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Passage to Wonderland: Rephotographing Joseph Stimson's Views of the Cody Road to Yellowstone National Park, 1903 and 2008

Passage to Wonderland: Rephotographing Joseph Stimson's Views of the Cody Road to Yellowstone National Park, 1903 and 2008

by Michael A. Amundson, Joseph Stimson

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In 1903 the Cody Road opened, leading travelers from Cody, Wyoming, to Yellowstone National Park. Cheyenne photographer J. E. Stimson traveled the route during its first week in existence, documenting the road for the state of Wyoming's contribution to the 1904 World's Fair. His images of now-famous landmarks like Cedar Mountain, the Shoshone River, the Holy City, Chimney Rock, Sylvan Pass, and Sylvan Lake are some of the earliest existing photographs of the route. In 2008, 105 years later, Michael Amundson traveled the same road, carefully duplicating Stimson's iconic original photographs. In Passage to Wonderland, these images are paired side by side and accompanied by a detailed explanation of the land and history depicted.

Amundson examines the physical changes along "the most scenic fifty miles in America" and explores the cultural and natural history behind them. This careful analysis of the paired images make Passage to Wonderland more than a "then and now" photography book--it is a unique exploration of the interconnectedness between the Old West and the New West. It will be a wonderful companion for those touring the Cody Road as well as those armchair tourists who can follow the road on Google Earth using the provided GPS coordinates.


The University Press of Colorado gratefully acknowledges the generous support of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at Brigham Young University toward the publication of this book.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781607322047
Publisher: University Press of Colorado
Publication date: 10/15/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
File size: 22 MB
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About the Author

Michael A. Amundson is a professor of history at Northern Arizona University, the author of Yellowcake Towns, and the co-editor of Atomic Culture.

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Passage to Wonderland

Rephotographing Joseph Stimson's Views of the Cody Road to Yellowstone National Park 1903 & 2008

By Michael A. Amundson

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2013 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60732-204-7


J. E. Stimson, Photography, Rephotography, and Me

Between 1889 and 1948, Joseph Elam Stimson photographed Wyoming and the American West, producing more than 7,500 images of landscapes, mining, railroads, community life, ranching and farming, and tourism. Most of these shots were made on 8×10-inch glass plates and are artistically composed and incredibly sharp. They are not a cross-section of the Progressive Era West but instead promotional photographs, specifically composed and created for Stimson's various employers — including the Union Pacific Railroad, the Wyoming state government, and the Federal Bureau of Reclamation. On many of the images Stimson placed a small stamp, circumscribed by the boundaries of a sun, that proclaimed "J. E. Stimson, Artist, Cheyenne, Wyo." He was indeed an artist, as he carefully composed and then often hand-colored his prints in an era long before the advent of color film.

J. E. Stimson was born in Virginia in 1870 and spent most of his childhood in the southern Appalachian Mountains of South Carolina. At age thirteen he moved with his family to Pawnee City, Nebraska, southeast of Lincoln, near the Missouri and Kansas borders. Three years later he left for Appleton, Wisconsin, to work as an apprentice for his cousin, photographer James Stimson. While in Appleton, he learned the requisite skills of portrait photography and the details of both the wet-plate and newer dry-plate negative processes. In 1889 Stimson moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, probably at the suggestion of two brothers who worked for the Union Pacific Railroad. At the time, he was only nineteen years old. Wyoming became a state in July 1890, and by that October Stimson had made a deal to purchase the studio and equipment of Cheyenne photographer Carl Eitner. He renovated the studio and within two weeks began running advertisements in the Cheyenne Daily Leader that read "Go to Stimson the Photo Artist for Pictures." Four years later he married Anna Peterson, and in 1895 they had the first of three daughters.

Throughout the 1890s Stimson worked primarily as a studio portrait photographer. According to biographer Mark Junge, his clients included the area's earliest citizens as well as folks from outlying farms and ranches. An early account ledger indicates that Stimson often scheduled up to six sittings in a single day and sometimes traveled to patrons' homes to photograph them. Although most of these glass plates were accidentally broken in the 1930s, the small surviving sample shows the usual small-town portrait assortment including individuals, families, groups such as cowboys on roundups, politicians, fraternal organizations, athletic teams, and social clubs.

