In this 1912 photograph by L.B. Foote, about fifty men are assembled around a long table. They’ve finished dinner and have begun on a very English dessert course of fruit, cheese, and crackers; of the many bottles on the table, some are surely port.
The guests, some sporting doughty moustaches, are wearing their best suits. Where the jury-rigged gaslights don’t shine, the vaulted room disappears into shadow except on the left, where one solitary man looks to be neither guest nor waiter.
Did he put up the scaffolding for the dangling lamps, wrap the steadying cords around the pillars? Hands on hips, he looks like he wants this evening to be over with, to take down the wooden supports, to put away his ladder and go home to bed.
Why did Foote keep him in the frame? The photographer could have asked him to step aside, or to move to the back wall, obscured by the worthies.
It’s as if Foote is telescoping his vision seven years into the future to the Winnipeg General Strike, when the workers would move into the foreground to be recorded by Foote for their own sake.
However, this is no exclusive ballroom or gentlemen’s clubroom: it’s the new, 1-million gallon underground reservoir of the St. Boniface Waterworks on Plinguet Street.
There’s an odd custom of holding banquets in subterranean structures going back to 1827 with Marc Brunel’s candelabra-lit supper in the Thames Tunnel to prove how safe it was, and continuing on to a 1994 luncheon in the Channel Tunnel attended by the Queen.
It was a way of celebrating achievements sometimes forgotten once the guests were above ground again; indeed, though impressive at the time, the St. Boniface reservoir was overtaken in importance in 1919 by the Shoal Lake aqueduct.
While the aqueduct is still working, the reservoir has been filled in. I’m not sure what the man on the left would think of having stayed out late for that.
- Laura Lamont
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Laura Lamont has published work in Descant and the Turkish Review, and can get lost for hours while wandering through digital archives.