Tin-can camera + gunpowder stir up meeting

April 25, 2012 

I was amazed at the resourcefulness of this man who made his own camera out of tin cans, and at his knack of being where history happens.

Cameraman fires opening ‘blast' in river campaign

Published on December 3, 1962

By Charles Lamb, Herald staff reporter

Pictures have recorded many historic events, but one that Del Chapman, 85, Rt. 1, Kennewick, took in 1910 actually helped an event happen.

Chapman, a commercial photographer at the time, was commissioned to photograph a banquet that was staged in Walla Walla to stimulate interest in "opening" the Columbia River.

Until that time, the rocky and treacherous Celilo Rapids near The Dalles, Ore., limited navigation to flat-bottomed boats. And even the flat-bottoms had trouble getting past the rapids during low water.

Purpose of the banquet that Chapman attended was to send a delegate to Washington, D.C., and urge Congress to authorize funds for a canal around the rapids, that would be large enough for river-going vessels. In those days, photographers used flashpowder instead of bulbs or strobe lights to produce flashes of light for interior shots.

Chapman said he set up his paraphernalia on the balcony of the Whitman Hotel ballroom and, with 500 men to cover, used a generous amount of flashpowder. He didn't know until he squeezed the bulb on his camera that the druggist made an error in mixing the powder.

"He must have substituted the ingredients of gunpowder," Chapman recalls. He said that instead of going "poof," the flashpowder went off like a cannon, shaking the building, breaking several windows and sending the banquet guests diving under their tables for cover.

A former Washington governor named Moore was the first to recover from the shock. Chapman said the old politician scrambled to his feet and began pounding the table.

"Never mind the explosion boys," Chapman recalls Moore as shouting. "That was just the first shot toward opening the Columbia River." Before the evening was over, the group decided to send Dr. Frank Blalock, a pioneer Walla Walla physician to Washington, D.C., in behalf of the project.

Blalock was greeted by speaker of the House Joe Cannon of Missouri, who knew "Old Doc" from earlier visits to Washington. "What does the public need now?" Cannon inquired.

The outcome was that Congress authorized Celilo Canal, which was opened in 1915 at another ceremony that Chapman also photographed. The old photographer feels to this day that the explosive flashpowder he used in 1910 helped to jar the project into existence.

Chapman was born in East Dubuque, Iowa and came west in 1898. The Tri-City Herald's pioneer columnist, Burton Lum, recalled in an article several months ago that he saw two young men crawl out from under a freight train that stopped that year in Kennewick.

"One of them was me," attests Chapman, adding that it was his first and last experience at "riding the rods." He said he spent part of the ensuing 64 years in Walla Walla, where he roomed with Dr. Blalock in the old Grand Hotel and operated one of the state's first x-ray and photography shops.

From 1914 on, Chapman took and printed photographs at from 10 cents a dozen to $25 a setting with a camera that he hammered out himself from tin cans, hinges, pieces of leather and glass.

Until the Polaroid camera came out, it was the only self-contained unit Chapman knows of that could turn out finished negatives and prints in a few minutes. He did the developing and printing by reaching into a "dark room" compartment in the back portion of the device through a light-proof opening.

Chapman has owned his farm on Bowles Road near Finley for 48 years, but has been farming it only since 1944. Previously he earned most of his livelihood by photography making as much as $20 a day, even during hard times.

The old photographer and his homemade camera have both seen younger years. But if the going should get tough, Chapman is confident that the two of them could still make expenses.

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