Answer Man solves curious case of the Va. Luna Park photo

Although the Luna Park chain had similar architecture, the left photo, purportedly of the Arlington park, was cribbed from the one at right. Pittsburgh's Luna Park, right, in a circa 1906 photo, has the city's name in the sign below the crescent moon. It was erased in the image at left.
Although the Luna Park chain had similar architecture, the left photo, purportedly of the Arlington park, was cribbed from the one at right. Pittsburgh's Luna Park, right, in a circa 1906 photo, has the city's name in the sign below the crescent moon. It was erased in the image at left. (Virginia Room, Arlington County Public Library; Library of Congress)

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By John Kelly
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The antics of Answer Man, my Sunday doppelganger, seldom intrude on my weekday column. But today I make an exception. The reason? To answer a question, actually: Why was a photograph of a Pittsburgh amusement park identified as an Arlington County amusement park in Answer Man's April 18 column?

The column was about the great elephant escape of 1906, when a quartet of performing pachyderms skedaddled from Arlington's Luna Park. It took a week to capture the final elephant.

As with all my columns, I had to think about how best to illustrate it. A photo of the elephants at Luna Park would have been ideal, but cameras were rare in 1906, and I couldn't find such an image.

Amazingly, The Washington Post did run a photo it described as one of the elephants being lassoed by members of a Wild West show that was performing in Washington at the time. It's there on the microfilm and on Proquest, a digital archive that catalogues The Post. I'm convinced it was a re-creation -- the odds of a Post photographer just happening upon the capture strike me as slim -- but even so, it would have been neat to run it.

However, neither the microfilm version nor the Proquest version was of sufficient quality to publish in the paper. As for the original image, our photo archives no longer contain pictures from that far back. A great purge was conducted at one time, and there's not much from before 1950. Sad, I know.

Well how about a photo of Luna Park? For this I turned to the Virginia Room at the Arlington Public Library. It's where I did much of my research on the column. Librarians at the Virginia Room brought me the photos they had of Luna Park. Most were low-quality duplications of Luna Park postcards. But hadn't I seen a striking image of the park's Moorish-style entrance on the library's Web site? Could I have that one?

That particular image came into the library's possession from Eleanor Lee Templeman, who included it in her 1959 book "Arlington Heritage: Vignettes of a Virginia County." Templeman, a descendant of the Lee family, was a tireless chronicler of Arlington's past. She labeled the photo as Arlington's Luna Park.

"That's why we just assumed it was Arlington," Heather Crocetto, archivist at the Virginia Room, told me.

I paid the library $15 to have that image put on a CD, and we stuck it in the newspaper.

Almost immediately readers pointed out its similarity -- its exact similarity -- to a photo of Pittsburgh's Luna Park that is also online. Seeing it, it was obvious that the word "Pittsburg's" (the Postal Service briefly eliminated the H) had been grayed out above "Luna Park" in the version we printed. Once you know to look for it, it seems obvious. Perhaps Templeman was not to be trusted after all.

In her defense, it's possible the photo was used in conjunction with the Arlington park, which was at South Glebe Road and Jefferson Davis Highway and closed about 1914. Luna Parks were a chain of amusement parks opened by Frederick Ingersoll. They all featured similar rides and a similar design. (There's a neat Sanborn fire insurance map at the Virginia Room showing the layout of the entire park.) It's possible that the spurious photo was altered by Ingersoll or his publicity agents to promote the Arlington park before it opened. It wasn't just Templeman and the library who were fooled. Until I notified him, the operator of a Web site called NorVApics.com was selling prints of the image.

The Post took the photo down from the online version of Answer Man's column. It remains part of the Virginia Room's collection.

"We won't take it out," Heather said of the photo. "It lives with the rest of the pictures Templeman gave us." Heather did change the description, however, to indicate that it is Pittsburgh's Luna Park, not Arlington's.

Let this serve as a reminder that the Internet can obfuscate, but it can also reveal.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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