Long before Grand Canyon was a national park, it attracted some colorful characters. Men dug for ore and built trails and camps. Later they guided tourists and were noted for their storytelling prowess.
And then there were the knuckleheads.
That’s the word I used to describe groundbreaking photographers, Ellsworth and Emery Kolb, in my book The Amazing Kolb Brothers of Grand Canyon. I thought it best summed up their full-tilt, damn the torpedoes, you-think-that-was-crazy-here-hold-my-beer lifestyle. But my publisher thought it could be misconstrued by their family and asked me to remove it. No problem. I still call them knuckleheads at talks and book signings, and in my blog posts. Emery’s great-grandson gets a big kick out if it.
The point is the Kolbs went way beyond colorful. They were the real deal, genuine explorers who probed every corner of Grand Canyon, on foot, in the saddle, by boat and even from the air. In 1922, when aviation experts declared it impossible to land a plane in the abyss because of treacherous updrafts, Ellsworth hired a stunt pilot, climbed aboard as cameraman, and proved them wrong when they set down in the inner canyon at Plateau Point.
Yet it was the Kolbs’ astonishing journey down the Green and Colorado rivers in 1911-’12 that made them famous. John Wesley Powell first rafted those unknown waters in 1869. In the ensuing four decades only a handful of men had succeeded, and plenty had perished in the attempt. With virtually no boating experience, the Kolb brothers spent nearly four months in deep river canyons, traveling 1,100 miles, navigating 365 large rapids and numerous smaller ones. They became just the 26th and 27th men to accomplish the feat. Ellsworth would go on the next year to complete the journey, following the Colorado River all the way to the sea, just the fourth expedition to do so.
The Kolbs not only survived their river trip but shot a moving picture of it. That little film would become the longest running movie of all time, playing at their studio from 1915 until 1976. When the Kolbs weren’t filming history, they were making it.
The biggest beneficiary of the Kolbs’ work was the Grand Canyon itself. President Theodore Roosevelt, a Kolb friend and occasional houseguest, had used the Antiquities Act to designate Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908. Even that level of protection was fought tooth and nail by some Arizona politicians (primarily Ralph Cameron) who wanted to continue to profit off the Big Ditch. The Kolb photos, motion picture and lectures sparked a more widespread interest in the canyon. The August 1914 issue of National Geographic was commandeered by the Kolbs. The entire issue is filled with their words and photos detailing their life at Grand Canyon and river trip. Increased attention and growing tourism numbers shifted the political landscape. Grand Canyon National Park was finally established by an act of Congress and signed into law by Woodrow Wilson on February 26, 1919.
Young Men Going West
It all began with Ellsworth Kolb’s restless feet.
Ellsworth, who never saw a horizon that didn’t seduce him, left his Pittsburgh home in 1900, with $2 in his pocket. He rambled westward, working as he went. He manned a snowplow at Pikes Peak, swung a pick and shovel on the roads of Yellowstone and Yosemite and served as a carpenter’s helper in San Francisco. He signed on with a freighter bound for China but before shipping out decided to take a peek at a savage hole in the ground somewhere in the Arizona Territory.
Ellsworth hired on with the Santa Fe Railroad so he could travel east to Williams, a town that lay 60 miles south of the Grand Canyon amid a forest of ponderosa pines. From there, nearly broke, he walked the tracks of the spur line to the canyon for 50 miles then finally flagged down a train. He paid the reduced fare and rode the cushions the rest of the way.
The Santa Fe ran the first train to the South Rim on September 19, 1901. Ellsworth Kolb got there just a few weeks later. Both arrivals would significantly impact Grand Canyon history.
Ellsworth fell in love and forgot all about China. He quickly landed a job chopping wood at the Bright Angel Hotel. When he wrote home, he regaled his younger brother with tales of the spectacular canyon. It intrigued Emery, who had begun pursuing photography as a hobby.
Five years separated the two Kolb boys as well as a difference in personalities. Emery was more practical, more cautious and he tended to be more intense than the easygoing Ellsworth. Still, they were inseparable as kids, wading into a fair share of adventure and mischief.
Now with Ellsworth living on the edge of one of the world’s greatest photo ops, it seemed only natural to pursue this artistic calling. In 1902, Emery traveled west to join his brother.
Running with the Mules
The bulk of the Kolb brothers’ business was photographing mule riders as they clip-clopped into the canyon. The Kolbs would go on to photograph more than 50,000 mule strings descending the trail. They built a darkroom at Indian Garden, halfway down the canyon where there was fresh water, and created a business plan that would make hardened athletes weep.
