Historical Photo Exploration #1 – What’s Going On Here?

The archival collections of the Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum are full of historical photos from all over Washington County. When the photos are donated to the museum, sometimes the donor knows all kinds of information about the picture, sometimes the person who took the picture left a whole lot of information on the back for future generations. Usually, though, the pictures come with no information at all. As historians, we have to look at several context clues within the picture to help us date when the photo was taken and where the photo was taken. What was going on in that particular moment in time when the photo was taken? Early photographic technology was not as instant as it is today. It took time to take a good photo, so photos were usually reserved for special occasions.

Each week, we’ll be posting a photo from our archives with some questions to help you explore the photo. We’ll also include some writing prompts if you feel like going a step further and turning this into a creative writing exercise as well.

If you are doing this activity with your student(s), the answer key is provided at the end of the post.

To see a larger version of the photo, click HERE.



1) What is happening in this photo?

2) How many types of transportation do you see in this photo? List them.

3) What are some clues that can help you date when this photo was taken?

4) What was the train hauling?

5) Who is included in this picture? (Look for clues to gender, age, and race.)

6) Who is not included in this picture? (Look for clues to gender, age, and race.)

7) Who do you think took this picture?

8) Why do you think this picture was taken?

9) Where was this picture taken? (Hint, the location is in Johnson City.)

10) What is the most surprising or shocking thing about this photo?


Creative Writing Exercise – Pick a person in the photo and write a paragraph from their point of view. What were they feeling and thinking in this moment? Do your best to write like you’re from that time period. Go a step further and write a letter as the person in the photo describing the event you saw today.


Answer Key:

  1. Clean up of a train wreck with spectators looking on.
  2. Three – horse and buggy, trains, and automobiles (This is a great opportunity to talk more about changes in transportation over time.)
  3. Telegraph poles, way people are dressed, cars, type of cars – This photo was taken sometime between 1910-1920.
  4. Coal and lumber – This can lead to further questions about coal and why a train would be hauling it. Same questions can be asked about lumber.
  5. Men, women, children, there may be some members of the African American community included in the photo, but it’s hard to tell.
  6. The people in the photo are predominantly Caucasian.
  7. We don’t know who took the picture, but it could have been taken by the newspaper, the railroad company, or a spectator.
  8. To document the train wreck, perhaps for the newspaper.
  9. This picture was taken in Johnson City on Walnut Street where the old Burlington Mills factory is located. This is before the train tracks were moved to their current location.
  10. Open ended answer, but it’s interesting to note the crowd of people just watching. Also, some of them drove their cars to watch the train wreck be cleaned up. There’s a saying about something being a “train wreck” but not being able to look away from it. Perhaps this is where that particular turn of phrase comes from?