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History hound seeks photographic mother lode

1878 Hayden Survey Report/U.S. Geological SurveyA lithograph of William Henry Jacksons photo of Zuni pottery from his exploration of southern Colorado.
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Unearthing historical nuggets is as much fun as excavating for fossils. Digging up the past may be an indoor hobby, but it can lead you through as much dust and layers of overburden as a rock hound encounters in the field. History hounds as well as genealogy sleuths thrive on the challenges of retrieving gems from artifacts discovered in attics, antique stores, public records repositories, library stacks and sometimes from other surprising places.The earliest accounts of the non-native exploration and settlement of the Aspen area have largely eluded those interested in diamonds of enlightenment. One of the first editions of The Aspen Times in 1879 featured interviews of prospectors. The Times focused on who discovered which claim, but little else. Only sketchy details augment what is known from surviving diaries and letters. The accounts painted the optimism of prospecting fever and related opinions about the Ute Uprising, but offered few new historical nuggets.In the 1970s, driven by questions about Aspen before the 1879 prospectors arrived, I turned to the 1876 Hayden survey of Colorado that mapped, inventoried and photographed every corner of the state. There were few references to the Aspen area in Haydens published report. One, unrelated to mineral possibilities, mentioned that their horses were eating larkspur near Snowmass. Larkspur is poisonous to horses.William Henry Jackson was the photographer for the survey. I thought I might strike historical gold if Jackson had provided images of the Roaring Fork Valley before it was crawling with settlers. Although nearly every book of Colorados history today includes Jackson images, his fame didnt spread until the early 1990s, when multiple books of his photographs were published.Jackson, known for his photographs of Yellowstone that contributed to its founding as the first National Park, amassed over 40,000 negatives, mostly of the West. He also served as the survey leader for the 1875 exploration of Indian ruins in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.Jacksons photographs were unparalleled in sharpness. He captured negative images on 18-by-22-inch glass plates from which he made direct prints without enlargement. Carting that giant camera plus the dead weight of thick glass negatives around the Rockies was itself a remarkable feat.I knew that the Colorado Historical Society held Jackson photographs of Aspen from the 1890s. During the 1970s the Society was located in an old granite-faced building in downtown Denver. Underfunded and little-known, the museum attracted few visitors. On the day I visited I was awarded the sole attention of the curator.After I explained my mission, the curator explained that he didnt know which Jackson photos they had. The curator led me to a dimly-lit, dusty basement where boxes and other objects accumulated the sediment of the ages. We picked our way to the middle of the room where he pointed toward a supporting concrete column and said, If we have what you are looking for it would be here.Against the column and protruding far enough in that dim light that someone could literally stumble across them, leaned 18-by-22-inch glass negatives. Neither spaced with cardboard nor protected by paper, they appeared to be a seemingly useless stack of glass, gathering dust. I was incredulous; Jackson negatives simply awaited disaster. I carefully viewed each in fear that one might shatter, finding a couple of the images that you see in every Aspen history publication, but not the Hayden survey negatives.I later located the Hayden survey photos at Denvers U.S Geological Survey Photo Library. It was not the mother lode of history that had I anticipated. There was only one Jackson photo of the Aspen area. I felt excitement at finding the earliest photo of the Maroon Bells, one taken before 1879, but those peaks of the 1870s look just like they do now. Jacksons photo is indistinguishable from the hundreds taken by tourists every summer day.

Tim Willoughbys family story parallels Aspens. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. He can be contacted at redmtn@schat.net.Yore Aspen is a regular feature of the Aspen Times Weekly.


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