Category Archives: WhatWasThere

GeneaGem Discovered – WhatWasThere

I have been tidying up my stack of genealogy handouts and various miscellaneous papers that I’ve collected over the last 3-4 years and came across a website mentioned by Thomas MacEntee in one of them: WhatWasThere. (Update: I wrote this post a few days ago, but last night, Thomas presented a Legacy Family Tree webinar “Pinning Your Family History” and demonstrated this website.)

The home page of the website is titled WhatWasThere – Put History in its Place. Additionally, it says WhatWasThere ties historical photos to Google Maps, allowing you to tour familiar streets to see how they appeared in the past.

I have some old photos from 49 Summer Street, Passaic, NJ and also own a couple of early 1900’s postcards depicting Roosevelt #10 School, where I went from kindergarten through the middle of sixth grade. My father went to the same elementary school.

I decided to try WhatWasThere out for myself. First, you need to know that I have some computer skills, but when anything doesn’t work right, my husband comes to help out. This site is SO easy to use, I didn’t even have to try twice.  Here is the home page:


Anyone can browse towns for free to discover what someone might already have pinned on the map. In order to upload photos, you need to register for a free account, which I did. I didn’t even have to wait for an email verification to begin.

The green bar has a link to Upload Photos. Click on it to see:

Upload Photos Here

The browse box allows you to search for the location of the photo you want to upload. Mine were on my computer. I found another one for the Central Market Company, which was a butcher shop owned by my grandparents. It was located at 684 Main Avenue, Passaic, NJ. Here is how to add it to the website:

This is the display box after a photo is chosen to upload:

Uploading Process

After filling out the description and titling the image, I clicked on “Upload” at the bottom. The website screen is actually a bit larger than my cropped shots. I’ve left off my log in info at the top and the map area extends below the black box.

Map Your Photo Screen

There is a choice when mapping your photo. The first says “I only know the city.” The second choice is “I want to place it on the map.” I have the exact address, so I am going to choose to place it on the map. A drop down box opens so the address can be entered, which I haven’t shown here.

After entering the address, I clicked on the “Search” button and the little man icon used by Google Maps for street views appeared at the location of the market.

The icon marks the spot.

I’ve noted one weakness in the program here. When I entered the address for Roosevelt #10 School, which is 151 Harrison Street (the school is still in use today), the icon brought me to 160 Harrison St., which is a house across the street. I’m not sure why it didn’t point right to the school.

In any case, the next click is on “Save Photo Location,” which is the long green bar along the bottom of the black box.

684 Main Avenue Screen Shot

The same thing happened with this location, which does still exist. The message in the top right corner says the address is approximate. Because I grew up in Passaic, I know that this parking lot is where the old train tracks were and sits between Main Avenue and Lexington Avenue. However, the program does provide the capability to rotate the view (as in Google maps street view.)

I rotated the view clockwise to see this storefront to the left of the parking lot image:

Central MarketRotatedView
Rotated Image

Notice the black and white photo box on the left, ready to be inserted. I just dragged it in front of the storefront with the blue awning. I positioned the Central Market Company door in front of the door that is in the white painted section to the left of the blue awning. This building has been reconfigured somewhat since the Depression!

Positioned Photo

All I have to do now is click the green “Save” button in the top right corner of the photo that I superimposed.

One of the neatest things about this site is something that I can’t show in a screen shot very well. To the left of the “Save” button is a gray “Fade” button. I can fade the old photo in or out to view the modern version of the building.

Faded Image

Here is a view with my photo mostly faded. It actually looks quite ghostly, but gives an excellent feel of what that sidewalk looked like at the time everyone posed for this picture.

If you want to check this out for yourself, go to WhatWasThere and search for Passaic, New Jersey. There were already several Passaic images posted before I added four. Choose the Central Market Company. You can click on the description box to see the information I’ve entered and you can fade my picture in and out. By the way, my grandfather, George Sabo, is the gentleman standing on the far right, with his brother, Stephen, standing next to him. My grandmother’s brother, Peter Scerbak, is standing second from the left.

There is only one other thing that I didn’t like about this site besides the fact that a current address came up with an address close by. When I added some postcard views to Roosevelt School, the Google street view made the school appear to curve around a corner:

The school does sit at the corner of Harrison Street and Parker Avenue, but it definitely isn’t curved as it looks in the street view. I tried going back to it several times and it always appeared to be curved.

The street view found directly in Google maps is this:

Actual Google Maps Street View

This image is not distorted, but it still gives a different address in the top left – 164 Harrison Street. Current school information still has the address as 151 Harrison Street, so I am not sure why Google Maps doesn’t show it that way.

However, in spite of these two shortcomings, which are minor, WhatWasThere is a fun website, it’s free, and much easier to use than Google Maps’ version. I will be adding more Passaic photos in for my own enjoyment and my husband even wants to see his old childhood neighborhoods with family photos uploaded.

Thomas MacEntee, thank you for mentioning WhatWasThere!