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A radio host's search for a scoundrel

Published: Friday, July 2 2010 7:00 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — The man was a scoundrel.

That may explain why Scott Fisher couldn't find any photographs of him. Fisher had photographs of his great-grandfather's five siblings. He had photographs of the man's parents. But no image of Fisher's great-grandfather, Andrew Jackson Fisher, apparently survived.

"Basically there was a hole," said Fisher, co-host of "Fisher and Peggy in the Morning" on "Today's 106.5" radio in Salt Lake City.

For 30 years Fisher looked but found nothing except information. Andrew was a coffee, tea and spice merchant in New York City — part of a long line of Manhattan Fishers going back to the 1600s. He was involved in Boss Tweed's infamous Tammany Hall politics. He had two women who claimed to be his wife — but he married neither of them. He died of cirrhosis of the liver.

"My grandfather never spoke of him, ever," Fisher said.

He was exactly the sort of ancestor that family who knew him didn't talk about — but descendants would love to brag about.

"It's not like I spent 30 years constantly on the job here," Fisher said. "Pretty much it was a cold case file. I just came to conclude that no picture would ever be found."

About a year ago, Fisher used online tools to search old documents and newspapers and learned something new: Andrew had been a New York City volunteer fireman.

Before firemen went professional with horses and steam fire pumps around 1865, firemen were volunteers who pulled the wagons themselves and pumped the water by hand. Technological improvements didn't dampen the pride of these former volunteers who later formed volunteer firemen's veterans associations across the country.

Fisher contacted the New York City Fire Museum and did other searches — including finding an old Veteran Firemen's Association of New York City dinner program through eBay. He learned that Andrew's New York group took a big cross-country tour in 1887. There was even a huge group photograph of all the tour's participants. Fisher found a low-resolution copy on the Internet in hopes of identifying his great-grandfather.

But there were two problems. First was that nobody was identified in the photograph. Second was that there was another Andrew Jackson Fisher, a mason, who lived in the same area and was also a volunteer fireman veteran.

Fisher scoured old newspaper accounts of the group's 1887 trip. "The excursion to end all excursions," Fisher said.

The firemen veterans had budgeted $50,000 for their trip — including $17,000 to bring along "Cappa's famous Seventh Regiment band." The band played concerts along the way to help pay for the trip. One newspaper account told about Andrew Fisher — indentifying him as a coffee merchant, and another told his address. This confirmed Fisher's great-grandfather was the right person on the trip. But it still couldn't tell him which of the more than 100 people in the group photograph was Andrew.

The veterans made a stop in Salt Lake City on on its way to San Francisco. The group was feted and even made a trip to the old Garfield resort to bob on the waves of the Great Salt Lake. Famous Utah photographer, C.R. Savage, took a photograph of the firemen on the pier — but like the group photograph, there was no way to tell who was who.

In their parade that day, Fisher's father's grandfather marched past his mother's grandfather's tailor shop.

Fisher found an old Salt Lake City newspaper article online that said Andrew had sent a photograph of himself to an old New York friend, Jacob Alt, who lived in Salt Lake City. Fisher told a friend, Ron Fox — a history buff who also prepares articles on photographs for the Deseret News — about the article. Fox looked through firemen memorabilia and photographs at the State Historical Museum archives at the Rio Grand Depot in Salt Lake City.

Fox found a photograph of a trip participant — but the man's initials on his fireman's helmet didn't match. He spoke with Fisher and recommended trying This Is the Place Heritage Park.

At the park is a replica of Salt Lake City's historic Ottinger Hall, built with funds donated by the late Larry H. Miller. Fox thought that perhaps there might be more archives and photographs there.

 

"Odds aren't good that I'm going to find it there," Fisher remembered thinking.

On May 28, Fisher walked into the hall. He was disappointed to learn that there were no archives — only the photographs and collections on the walls and in display cases. He walked up the stairs to the second floor, and in the corner he was surprised to find an original copy of the trip's group photograph.

"When I looked closer, there was a long slim piece of cardstock along the bottom of the matting. It had the name of every fireman with a number next to it. I realized that this is a key," Fisher said. Little white numbers had been painted on each person in the photograph. Towards the back of the line was the scoundrel himself, number 91: Andrew Jackson Fisher.

Fisher looked at Andrew's face and said "hello." His three-decades search was over.

"It was a complete shock, because I went up there with no expectations at all that this would be successful," Fisher said. "The stunner was that I would find a marked photograph of my great-grandfather from New York on a wall in Salt Lake City where I live. Right under my nose all these years. Cold case solved."

e-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com

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