We credit Aesop with the axiom “familiarity breeds contempt” (meaning apathy). In our world of air travel and cell phones, Google Earth, readily available satellite views, and ubiquitous drone images and movies, we are likely to become somewhat used to aerial photography.
All of these things are contemporary, so an aerial view of a place we know well is a point of reference rather than a wonder.
Aerial photographs of the past are a different experience. Even when it comes to places we have lived our entire lives, changes in landscape and cityscape make historical aerial photographs disorienting and exciting. Comparing older aerial photos provides an expansive view of how a place has changed over time. This is true for downtown Dothan.
According to Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, aerial photography began in 1858 with the French photographer “Nadar” taking his camera and full darkroom on a captive hot air balloon flight over a village near Paris. In 1860, a similar flight over Boston by photographer James Wallace Black produced a successful image of a wet collodion plate. Wilber Wright sold the idea of airplane photography to the Italian military in 1909, and since then the armed forces and security agencies have dominated the field.
The Wiregrass Archives indicate that aerial photography in Dothan dates back to the 1930s, but Harold Wiggins’ downtown photos probably taken in 1954 and similar views taken by Doug Snellgrove around 1973 are of particular interest.
Wiggins took this photo from south of downtown Dothan looking north to Foster St. and St. Andrews St. The large building near the top of the photo is the Houston Hotel, the headquarters of the Troy State University Dothan until it moved to its current campus. The 1925 Houston County Courthouse sits southwest of the Houston Hotel, and the old ACL-SAL railroad runs east to northwest just past the water tower and from the fire hydrant.
Wiggins took many more, including this one. 1954 view of Dothan High School and points west. Converted to Dothan’s ninth grade academy, the building still stands and its circular front driveway still intersects with US Highway 231 / S. Oates St.
Twenty years later, Dothan photographer Doug Snellgrove flew a similar flight over the city center. And things had changed.
Snellgrove took this photo from east of downtown, obviously to showcase the Civic Center which opened in 1974. The Houston Hotel is visible two blocks northwest of the Civic Center. We see that East Main Street has been redirected and extended but not yet opened and many of the buildings that filled the blocks along N. St. Andrews St. (going left to right just west of the Civic Center) did path to open parking lots.
Snellgrove also took a photo of Dothan High School, albeit from the west (back) side looking east. The school has grown beyond the single building two decades earlier and has developed sports grounds and a track. The surrounding neighborhood has also filled with the relentless march of expansion.
The Wiggins and Snellgrove collections contain many more images, although only those from Wiggins are available online on the Wiregrass Archives website.
Harold Wiggins Photograph Collection: https://www.troy.edu/about-us/dothan-campus/wiregrass-archives/inventories/019.html
Description of the collection of photographs by Doug Snellgrove: https://www.troy.edu/about-us/dothan-campus/wiregrass-archives/inventories/099.html
It comes from the archives is an ongoing series highlighting the fascinating collections of the Wiregrass Archives. To find out more, go online at https://www.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives or in person at Everett Hall on the Dothan campus.