A very rare 1889 bird’s-eye view of Williamstown, Massachusetts by the prolific artist and publisher Lucien R. Burleigh.
Located at the far northwest corner of Massachusetts, Williamstown was very much on the frontier when it was settled in 1749 and incorporated in 1765. For decades the town was primarily agricultural, its industrial development limited by its remote location and the modest flow of the nearby Hoosac River. Its complexion began to change in the second quarter of the 19th century, with the growth of Williams College (est. 1793), the construction of small textile mills, and the inauguration of rail service between Pittsfield and North Adams. Industrial development accelerated after the Civil War, with the construction of new and larger mills and the opening of the Hoosac Tunnel, which greatly facilitated rail travel to Boston, boosting both commerce and tourism. When this view was published in 1889 the town was in the midst of a population boom—relatively speaking—growing 25 percent in the decade ending in 1890.
The view depicts Williamstown as seen from the southwest from an imaginary viewpoint over Stone Hill, in the vicinity of the present-day Clark Art Museum. The visual compromise entailed by the bird’s-eye technique enabled artist L. R. Burleigh to depict both the street layout and detailed perspective views of the town’s public and private buildings, including many on the already-sprawling campus of Williams College. To the north, the rail line, Hoosac River and hills of the northern Berkshires form a pleasing background. A helpful legend below the view identifies the many buildings on the Williams College campus and other landmarks such as the rail station and Williamstown Manufacturing Company along the Hoosac River. In all, the view conveys the impression of a small-but-thriving academic and light-industrial town in a splendid natural setting.
Artist, lithographer and publisher Lucien Rinaldo Burleigh (1853-1923) obtained a B.S. in civil engineering from the Worcester County Free Institute of Industrial Science (now Worcester Polytechnic). He graduated in 1875, in the midst of economic depression, and perhaps due to lack of opportunities for engineers he walked away from his training and instead “secured employment with a Milwaukee lithographing company, for whom he made bird’s eye view pencil sketches of villages and the smaller cities, to be copied on stone and printed.” (from an obituary of Burleigh, quoted by Reps on p. 168) He went on to have an extremely prolific career and according to Reps was involved as artist, lithographer and/or publisher with no fewer than 228 bird’s-eye views between 1882 and 1899, primarily of small cities and towns in New York and New England. “His views,” write Reps, “document the appearance of pattern of small-town New York and New England with a clarity and thoroughness unsurpassed by any other viewmaker.”
Burleigh’s view of Williamstown is extremely rare: I find no record of another impression having appeared on the market, and between them OCLC and Reps locate just two institutional holdings, with a third held by Williams College.
Reps, Views and Viewmakers, #1687, recording impressions at the Boston Public Library and Library of Congress only. As of Sept. 2020 OCLC #5451066 records these same two examples (A third, purportedly at Penn State, is a link to the LC image.) Background on Burleigh from Reps pp. 167-169.