Admissions - Photo collection displayed at canal gala
Photo by Cape Cod Times/Merrily Cassidy
Nina Webber still remembers the special nights when her parents woke her a few hours after bedtime for a drive to the Cape Cod Canal. It was a thrill just to be awake after sunset. But standing at the water’s edge, in a robe and slippers, she would crane her tiny neck and awe at a “monster of a boat.” Lit up high above her, reflecting against the current, was the New York passenger ship cutting through the canal on its way to Boston.
At 82, she holds onto those moments in black-and-white photographs of the canal, along with commemorative china and binders of postcards showing the 100-year-old waterway. Her favorite postcards show the New York boat cruising the canal against a sunset or moon-lit sky.
“It’s because it was part of my childhood, it was part of a memory,” she said.
Today at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, her trove of artifacts – including souvenirs, a 19th-century manuscript proposing the canal and a timeline with enlarged images from her collection – will be featured at the Blending of the Waters Gala, tonight’s fundraiser for this year’s Cape Cod Canal Centennial celebration.
The display, at the academy’s American Bureau of Shipping Information Commons through the end of the year, includes a fraction of the items Webber has collected since age 4.
As a girl, she collected shells from the beach and the joker cards from her parents’ decks, trading them with friends at school. Later in life, she moved on to items from the Worcester area, where she grew up, along with Florida and Colorado, where she also owns homes.
But the the trove of nearly 1,000 postcards and other antiques from Cape Cod “is probably closest to my heart because I’ve had almost 83 years of connection to it,” said Webber, who turns 83 early next month.
The display was borne from a chance encounter with George Jenkins, president of the Bourne Society for Historic Preservation.
In 2011, Webber left a doctor’s appointment in Bourne earlier than she expected. With time to spare, she decided to “poke along the shore” for places to sit down and watch the events scheduled for the celebration this summer.
“I was already thinking about the centennial,” she said.
She stopped at the Briggs-McDermott House on Sandwich Road, where she told Jenkins about her collection.
“What are you doing next week?” Jenkins asked her, wanting to know if she could meet with Rear Adm. Richard Gurnon, president of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
The two spoke. And Gurnon, co-chairman of the centennial celebration, kept Webber’s collection in mind.
Last fall, academy archivist Janis Duffy and Liz Novak, associate library director, paid Webber a visit. They were overwhelmed by the collection at her West Falmouth home and the items housed at Historic New England in Cambridge.
In the months since they met with Webber, they have pored over the postcards and other items, working as many as 80 hours some weeks to weave the canal’s history into a timeline.
“She’s so enthusiastic. It’s contagious, because she’s so excited about it,” Novak said about Webber, who will see the display for the first time today. “Her collection is a celebration of the canal in and of itself.”
For the display case on the commons’ first floor, Duffy and Novak decided to enlarge a painting of the New York boat that appears on a postcard in the upstairs display. The postcard shows the ship passing through the canal, with the moon shining behind it.
“She likes what she likes,” Novak said about Webber. “She has her favorite pieces.”