At any time in Saginaw history, Wallace L. Goodridge would have been rated a great photographer, commercial or otherwise, but for the era he represented, he was peerless.
Some historians and authors have written creditably about early Saginaw and why it sometimes was described as “pine lumber mecca of the nation.” But none have shown it so eloquently and graphically as did Goodridge with the primitive, cumbersome photographic equipment he toted into the lumber woods and along banks of the Saginaw River and its tributaries when the spring log drives were on. Not only was Goodridge a fine technician, but he had an artist’s sense of what was dramatic and seemed to know that what he was recording on film was for posterity and could tell the story better than the written word. His works proved this and made his fame reach far beyond Saginaw.
At the time of his death in Saginaw at 82, he was the oldest photographer in Michigan in years of actual practice in his profession. Reputedly, he was the oldest black photographer in America.
Goodridge was born in York, Pennsylvania, September 4, 1840. His father, William C. Goodridge, was born in slavery in Baltimore, Maryland, and given his liberty when five years old. Later, in York, he operated a successful confectionery and toy shop. In the years preceding the Civil War, the elder Goodridge’s home was a principal station for fugitive slaves on what was called the Underground Railroad.
Wallace Goodridge and his brothers, Glenalvin and William, arrived in Saginaw in 1862. The family had fled Pennsylvania after the invasion of southern troops. The father and some of the other children went to Minnesota. Their flight from Pennsylvania was made necessary because of the father’s activity in operation of the Underground Railroad. Wallace Goodridge and his brothers started their photography business in what then was the little village of East Saginaw. Their first studio was in a small wooden structure on the northeast corner of Genesee and Washington, later the site of the Eddy building. In the early 1870s, their studio was destroyed by fire. For a few hundred dollars they bought a lot in the 200 block on S. Washington, on the east side of the street near Janes and erected a building.
Glenalvin, the eldest brother, died a few years after coming to Saginaw. Wallace and William carried on. But it was Wallace who won the laurels and reputation as a photographer and his was the principal hand in the business.
His many scenes of the Saginaw Valley lumber era—the lumberjack’s life in the woods, the rivermen riding sawlogs during the spring freshet, the busy sawmills which lined the river from Saginaw to Bay City produced some of the finest historical photographs in national archives. Equally great were his photographs of historic buildings on both sides of the Saginaw River. Patrons of his studio included the business, civic and social leaders of East Saginaw and Saginaw City.
Goodridge’s specialty was in daguerreotypes, photographs on silver or silver-covered copper plates, and ambrotypes, positive photographs on glass. A Goodridge photo, when examined closely even today, is notable for its clarity, detail, and the artistic manner in which the detail was presented. He recorded the best pictures ever made of some of Saginaw’s ravaging floods of bygone years.
William Goodridge died around 1900 and Wallace then went on alone. He had been married in 1890 and his wife died in 1915. They had a son. For many years, Wallace Goodridge was a leader in the Saginaw black community. He was active and respected in Saginaw Masonry. Wallace was elected president of an organization working for the betterment of blacks. In 1901 he headed a general committee in Saginaw for a celebration of Emancipation Day.
Goodridge was among Saginaw’s early prominent businessmen. His artistry was recognized by Saginawians in all stations of life. Portraits were one of his specialties. But his recording of vital scenes of Saginaw Valley’s lumber days were matchless. When he went into the lumber woods to pictorially record life as it was in a lumber camp, he sometimes spent several days living with the lumberjacks, listening to their tales, eating with them and hearing of their exploits. Thus, he got the feel of the scenes he chose to record. His pictures showed the woodsmen at their jobs, at their meals and at their Saturday night camp entertainment.