Although George Eastman had introduced his flexible film, handheld Kodak to the masses in 1888, professional photographers such as Stimson relied on a large-format, 8×10-inch view camera that captured images on dry emulsion glass plates. For Stimson, this meant a wooden camera mounted on a heavy tripod. To take a picture, he would set up the camera, select the lens, open the diaphragm to a wide aperture to let in the most light, and then step under a black cloth behind the camera to compose and focus the image on the 8×10-inch ground glass. Once the composition was secure, he would slide a holder containing two covered sheets of unexposed glass into the camera's back, stop down the diaphragm and set the shutter speed for the correct exposure, remove one of the glass plate covers, and trip the shutter. He would then return the plate's cover to protect his image, remove the plate holder, and start the whole process over for the next image. The process was slow and deliberate. All photographs were more or less staged. That said, properly exposed images created in this manner produced outstanding negatives with a lot of visual information stored in the large-format light-sensitive plates. Although extremely fragile, images of this size could be contact printed at a 1:1 ratio on 8×10-inch paper or greatly enlarged without losing resolution. Stimson routinely enlarged his images to 30×44 inches.

The Wyoming on which Stimson focused his large-format camera was a state barely a year old. Its previous life as a territory had, since 1868, been one of booms and busts, including railroad construction, cattle, and gold mining. To balance its economy, the territory had distributed its government institutions — and their assured payrolls — all along the railroad, with Cheyenne getting the capital, Laramie the university, Rawlins the penitentiary, and Evanston the asylum. To the north, the end of the Plains Indian wars in 1877 opened lands for settlement, although the native Shoshone and Arapahos were placed on a central reservation along the east side of the Wind River Range. The federal government carved out Yellowstone National Park from the northwest corner of the territory in 1872 and created an adjacent forest reserve to its east in 1891.

When Stimson set up shop in the new state, Wyoming was on the upswing. Its population was only 60,000; its largest city, Cheyenne, had just over 11,000 residents. Laramie and Sheridan were the only other towns with more than 8,000 citizens. The state's economy was focused on the railroad, government, ranching, and coal mining in the south and cattle ranching, farming, and tourism in the north. According to longtime state historian T. A. Larson, the period between the end of the Spanish-American War and the start of World War I was one of "optimism, belief in progress ... and [an] eagerness for economic development [that] possessed Wyoming citizens as never before nor since." Wyomingites had reason for optimism. During this time, the sheep industry tripled in size and soon matched the state's booming cattle production. Dry-land farming and irrigated agriculture expanded, with the number of farm units doubling. The miles of railroad track increased as the Union Pacific double-tracked its main line and other railroads, such as the Burlington, entered the state. Coal mining grew, and a small copper boom developed in the southeastern part of the state. Oil production was just beginning around Casper. Overall, the state's population grew by more than 50,000, from 92,000 in 1900 to 146,000 ten years later. Of this increase, most people settled in the northern half of the state. The federal government's influence also expanded in the first decade of the twentieth century, with Devil's Tower becoming the nation's first national monument and Shoshone Dam the first federal reclamation project. The young state thus offered a photographer such as Stimson an exciting array of progress and development to document beyond his studio.

Several events during this period moved Stimson's career path from studio portraiture to landscape photography. In 1894 Wyoming engineer Elwood Mead, later commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation and for whom Lake Mead was named, asked Stimson if some glass plates he had made on a recent irrigation study in the Big Horn Mountains could be developed. Stimson obliged, and he was impressed with the scenery and surprised to learn that such beautiful landscapes existed in his adopted state. The following summer Mead brought Stimson along on another excursion to the Big Horns. Although the twenty-five-year-old photographer loved the scenery, his first pictures were overexposed. Four years later Albert Nelson, Wyoming's first game warden, took Stimson to visit the Jackson Hole area and the picturesque Teton Range, a place that came to be Stimson's favorite.

