Hal Garneau’s amazing 19th-century walking tour of the Cottage City

The 3D images bring 19th-century Oak Bluffs to life. — Courtesy Hal Garneau

We love 3D because the optics simulate real life as we see it, in the here and now. For more than 60 years, generations have been scared witless by Vincent Price 3D horror movies, and charmed by Disney 3D releases such as “Cars” and “Beauty and the Beast.”

But until 8 pm on Thursday, August 3, at an historic event at the Tabernacle, we will not have been able to relive our Island’s past in three-dimensional clarity. For that experience, we thank Islander Hal Garneau, who has transformed a lifelong avocation into a 3D photographic walking tour of 19th-century Oak Bluffs.

Mr. Garneau, 63, has condensed more than 40 years of research and collection of 3D images that will allow us a virtual look at the people, places, and things in Oak Bluffs as they were 150 years ago.

Mr. Garneau has structured his presentation as a fun audience experience. “I will be giving a lot of historical commentary to go along with about 125 of the projected 3D images,” he says, “but rather than a dry, factual description of the photos, I do it in a way that is more entertaining. It’s almost like a walking tour of the town in the 1800s.” To accommodate those unfamiliar with current street names and locations in Oak Bluffs, he will reference present-day landmarks to orient them.

The event is free and open to the public, including 3D glasses for attendees, through the beneficence of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association as part of its MVCMA History Week, another robust offering of its programs this season.

In a wide-ranging interview last weekend, the recently retired Vineyard Haven library circulation director revealed how his 3D obsession began, and also that 3D was not a newfangled vehicle invented for Vincent Price in the 1950s. Three-dimensional photography has been actively used in photography since at least the 1870s, which explains why we have the images we will see next Thursday.

“When I was in the third grade, my grandmother gave me about 300 stereo [3D] photo cards, but she had no viewer to go along with them,” he said.

“Most were scenic views of world tourist attractions, but there also were about 80 early views of Oak Bluffs,” he said. Mr. Garneau often looked at the images, then put them in a drawer, as we do with childhood things. But he dug them out again after returning to the Island from Wesleyan University with degrees in psychology and sociology. Then he tracked down a used stereoscope viewer.

“When I put a card from Oak Bluffs in the viewer for the first time and held it up to my eyes, I almost fell backwards. I was totally amazed by what I saw,” he said. From that moment on he was hooked, realizing the power of 3D to bring to life those photos taken in the 1800s.

The 3D images bring 19th-century Oak Bluffs to life. — Courtesy Hal Garneau

He became a member of the National Stereoscopic Association, and his collection of Oak Bluffs stereo views, now more than 1,200, began to grow. In those pre-Internet days, he acquired images by attending conventions and photo shows, by scouring antique dealer’s inventories, and by developing relationships with stereo-view dealers who would save their Martha’s Vineyard views for him.

“These were in the days when excellent Oak Bluffs views sold for two or three dollars each, a more desirable train or steamship view costing maybe five dollars,” he says. “Today, most views like these cost upwards of twenty-five dollars each, some even reaching three figures. I could never have afforded to assemble a collection like mine if I had to start today.”

Hal Garneau has researched and collected 3D images of Oak Bluffs for 40 years. — Courtesy Hal Garneau

His collection of Martha’s Vineyard stereo views numbers close to 1,200 unique cards, and is principally of the Campground and Oak Bluffs, including Circuit Avenue and the waterfront.

Mr. Garneau, Andrew Patch, and Doug Thompson, two other avid Island collectors, a trio he terms “the three musketeers,” are meticulously digitizing, identifying, and cataloging all the images in their vast collections. Mr. Garneau notes that Campground resident Peter Jones has written a book, “Oak Bluffs: The Cottage City Years on Martha’s Vineyard,” that is “wonderfully knowledgeable, a help to all of us,” he said.

The “musketeers” are hoping to make their detective work and research available as an open resource. Mr. Garneau says, “Right now we are so immersed in this project that I feel I can close my eyes and, in my head, walk around the Oak Bluffs of 1872 and know exactly what was where back then.”

Courtesy Hal Garneau

Mr. Garneau smiled and nodded when reminded of 3D pictures of the wonders of the world that were revealed through a ViewMaster, a low-cost viewer marketed ubiquitously in the middle of the past century.

“Well, when you think about it, that’s how most everyone got to travel the world back then. Those 3D images brought the world to them. Everything that is old gets new again,” he said.