Past is present

S-4 Memorial in the garden of St. Mary of the Harbor, Provincetown.

When I was a kid enjoying idyllic summers in Provincetown, a familiar face in the West End of town where I stayed was that of Johnny Oliver, born in Provincetown in 1899 to Manuel Oliver, who had emigrated from Brava, Cape Verde, and Mary Boatman, born in Provincetown to Portuguese parents. During my childhood, there were any number of “characters” in Provincetown, those otherwise regular, hardworking folks who just seemed to have a rhythm all their own. Johnny was one of them.

He was old enough to be my Dad’s father, but he and my Dad, who had grown up in Provincetown, seemed to hit it off and I often saw them jawing out in the street, Johnny always animated no matter what story he was telling, and my Dad enjoying every minute of it. I recall my Dad saying that as a teenager in the mid-1940s he worked with Johnny at one of the cold storage fish freezers, but by the time I knew Johnny in the late 1960s he was a house painter. I can still see him in his painter’s overalls, splashed with daubs of color, looking very much like a human palette. He was one of the few grownups we kids referred to by his first name, rather than as Mr. Oliver, and without incurring a scolding.

Salvage efforts. Courtesy of

Johnny’s best story, as far as the neighborhood kids were concerned, was his dramatic telling of what came to be known in Provincetown as the S-4 disaster. Mid-afternoon, on 17 December 1927, while on maneuvers in Cape Cod Bay, the submarine S-4 surfaced into the path of the Coast Guard destroyer Paulding, then on rum runner duty. The Paulding could not avoid a collision, sinking the sub in 100 feet of water with the loss of all forty entombed crewmen, though six had survived the initial impact and could be heard tapping messages in Morse Code on the vessel’s hull. Residents, gripped by the event, daily flocked down to the harbor and trekked out to the back beach to watch the tragedy as it played out over the long weeks. Provincetown’s fishermen kept themselves and their boats at the ready, in case they were needed.

Johnny was adamant in his belief that had the Navy allowed Provincetown’s fishermen to assist with the rescue and to salvage the submarine by dragging it into shallow water, lives could have been saved. (The crew of the Wood End Lifesaving Station had watched the S-4 surface into the path of the destroyer.) Convinced that the Navy did not want the crew rescued (were they on a secret mission?), Johnny held us spellbound and had our imaginations running wild. It was, after all, the 1960s, and there were conspiracy theories for every taste. The truth was that everything that could have been done to rescue the crewmen had been done. Severe weather had thwarted the efforts until it was too late.

...Johnny held us spellbound and had our imaginations running wild. It was, after all, the 1960s, and there were conspiracy theories for every taste.

Having heard the story a dozen times, I can still see Johnny gesticulating out to Wood End Light, beyond where the accident occurred. So, imagine my surprise and delight when, not too long ago, a link titled Back From Her Sea Grave came across my email. Who could resist that subject line, and so I clicked on what is a remarkable silent news clip of the S-4 being raised from the seabed in March 1928.  A second clip, Again The Sea Takes Toll, shows the unsuccessful efforts to rescue the crew in the days immediately following the collision.

The clips are two of the many thousands in the newsreel archive British Pathé, whose holdings (both silent and with sound) span the years 1896 to 1978. In the days before television, the news and events of the day – whether a journey to a far-flung corner, a new-fangled invention, a glimpse of the rich and famous, or harrowing scenes of war – was delivered to the public by way of cinema newsreels in movie theaters, a concept pioneered by French filmmaker Charles Pathé (1863–1957) in London in 1910.

If the usefulness of newsreels as an entertainment and information medium had waned by the 1970s, the films retained their historic value, appreciated for their social and cultural atmosphere, the actuality of the events, how and why those events were meaningful, and for the insights into how those events were presented to and influenced audiences. The Pathé archive also features a library of still images produced from the films. Though the entire archive is viewable online free of charge, use of the material requires licensing. Subscribers to the mailing list can receive periodic “Archive Picks.”

