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The Kolb Brothers

After braving raging rapids and canyon cliffs, a flip of a coin eventually decided their respective fates.

Photography: Richard Maack

More than a century before the Hualapai Indian tribe commissioned the Skywalk to jut over the Grand Canyon for a remarkable view, brothers Ellsworth and Emery Kolb had their own incomparable canyon vista from their home and photographic studio just below the rim. More than a hundred years after they started building it, the Kolb brothers’ studio still clings to the edge of the Grand Canyon.

Once widely famous for their Grand Canyon exploits, the Kolb brothers today are mainly known, if they are known at all, for the studio (now an art gallery, bookstore, and gift shop in Grand Canyon National Park) and the first-ever movie of a run down the Colorado River (Ken Burns used their stills and movie images in his The National Parks: America’s Best Idea series).

The Kolb brothers’ story picks up where John Wesley Powell’s left off. On Powell’s first expedition down the Colorado in 1869, he failed to take a cameraman, a mistake he would rectify on future runs. Where Powell was interested in the science and ethnography of the region, the Kolbs saw its money-making potential — in pictures.

By popular demand, The Grand Canyon Association has brought back its Kolb Brothers exhibition; it runs at the Kolb Brothers Studio in Grand Canyon National Park through September 4 and includes a portion of the original film, artifacts (cameras, boat), and of course images. For more information, visit www.grandcanyon.org and click on the Events & Park News heading.

Ellsworth Kolb arrived at the Grand Canyon in 1901, first working at the Bright Angel Hotel as a bellboy. He invited his brother to join him, which Emery did in 1902, to work in an asbestos mine, but by the time he got there the mine had closed. When Ellsworth and Emery bought an Arizona photo business and relocated it to the canyon, the brothers founded a photo studio at the Bright Angel trailhead. There they fashioned a makeshift workspace — both lab and darkroom — by hanging a blanket over a small cave in the canyon wall.

They made picture of landscapes, river adventures, and all sorts of scenes and happenings in the area. But mostly they shot mule parties for money, photographing canyon visitors as they headed down Bright Angel Trail and selling them prints on their return ascent. Photo technology at the time required glass plates and water for developing them. With the nearest source of clean water 4½ miles down the trail, 3,000 feet below the rim at Indian Garden, Emery and Ellsworth were in constant motion making daily trips down to the water with packs of glass plates and back up with finished prints.   

It was an extremely profitable, if highly physical, venture, and by 1904, the brothers were able to begin building a permanent structure on a rock shelf blasted out of the canyon wall. Over the years they would expand their studio-home time and again, the business and their adventurous explorations of the canyon growing at every turn.

One such exploration earned the Kolb brothers a place in canyon — and photographic — history: In 1912, they ran the river with a movie camera. Daring the rapids was no longer so novel, but filming the adventure was. They took their movie on a tour across the country and in 1915, after the addition of a screening room, they began showing their movie to Grand Canyon visitors. Emery would narrate the movie from 1915 to 1932 and screen it till his death in 1976.

The longest-running movie in history, it far outlasted the brothers’ relationship. Emery had married in 1905 and had a child, and his focus had become his own family. And, Emery said, Ellsworth had had nervous breakdown, which made him impossible to work with. According to the Grand Canyon Association, which runs the brothers’ famous studio, the two dissolved their business partnership in 1924, flipping a coin to see which brother would leave the canyon. Emery won two out of three coin tosses and stayed, becoming as famous as the movie the pioneering brothers shot together. Ellsworth, the brother who had gone to the Grand Canyon first, lived out his life in Los Angeles, where he died in 1960.

 

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