These images were better and more marketable than his earlier effort. In 1898 the Sheridan Post ran a small ad for Stimson's "beautiful pictures of Mountain Scenery" in sizes ranging from 8×10 to 30×40 inches. The photographer then traveled to nearby Wheatland and to the Shoshone Indian Reservation in central Wyoming to make portraits. He also photographed the beginnings of Cheyenne's famous rodeo, Frontier Days. By the turn of the century, Stimson had begun presenting magic lantern slide shows of his images and selling small portfolios and albums based on this growing collection of negatives. Newspaper announcements advertising "Stimson's Indians" appeared in Cheyenne papers around Christmas 1900 and described the work as a "fine collection." They also reported that the photographer was receiving orders from "all over the country for his celebrated photographs of the Grand Teton mountains and other scenics in the vicinity."

Around this time, a Union Pacific Railroad agent obtained one of these albums and hired Stimson as a publicity photographer for the railroad. Reorganized in 1897 by Edward H. Harriman, the Union Pacific (UP) was in the midst of rebuilding and modernizing the nation's first transcontinental railroad by operating bigger trains, straightening the rail line's many curves, and double-tracking the entire route. The UP needed an energetic photographer to document its efforts and contracted Stimson to photograph the line, not just in Wyoming but throughout the West. Under the open-ended terms, the railroad paid Stimson four dollars for the first 8×10-inch print, one dollar each for the next ninety-nine, and seventy-five cents apiece for every print thereafter. No restrictions were placed on the subjects he photographed or the number of images he made as long as they promoted the railway. Further, any negatives made for the UP could also be printed and sold for Stimson's own gain. In addition, the railroad provided free transportation for him either by train or, more often, through the use of a small gas-powered one-seat railcar.

Over the next decade Stimson photographed such railroad landscapes as depots, train wrecks, bridges, tunnels, and new lines from Omaha to California. More important, he photographed adjacent UP cities and towns, as well as nearby farms, ranches, timber outfits, dams, and mines. Stimson also captured Wyoming's beautiful scenery, including Yellowstone National Park, for the developing tourism industry. As an artist, Stimson often enlarged his prints and then hand-colored them, using paints, to produce beautiful, one-of-a-kind color prints. The Union Pacific agreement not only gave the young photographer the means to travel the West and a ready buyer for his photographs, but it also exposed his work to others who wanted similar images. Stimson's work for the Union Pacific catapulted him and his portfolio to even greater heights, as evidenced by his inclusion in the June 1903 issue of Leslie's Weekly magazine, which featured six of his images. The magazine stated that Stimson had a "keen eye for the picturesque and an artistic sense of position and proportion" and called him "one of the best scenic photographers in the United States."

As important as his Union Pacific arrangement, in June 1903 the Wyoming Commission of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition hired Stimson to make photographs of the state for display at the 1904 St. Louis Fair. The commission paid Stimson $875 to produce 182 hand-colored prints of scenes across Wyoming. More specifically, he was to make a dozen 8×10-inch images from each of the state's twelve counties, plus another twelve scenes from Yellowstone National Park. In addition, Stimson would provide one 30×40-inch print of the state and another of the park. Although the contract called for Stimson to cover his own expenses for travel, printing, coloring, framing, labeling, and boxing the images, the photographer felt the pay was reasonable because, as with the UP agreement, he would retain ownership of all negatives so he could print and sell them for himself while working on the state contract (figure 1.1).

The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis commemorated the 100th anniversary of the acquisition of much of the American West, including most of Wyoming. The official guidebook for what has been called the 1904 World's Fair proudly stated that "this Exposition has already rendered an inestimable public service by awakening a universal popular interest in the story of the Louisiana Purchase and its glorious results." Like previous such fairs, the 1904 expo featured elaborate grounds and promotional displays from nearly every state and many foreign countries. The fair also hosted the 1904 Olympics.

Although the Wyoming Commission of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition hired Stimson to promote the state through his photographs, it did not construct its own state building at the fair. Instead, its $25,000 appropriation was devoted entirely to exhibits in the Palaces of Mines and Agriculture. Stimson's photographs, like his work for the Union Pacific, would promote the state through photography. To do this, Stimson was to "travel all over Wyoming, consult with boards of county commissioners and local industrial committees, and make views best calculated to show our varied resources and magnificent scenery."

