylvania militia unit that fought at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863.
After the war, the younger Armbrust worked as a traveling photographer, specializing in group pictures of railroad construction crews and industrial workers. He may have come to Maine in 1871 to photograph workmen building the Knox and Lincoln Railroad from Brunswick to Rockland. Once in the state, he was attracted by the opportunities for a photographer in the booming quarry communities off Rockland—Clark Island, Dix, Hurricane, and Vinalhaven, along with the Kennebec River city of Hallowell.
Between 1872 and 1874 groups of granite workers, foremen, and quarry owners sat for Armbrust’s camera. In each case a sign in the picture identifies the group, their quarry, and the date. Labeled “J.P. Armbrust, Railroad and Mechanical Photographer,” and made with the intent of selling copies to the sitters, these images now provide valuable visual information about the granite workers of the 1870s, including their age range, their clothing, and their tools. Boys are often found in the front row of these pictures, providing a stark reminder of the widespread use of child labor at the time. In contrast, quarry owners such as Moses Webster of the Bodwell Granite Company on Vinalhaven pose primly in their best suits.
While Armbrust was producing group pictures, he also photographed other aspects of life and work on Dix and Hurricane islands, including quarrying operations and equipment, carving sheds, dining halls, and boarding houses. He published these images as stereo cards—cards that featured two copies of the same view taken slightly apart. When the cards were placed in a stereo viewer, a pair of lenses merged the two pictures into one, creating the effect of three dimensionality.
Between 1872 and 1877, he also produced series of stereo views of Mount Desert, Moosehead Lake, and Rockland. His Mount Desert and Moosehead views were a product of the growing popularity of these two resorts as post-Civil War tourist destinations. Consisting of 47 cards, the Mount Desert series portrayed the natural beauty of the island and pictured boarding houses and hotels for visitors. Twenty-eight of the cards in the Moosehead series focused on the Mount Kineo House hotel and its surrounding lake and mountain scenery. An additional 21 cards explored the rugged wilderness of the West Branch of the Penobscot River.
Armbrust’s largest stereo view series was titled “Rockland and Vicinity.” Issued by local photographer F.H. Crockett in 1877, this series is comprised of 98 views of Rockland with additional scenes of the lime quarries, Owls Head, Thomaston, and Camden. Mounted on oversized cards, the images are notable for their artistic quality and photographic clarity. A city of 7,500 in the 1870s, Rockland is depicted as a thriving seaport, noted for its shipbuilding and lime industries. Armbrust captured its busy waterfront, impressive main street, handsome public buildings and churches, and attractive residential neighborhoods. Of the series, the Rockland Gazette wrote on August 9, 1877, that it was “photographed by Mr. J.P. Armbrust, who is well known as a first-class artist, and he has never made any finer views than many of these.”
Armbrust’s Rockland stereo view series was to be his last. Settling on Vinalhaven in 1874, he had opened a hotel and a store, which he operated until 1879. That year he built the West End Hotel in Bar Harbor in partnership with Charles A. Hayward. Designed by the noted New York architect Bruce Price, the elegant 141-room West End was constructed between May and July 1879, being completed in time to open that summer. The hotel was sited to connect to the Hayward House that Hayward had built in 1875. Calling the West End “the finest hotel building in Bar Harbor,” the Ellsworth American for February 5, 1880, described Armbrust as a “genial, polite, and attentive host.”
Armbrust’s career as a proprietor of the West End was short-lived, however. In 1880 he and his partner Charles Hayward sold the hotel to Oren M. Shaw and his son Fred A. Shaw. That year Armbrust returned to Vinalhaven to open a restaurant that he ran until 1886. For the next eight years, he operated a drug store on the island.
In 1888 he entered the granite business on Vinalhaven, leasing Kittridge Hill to quarry granite for paving stones. For the next 22 years, he supplied the Crown Hill Company of Philadelphia with paving blocks for streets. During this period, he acquired the quarry and renamed it Armbrust Hill. The site is now a wildlife preserve known as Armbrust Hill Town Park.
Retiring to a farm on Vinalhaven in 1910, Armbrust made trips to the West Indies and South America. Active in the Grand Army of the Republic veterans’ organization, he attended the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1913. At the time, he was described as “a traveled, cultured gentleman with whom it is always a pleasure to converse.”
James P. Armbrust died on Vinalhaven on April 30, 1919, at the age of 74 and was buried with his parents in Apollo, Pennsylvania. Of his many accomplishments, he is best remembered for his photographs of the Maine granite industry in the 1870s, both his group pictures of workmen and his views of coastal quarries. The images bring to mind photographer Ansel Adams’ description of Jacob Riis’ turn-of-the-century photographs of urban tenements.
“These people live again as intensely as they did when their images were captured in the old dry plates. I am walking in their alleys, standing in their rooms and sheds and workshops, looking in and out of their windows. And they in turn seem to be aware of me.”
A native of Portland, Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr. directed the Maine Historic Preservation Commission from 1976 to 2015 and has served as Maine State Historian since 2004.
Photos courtesy Maine Granite Industry Museum and Maine Historic Preservation Commission.