We credit Aesop with the axiom, “familiarity breeds contempt” (meaning apathy). In our world of airplane travel and cell phones, Google Earth, readily-available satellite views, and ubiquitous drone imagery and film, we are likely to become somewhat inured about aerial photographs.
All these things are contemporary, so an aerial view of a place we know well is a point of reference rather than of wonder.
Aerial photographs from the past are a different experience. Even when they’re of places we’ve lived all our lives, changes in landscape and cityscape make historical aerial photographs disorienting and exciting. Comparing older aerial photos provides an extended view about how a place changed over time. This is true about downtown Dothan.
According to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, aerial photography began in 1858 with French photographer “Nadar” who took his box camera and full darkroom on a tethered hot-air balloon flight over a village near Paris. In 1860, a similar flight over Boston by photographer James Wallace Black yielded one successful wet collodion plate image. Wilber Wright sold the idea of airplane photography to the Italian army in 1909, and militaries / security agencies have led the field ever since.
Records at the Wiregrass Archives indicate aerial photography in Dothan reaches back to the 1930s, but of particular interest are Harold Wiggins’ photos of downtown probably made in 1954 and similar views made by Doug Snellgrove about 1973.
Wiggins took this photo from south of downtown Dothan looking north up Foster St. and St. Andrews St. The tall building near the photo’s top is the Houston Hotel, the home of Troy State University Dothan until it moved to its current campus. The Houston County courthouse from 1925 is southwest of the Houston Hotel, and the former ACL-SAL railroad tracks swoop from east to northwest just beyond the water tower and standpipe.
Wiggins took many others, including this ca. 1954 view of Dothan High School and points west. Converted to Dothan’s ninth grade academy, the building still stands and its circular front drive still intersects US Highway 231 / S. Oates St.
Twenty years later, Dothan photographer Doug Snellgrove made a similar flight over downtown. And things had changed.
Snellgrove took this shot from east of downtown, obviously to feature the Civic Center that opened in 1974. The Houston Hotel is visible two blocks northwest of the Civic Center. We see that East Main Street has been re-rerouted and extended but not yet opened and many of the buildings that filled the blocks along N. St. Andrews St. (running left-to-right just west of the Civic Center) have made way for open parking lots.
Snellgrove also took a photo of Dothan High School, albeit from the west side (rear) looking east. The school has grown beyond the single building of two decades earlier and has laid in sports practice fields and a track. The surrounding neighborhood has filled in as well in the relentless march of expansion.
Both the Wiggins and Snellgrove collections contain many more images, though only Wiggins’ are available to view online at the Wiregrass Archives website.
Harold Wiggins Photograph Collection: https://www.troy.edu/about-us/dothan-campus/wiregrass-archives/inventories/019.html
Doug Snellgrove Photograph Collection description: https://www.troy.edu/about-us/dothan-campus/wiregrass-archives/inventories/099.html
It Came from the Archives is an ongoing series spotlighting the fascinating collections at the Wiregrass Archives. To find out more, visit online at https://www.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives or in person in Everett Hall on the Dothan Campus.