The summer and fall of 1903 were a whirlwind of photographic fieldwork for Stimson. In late June, just three weeks after he was awarded the contract, Stimson began photographing the state by traveling to the irrigated farming community of Wheatland and the nearby iron mining town of Sunrise. He then spent five days at Newcastle in the northeast corner of the state. Two weeks later, in a story titled "A Busy Day for Mr. Stimson," the Buffalo Voice reported that the photographer had captured images around that northern Wyoming community. He then photographed ranches in nearby Big Horn and Beckton. A week later the Sheridan Post recorded that Stimson had photographed that city and the coal mining town of Dietz to the north. At about the same time, the Crook County Monitor in Sundance reported that the photographer was at work in that community, as well as at nearby Devil's Tower. He then traveled to Cody and Yellowstone National Park before turning east to capture Meeteetsee and the Pitchfork Ranch the first week in August. Stimson traveled next to the Shoshone Indian Reservation, Lander, and the Popo Agie River valley and by the end of August had photographed Evanston and Kemmerer. He returned to Cheyenne in the middle of August, when Cheyenne's Wyoming Tribune reported in an article titled "Some Fine Views" that the photographer had spent six weeks in the field and was "very busy these days developing" the hundreds of exposures he had made. Stimson was back on the road to Douglas and Converse County the first week in September, Laramie by mid-month, and then west to the Sierra Madre, where the Grand Encampment Herald reported that the nearby Dillon Doublejack noted that he photographed the famous Ferris Haggerty Copper Mine in late September. The first week of October found him in Casper, and a month later he was finally home in Cheyenne.

Stimson made his trip to Cody and Yellowstone during his initial six-week foray around the state. He had arranged with the local booster organization, the Cody Commercial Club, for a guide, Fred Chase, and a conveyance — a buggy pulled by two white horses. Chase is listed in the 1900 census as a taxidermist in the nearby community of Ishawooa, on the South Fork of the Shoshone River. Of the forty-five images taken during this outing, Stimson included Chase and the conveyance in twelve of them, with Chase appearing fishing alone in two others. There are also two images of Stimson, one alongside his tent and another of him fishing in the Shoshone. A careful examination of newspaper accounts against a period calendar shows that the two men left Cody on Wednesday July 22 and returned to the small community of Irma, at the junction of the North and South Forks of the Shoshone, on Sunday the 26th. According to the papers, the two men found each others' company very agreeable. They spent four nights camping along the road, where they found "great quantities of wild fruit" and streams "alive with the finest of fish." Stimson added that he was "especially enthusiastic over the beauty of the Cody route" and pronounced it "by far the greatest scenic road to the Wonderland." After Stimson and Chase returned to Irma, H. W. Darrah, a Cody lumberman, met Stimson and escorted the photographer to his sawmill, nearby ranches, and then southeast to Meeteetsee.

Stimson worked for eight months on his portfolio of Wyoming views for the St. Louis Fair and included all of the photographs taken on the Cody Road in his catalog of 500-plus images. At St. Louis, his specially selected 182 hand-colored images — 12 from each county plus another dozen from Yellowstone — were displayed in two buildings, the Palace of Mines and the Palace of Agriculture. Some of the views were grouped together as an individual exhibit, while others simply illustrated Wyoming's economy. All of them were used to promote the new state. Expo judges awarded Stimson a silver medal for his photographs of mines and machinery, and two other exhibits containing his images also received silver medals. The following year the Wyoming exhibits were displayed at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon. There, Stimson won two bronze medals for his photos of Wyoming scenery and for images of mines and machinery. Stimson biographer Mark Junge suggests that his work from these two fairs gained the artist "national and international recognition" and placed him at the peak of his career.


Excerpted from Passage to Wonderland by Michael A. Amundson. Copyright © 2013 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
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Table of Contents

Cover Contents Acknowledgments Passage to Wonderland J. E. Stimson, Photography, Rephotography, and Me History of the Cody Road to Yellowstone Photographs and Rephotographs Afterword Select Bibliography

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