The mule trains would pause for a photo to be taken at the rim and then start down the trail, only to quickly be passed by the photographer himself. After snapping the photos, Emery or Ellsworth loaded the glass plates into their pack and sprinted into the abyss.
They hurtled down the switchbacks, 4.6 miles to the clear spring at Indian Garden, where each plate had to be hand-washed once, twice, three times. Repacking the plates, they turned and charged back toward the rim. This time every step pointed uphill, always up, often in a snarling heat, passing the mules again, glass plates clattering as they ran, sweat stinging their eyes, regaining over 3,200 vertical feet—9.2 miles round trip. They would reach the studio in time to sell prints to the returning riders. This mini-marathon was often repeated twice, and occasionally, three times a day.
There are mules and then there are simply the mule-headed.
The View Stalkers
That was part of the Kolbs’ enduring legacy. They captured not just a landscape but a spirit. At the dawn of the 20th century, when technological advancements seemed to be shrinking the country, the Kolbs showed America that the frontier still existed— and they were living right on its raggedy edge. Wild places could be reached but it took daring and nerve, and they were just the camera-slingers to pull it off. Their mule photos were mementos, but their canyon portraits were lusty dreamscapes.
The Kolbs invented the selfie. They inserted themselves into many of their photographs as markers to the scope and perils of the Grand Canyon. Sometimes they are there to provide a measure of scale, a human speck perched atop a towering ledge, a living comma pausing the viewer’s eye, at the base of precipitous cliffs. But often they emerged as characters in a larger drama. They appeared in photos clinging to cliff faces, climbing hand over hand on ropes stretched from treetops and leaping across gaping chasms.
Their signature photograph is one titled View Hunters (featured on the cover of our May 2019 issue). It perfectly captured that reckless audacity that would become their trademark. Ellsworth straddles a high crevasse with a slender tree trunk stretched across the gap. Far below him Emery dangles in mid-air clutching a rope with one hand and a camera in the other. He’s angling for the impossible shot as Ellsworth holds the rope taut.
They turned the image of View Hunters into postcards and it graced the cover of the souvenir photo album they sold at the studio and through the mail. It came to define their artistic style. Hard to imagine Ansel Adams hanging from a rope in a crevasse. Or Grand Canyon painter Thomas Moran inching across a cliff face with a brush in his teeth. The Kolbs were adventurers who just happened to carry cameras.
The Last Pioneer
When Emery was born, the Apache Wars still raged across the Arizona Territory. The Earps and Doc Holiday had not yet shot it out with the Clantons and McLaurys in a vacant lot near the OK Corral in Tombstone. He lived long enough to witness every Apollo moon landing. Emery Kolb died December 11, 1976. He was 95.
The Kolb Studio remains. The wood frame building originally constructed by the two young novices in 1904 on an eyebrow ledge, affixed to the world’s greatest erosional masterpiece, still hangs on at the head of Bright Angel Trail. There’s a lesson in tenacity there somewhere.
The original little two-story structure grew and sprawled and now cascades down the cliff face. This wooden aerie has teetered and tottered and swayed with every breath the canyon took for over a hundred years.
Now beautifully restored by the Grand Canyon Conservancy and operated as a retail outlet and exhibition space, the Kolb Studio perches on the edge of a wilderness of towers and temples, pinnacles and promontories—a cathedral of light and stone and sky. It sits on the shore of an ocean of shadows and shapes. Clouds sweep the porch and ravens swoop past the basement door. Clusters of stars peek in the windows each night and the moon uses the roof for a footrest. And the simple rotation of the earth, the rising and setting of the sun, floods the studio with a crescendo of shimmering color, both eloquent and scandalous. Every day. The Kolb Studio is the only house still standing that has the entire Grand Canyon for a front yard.
Ellsworth and Emery may have been knuckleheads but, holy mackerel, they knew how to live!
“Knuckleheads” is an excerpt from Roger Naylor’s The Amazing Kolb Brothers of Grand Canyon, published by the Grand Canyon Conservancy, the nonprofit partner of Grand Canyon National Park. Thanks to Roger Naylor, Grand Canyon Conservancy, Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection and Northern Arizona University’s Cline Library, Kolb Collection for sharing the images and excerpts with True West.
Roger Naylor is a travel writer who hates to travel—at least anywhere beyond the Southwest. He spends his days rambling around Arizona and writing about what he finds. In 2018, he was inducted into the Arizona Tourism Hall of Fame. He is the author of several books, including Boots & Burgers: An Arizona Handbook for Hungry Hikers, Arizona Kicks on Route 66 and Death Valley: Hottest Place on Earth.