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Waddington Historical Society

A Small Town with a Big History

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James Ricalton - Traveling and Photographing the Globe

In his early life, he attended St. Lawrence University as part of the class of 1871. He left before taking the degree and moved to Maplewood, New Jersey for a short contract as a schoolteacher, ultimately becoming the principal. Today, his legacy is still celebrated in Maplewood.  His true passion though was travel photography. Every summer, while on vacation from his school, he embarked on journeys overseas using a wheelbarrow-like cart large enough to transport his photography equipment by day, and to sleep in by night. It was designed such that during rainy weather Ricalton could stand in a well in the middle and continue walking under the cart's cover. Using this system, he visited Iceland, the Amazon and the St. Petersburg region of Russia, bringing back thousands of photographs, mineral specimens, and curios. Eventually he left his teaching role. His work caught the attention of Thomas Edison, who financed an expedition to search the Far East for a bamboo filament suitable for use in an incandescent light. Eventually being a travel photographer and war correspondent would become his full-time job.

On the website, you can find detailed information of Ricalton’s travel expeditions, as well as Ricalton’s summary of his first connection with Thomas Edison. He was surprised by a knock on his door, which was not a concerned parent, but a messenger from the world’s greatest inventor.  Ricalton wrote: “I felt it, of course, to be no small honor for a humble teacher to be called to the sanctum of Thomas A. Edison.”  He took the search for the filament for light bulbs. Ultimately, he quit his teaching job in 1891 to become a professional photographer and war correspondent.

In the Ogdensburg Journal on March 23, 1911, the article describes the history of Ricalton’s career as a photographer and war correspondent. It cites his decision to travel to the front of a possible war between Mexico and Japan. Noted in the story is the fact that Ricalton will be using a motion camera for the first time to record warfare, at the request of Thomas Edison. The article also mentions a “trying trip” for Ricalton in 1909 when he was 64 or 65. He traveled to Africa and walked from Cape Town to Cairo, a distance of 4500 miles.

In 1912, Ricalton was sent on another assignment by Edison to test a motion picture camera in Africa, filming among other things a whaling expedition off Cape Town. His son Lomond accompanied him on this trip but died from typhoid fever there, and this was Ricalton's last trip.

In his life, he captured more than 100,000 images, among them a large collection of stereoscopic images.  Ricalton's photographs earned him numerous honors and many were used to illustrate textbooks. He sold his images to the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

When the town of Maplewood refused to house his collection, he arranged for a train to take them to Waddington, where he spent the final years of his life. Several of his large, framed photographs were stored at the former Moore museum, and some are now stored for viewing at the Town Museum in the village of Waddington, New York.

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