To make any attempt at describing the remarkable variety and richness of the subject matter in the archive would be futile. I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that if you can name it, they probably have it. On the home page, a pull-down menu titled “Collections” hints at the broader content, from War Collections, Politics and Political Figures, Royal Collections, and Country Profiles to Sport and Seasonal Collections. But even those categories hardly begin to scratch the surface. Within each of the broad categories are numerous refined collections – Ireland’s Revolutionary Period, the Holocaust, D-Day, Churchill, First Ladies of the United States, the House of Windsor, Scotland, Cuba, Greece, Rugby, and Christmas – to name just a few. And within each of those collections are still more sub-collections. It’s rather like opening a set of those charming Russian nesting dolls.

To make any attempt at describing the remarkable variety and richness of the subject matter in the archive would be futile.

My best recommendation for getting to know the archive is to settle in for a few hours, as I did recently, and start entering keywords into the search box for subjects that personally interest you. Prepare for a kind of stream of consciousness as you travel from decade to decade, place to place, idea to idea, enjoying a journey brimming with nostalgia and, perhaps, memories.

Having lived in Scotland for a number of years, the Scotland Heritage collection is one that I’ve particularly enjoyed browsing. To give everyone an idea of the extent of the archive, the Scotland collection alone includes thirty-three sub-categories containing more than 400 films! Just a few of my favorites are the Scottish fisher-girls packing the herring harvest at Great Yarmouth, England (1920), the Robert Burns Bi-Centenary (1959), and Oil Drilling in the North Sea (1962).

Among other films that I stumbled upon using keywords in the search box were Cranberry Picking on Cape Cod (1930), the Newfoundland squid harvest (1964), Mayor James Michael Curley’s funeral (1958), Ellis Island becoming a National Park (1964), the Halifax Explosion (1917), and footage of the Titanic leaving Belfast (1912).

During a trip last summer to England with NEHGS and Robert Charles Anderson, I made time for a day trip to the Cambridge American Cemetery, the site of nearly 3,700 World War II graves including that of Charles Darby, about whom I wrote in an earlier post. I wondered if the film archive had any footage from the cemetery and, indeed, I found two films, a remembrance service from 1945 and a Memorial Day commemoration from 1964.

Another site that I had hoped to visit while with NEHGS in England, during our side trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon, was the Harvard House (1596), the original home of Katherine Rogers, the mother of John Harvard, founder of the college. Mr. Anderson had also planned to visit the house, but we were both disappointed that it was permanently closed. I entered Stratford-Upon-Avon in the search box and was rewarded with delightful views of the house in The City of the Immortal Bard (1934).

Genealogists employ a workshop full of tools to help them shape and assemble a family story. You might say that vital records build the skeleton of an ancestry, while diaries, newspapers, and photographs put a little flesh on the bones. Archival films are kind of like a suit of clothes, dressing up our family stories in a social, cultural, and historical context that reveals a little something about the way their personal lives intersected with events taking place in the larger world.

Living and breathing, and with a “language” all their own, the films may not be specific to our own families, but as links to the time of our more recent ancestors we can find an emotional connection. Psychologists tell us that we humans are hard-wired to respond viscerally to pictures, even pictures from someone else’s life that often trigger our own memories. If your ancestor was a fisher-girl, she is that girl in the film. If your family lived in Boston when James Michael Curley was Mayor, as mine did, perhaps they were among the crowds who lined the streets for his funeral. If they lived in Provincetown, as mine did, they never forgot watching, helplessly from shore, the S-4 disaster as it unfolded.

The films allow us, in a sense, to time travel, to be where our ancestors were, to begin to see – or better imagine – the world through their eyes, thus cementing that indelible, though ever-evolving, relationship between the past and the present.

Amy Whorf McGuiggan

About Amy Whorf McGuiggan

Amy Whorf McGuiggan recently published Finding Emma: My Search For the Family My Grandfather Never Knew; she is also the author of My Provincetown: Memories of a Cape Cod Childhood; Christmas in New England; and Take Me Out to the Ball Game: The Story of the Sensational Baseball Song. Past projects have included curating, researching, and writing the exhibition Forgotten Port: Provincetown’s Whaling Heritage (for the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum) and Albert Edel: Moments in Time, Pictures of Place (for the Provincetown Art Association and Museum).View all posts by Amy Whorf McGuiggan