Katherine McClellan

Katherine McClellan

"On the Trail" Keene Valley, Katherine McClellan (1898)

          Katherine Elizabeth McClellan (1859-1934), or “Lizzie Mac,” as her friends called her, graduated from Smith College in 1882. After college, she pursued a traditional career in teaching. Then, her life took a twist. Her sister, Daisy, developed tuberculosis and the family brought her to the Adirondack Cottage Sanatorium in Saranac Lake for treatment. Katherine moved to Saranac Lake to help care for her ill sister. While there, she discovered her true vocation: photography.

          She recalled, “After a year of varying successes and failures, my father built me a small studio---a one-room affair---which seemed a very paradise, but by another season, two more rooms were added, and this season [1898] I have just finished a two-story building.”

         A review in the New York Herald described her photos as “high art photographs” and said “there is rarely one that is not worth studying.” McClellan wrote: “I make a point of composition. It is absolutely essential to good photography, and while to the artist form and color are equally important factors, to the photographer form is everything.”

Katherine McClellan

Keene Valley (1898)

          She published two tourist booklets, John Brown, or A Hero’s Grave in the Adirondacks (1896) and Keene Valley (1898), in which she produced the photos and wrote the text herself. She planned two more booklets, Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, but it seems that they were never completed. However, she did produce a calendar in 1899, titled Twelve Months in the Adirondacks. Her photographs also appeared in publications such as the 1896 New York State Forest, Fish, and Game Report and An Adirondack Romance, a popular ladies’ book. 

Katherine McClellan

Grave Raiders in Harpers Ferry, 1899

Courtesy of Harpers Ferry National

Historic Park District

         Katherine left the Adirondacks in 1903 and moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, to serve as photographer for Smith College. In addition to college photos, she took portraits of the many dignitaries who visited Northampton.

         One day in early August of 1899, a large trunk arrived at the home of Katherine McClellan in Saranac Lake. She hid the trunk for almost a month, fearing someone would discover its contents and try to foil her plans. Why the secrecy? The box contained bones---eight human skeletons.

          The bodies had been buried in the ground for almost forty years. These men, two black and six white, had helped John Brown attack the federal armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859 and were among those killed during the raid. After years of searching, their gravesite had been located beside the Shenandoah River. The bodies were secretly exhumed and sent to Katherine McClellan. She was in charge of protecting the bones until they could be reburied in North Elba beside their hero, John Brown.

Katherine McClellan