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Pittsburgh brothers ‘brought the world to the Grand Canyon’

March 9, 2019

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Ellsworth Kolb left Pittsburgh in 1900 with $2 in his pocket. He nearly ended up in China.

After working his way across the country to San Francisco, he signed on with the crew of a freighter headed across the Pacific. But before he shipped out, something swayed him to go back and check out a big hole in the ground in the Arizona Territory that he had heard so much about. So, he took a train headed east, all the way to the rim of the Grand Canyon.

Ellsworth fell in love with what he saw — and forgot all about China.

It was a moment that not only changed his life but also that of his younger brother, Emery, who soon followed him. Together they would play a pioneering role in making the Grand Canyon the tourist destination it is today.

On Feb. 26, 1919, the Grand Canyon was designated as a National Park. The Kolb brothers, who grew up in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania, are a major focus of the centennial celebration.

Before the canyon became a national park, the Kolbs established themselves as photographers and adventurers there, documenting their hair-raising escapades and those of other visitors on the Bright Angel Trail from a studio in the only building below the canyon’s south rim.

It was the way most Americans first saw pictures of and learned about the 277-mile-long canyon carved by the Colorado River.

“These guys were a part of Grand Canyon history,” said Mindy Riesenberg, director of marketing and communications for the Grand Canyon Conservancy. “They really were the folks who got the word out about the Grand Canyon to Americans who didn’t know anything about it, and their photos really publicized the canyon.”

In order to give people a sense of the depth and breadth of the canyon, the Kolb brothers often put themselves in their photos.

“The Kolbs basically invented the selfie,” said Roger Naylor, author of a 2017 book titled “The Amazing Kolb Brothers of Grand Canyon.”

“They were the first photographers to just continually inject themselves into the photos, and as time went on they started adding a little action and a little adventure,” Naylor said. “So, you have a lot of photos of the Kolbs dangling from ropes and leaping across crevasses, the kind of thing that would go viral today. They were very much ahead of their time.”

Early adventures

The Kolb brothers were Western Pennsylvania natives whose father, Edward, was an ordained Methodist minister. Ellsworth was born in Smithfield, Fayette County, in 1876; and Emery in 1881. They lived in several places in and around Pittsburgh, including Mt. Washington, as well as the Buffalo Creek area of Armstrong County. In May 1889, during the same torrential downpour that created the Johnstown Flood, the brothers, then 12 and 8, embarked on an adventure that foreshadowed the life they would lead.

“They built this little raft out of scrap lumber and jumped into the flooded creek. I’m sure Ellsworth was the instigator,” Naylor said. “They ended up being swept down to the (Allegheny) River as the raft starts to break apart. Neither of them can swim.”

Emery ended up lying across the raft, holding one end with his hands and the other with his toes to keep it together while Ellsworth paddled with all his might to get to the shore. They never mentioned the near-death experience to their parents.

“They started out as knuckleheads early on, and it just continued throughout their life,” Naylor said.

Their photography skills were self-taught. Emery, who dropped out of school in the eighth grade to work at Westinghouse Electric Corp., would create his own cameras and go around Pittsburgh taking scenic pictures.

After Ellsworth headed west at 24, he told his brother about the virtues of the Grand Canyon and invited him to join him. Emery asked if people might want to get their pictures taken at this place; the day after he arrived, they were in the photography business.

In 1902, the brothers began photographing people on mules heading down the Bright Angel Trail, the most popular trail at the canyon, as well as their own river adventures, landscapes and other dramatic scenes. The process was challenging.

At first, the government presence in charge of the Grand Canyon Forest Reserve, as it was then called, would not allow them to have a studio on site. So, for the first year they would snap photos of the mule riders, then load the glass plate negatives in their packs and run down the trail, past the mule riders, and down the switchback to a place called Indian Garden, where there was fresh water and a small darkroom they had built.

“They would develop the photo and then come running back up 3,000 feet out of the canyon, a 9.2-mile round trip,” Naylor said. “And they would be standing at the head of the canyon with the developed photos when the mule riders would come out of the canyon. They would often do that three times a day.”

“No wonder he (Emery) lived to be 95,” Riesenberg said. “And both of them were small. They were 5 feet 4 inches tall.”

Once they had their small studio on the rim, the work became a little easier and the product more sophisticated, including sweeping, hand-tinted photos of the canyon.

Daring spirits

By 1911, the Kolb brothers were ready to embark on their most-famous adventure.

Despite their lack of rafting experience, they decided to go down the Colorado River, which runs through the Grand Canyon, and capture the perilous trip with an early hand-cranking movie camera — which was state of the art technology at the time. Only two dozen people had done the trip and survived. They had boats built and spent 101 days on the river — traveling from Wyoming to Mexico — to make what turned out to be a legendary film.

“They were utterly fearless,” Naylor said. “They were thrown in the river over and over again, had boats capsize, had near-misses and crashes and so forth. But they made it.”

Shooting the film was almost as difficult as going down the river. One brother would set up on the shore with a rope and a life preserver while the other brother would take the boat through the rapids.

“If he survived, then they would take the second boat through and film that,” Naylor said.

The result was an epic 45-minute film that the Kolbs took on a nationwide tour, which included stops at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, the National Theater in Washington, D.C., and Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh. It later ran in the expanded Kolb studio at the Grand Canyon every day from 1915 until Emery’s death in 1976. He would often stand at the steps of the screening room providing live narration.

“Their movie was, is and forever will be the longest-running adventure show on the face of the earth,” said Ron Brown, a Grand Canyon National Park ranger. “The fact that they shot an adventure film going down that river was a big deal.”

Oddly enough, the brothers who had accomplished so much together in just over two decades developed a rift in their relationship that led them to go their separate ways in 1924. They had flipped a coin to decide who would keep the studio. Emery won. Ellsworth moved to Los Angeles, where he died in 1960. Emery stayed on in the canyon for 50 more years.

The original two-story studio, which had fallen into disrepair following Emery’s death, was nearly torn down. It sat empty for a decade. Today, thanks to the Grand Canyon Conservancy, it sits fully restored in its original spot, below the rim of the canyon. “The greatest front porch on the planet,” as Naylor calls it.

This past week, as staff, volunteers and visitors celebrated the Grand Canyon’s 100 years as a National Park, there was little doubt about the Kolb brothers’ legacy and impact on one of the world’s natural wonders.

“They popularized the canyon in ways that continue to this very day,” Brown said.

“In the days before television and radio, they became the voice of the canyon,” Naylor said. “They brought the world to the Grand Canyon.”

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Information from: Tribune-Review, http://triblive.com

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