Who Was Camille Dry, Anyway?

26, May 2015
rendering of Camille Dry based on photoAn illustration (drawn from a photograph) of Camille Dry in the exhibit A Walk in 1875 St. Louis.

Anyone studying Pictorial St. Louis, the enormous map that is a main feature of A Walk in 1875 St. Louis, will agree that producing something so exact and detailed surely took the skills of a master cartographer. Unfortunately, little is known of Camille N. Dry—or “Drie” as many of his maps before Pictorial St. Louis display his name.  Oddly, for a man whose profession involved extensive amounts of paper, we have little of his behind-the-scenes legacy left. Dry’s working method, team organization, and approach have all been lost to time, and how he finished Pictorial St. Louis so quickly remains a mystery. So who was Camille Dry, anyway?

There is little doubt that the “C.N. Drie” who appears on almost a dozen other maps is the same “Camille N. Dry” who drew Pictorial St. Louis.  In a letter to the Missouri History Museum, Camille Dry’s relative Marjorie Hall explained that he likely changed the spelling to “Drie” in an attempt to preserve the original French pronunciation (which would have sounded more like “dree” than “dry”).  This attempt proved futile, and by the time he arrived in St. Louis, he had reverted to the original spelling.

Camille Noel Dry was born on Christmas Day 1842, in Vielverge, Cote D’or, France.  He received a diploma from the Conservatorie National des Arts and Metiers in Paris in August 1858, presumably for some sort of mechanical drafting.  He came to the United States in August 1864, during the height of the Civil War, and enlisted in the U.S. Army Company F, 15th New York Volunteer Engineers. He served with the company as a draftsman until May 1865, when the war ended. His name disappeared for a while, and then reappeared in July 1870 when he married Ms. Carrie Block in Louisiana. With his new bride and a young son, Dry spent the next three years bouncing across six southern states making panoramic town maps.

Dry’s earliest maps show an artist still developing skills, working through a shaky understanding of perspective and aesthetic. His maps of Columbus, Mississippi (1871); Columbia, South Carolina (1872); and Raleigh, North Carolina (1872), show great technical ability, but they look flat and stiff compared to the active landscape of Pictorial St. Louis. He would hone his skills as he worked his way across the South in late 1872, drawing Charleston, South Carolina, and Macon and Augusta, Georgia.  His single work of 1873 was a ship-filled view of Norfolk, Virginia, and soon after he headed to St. Louis for the biggest project of his career.

panoramic map of Raleigh, NC, 1872A view of Raleigh, North Carolina, one of eight panoramic maps Camille Dry produced in 1872. Library of Congress Panoramic Map Collections.

In the early spring of 1874, Dry arrived in St. Louis to begin preliminary sketches for Pictorial St. Louis. Dry was a remarkably fast worker—between 1871 and 1872, he made panoramic maps of eight cities in five different states—but the enormous scale of Pictorial St. Louis was unlike anything he, or anyone else, had ever attempted. It is nearly certain that Camille Dry did not produce Pictorial St. Louis alone, but had a team of artists working simultaneously.  Just how many is not known, nor is it known how they were organized. The team of artists went to incredible lengths to depict the landscape accurately, and it is noted in the book’s introductory pages: “Absolute truth and accuracy in the representation of the Territory has been the standard.”

The final product, Pictorial St. Louis: The Great Metropolis of the Mississippi Valley, A Topographical Survey Drawn in Perspective A.D. 1875, sold for $25 (about $530 today). Many copies were sold through advance subscriptions and newspaper advertisements, but the map’s enormous price tag ultimately made it a financial wash. Dry seems to have suffered a severe case of cartographer’s burnout. After Pictorial St. Louis, he made only two more panoramic maps—views of Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama —nearly three decades later in 1904.

section of Pictorial St. Louis that includes the artist's own home, 1875After drawing this three-story row house at 715 Locust, Camille Dry probably took a moment to admire his work. He lived here while creating Pictorial St. Louis.

The St. Louis City directories show that Camille Dry remained in St. Louis for four years and moved every single year while he was here. From 1875 to 1878 his residence is listed at 715 Locust, 1021 Grattan, 1232 Clark, and 1019 St. Ange.  In all years, he is only given the seemingly insignificant title of “draughtsman.”

After leaving St. Louis, relative Marjorie Hall’s letter states that he joined the ill-fated Panama Canal Company in 1883. The Panama Canal Company’s deep-seated corruption, regarded among the biggest corruption scandals of the 19th century, became a national affair when it was exposed. The ever-restless Dry went to Switzerland and Algeria before returning to the United States in 1891 to work for the Wallis Iron Works of New Jersey. 

From 1904 to 1911 he returned to live in St. Louis for a second time.  He is listed first working for the Bell Telephone Company and in later years as a draftsman working alongside his son Victor at Dry Studios, 3546 Olive Street. Camille Dry lived until at least 1914, when he is listed residing in Tarrytown, New York, but the exact date of his death is uncertain.

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—Andrew Wanko, Public Historian