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Minniesha Island in the 1930s: The Clarence Shoemaker Photo Collection

A web search into the history of Minnie’s Island yielded the following: “the Shoemaker Collection transferred to, and retained by, The Historical Society of Washington, D.C. provides, in particular, possibly unique images taken during the first third of the 20th Century of the Potomac Gorge area where the Shoemaker family bought Minnie’s (Minniesha) Island in 1923.” I was intrigued. Who was Minniesha? I thought that Minnie’s Island was named after Minnie Jenkins, who, along with John Trammel, patented the island in 1904. And what were these images?

Clarence Shoemaker (b. 1874 - d.1958), along with his brother Ralph, owned Minnie’s Island from 1923 to 1950. While we don’t know much about Ralph, we know much about Clarence, who was a curator of marine invertebrates for the Smithsonian Institution. He published about 70 papers on his special focus area of amphipods. Clarence was active in the DC naturalist community. He was chair for field outings for the Audubon Naturalist Society (now Nature Forward) for over fifty years and was elected a member of the Washington Biologists Field Club (located on nearby Plummer’s Island) in 1912. He was a serious photographer, and his descendants donated his collection to the Potomac Conservancy. The Conservancy donated the collection to the Historical Society of Washington DC in 2001.

Clarence was known for keeping meticulous records. This was evident when I visited the Historical Society of Washington DC, located in the old Carnegie Library opposite the Convention Center in DC to look at the images. His collection of over 600 well-organized glass plate and film negatives and prints includes hundreds of images of “Minniesha Island” along with images of the Potomac Gorge, Georgetown, and DC. Most of the images were four by five inch glass negatives, each in an individual manila envelope. It was really challenging to pick the images we wanted to transfer to digital format – there are some many good photos. We finally settled on three images that were taken in the 1920s and 1930s.

We don’t know the history of these structures from the 1930s. The location of the larger cabin is the same as the current cabin, but the layout of the windows and doors is different, so this is likely a different structure. Were these structures built by Minnie Jenkins and John Trammel? Was the structure with a chimney a cook house? The covered area in the middle appears to be the same location as the current water pump.

Many of the photos show social events. I call this photo “The Naturalists”, including left to right an two entomologists, two bird watchers, and a fisherman. We don’t know their identities. Maybe they were early members of Audubon Naturalist Society.

They spent more time in the river in the 1920s and 30s than we do today. We think this photo is taken near the landing looking toward the channel by the canal.

So who was Minniesha? For now, this remains one of the many mysteries of Minnie’s Island. Did Minnie Jenkins and John Trammel run a speakeasy on the island? Was the old cabin destroyed by the 1936 flood? Who placed the boulders between the base of the island and the mainland by the canal? Was this done by George Washington for the Patawomack Canal or later owners of Minnies Island to improve access? I expect the answers are there. Let’s keep digging.



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