I went up early to the Grand Canyon South Rim for a big backpacking trip and visited several of the tourist destinations. I was very fortunate to be invited on a rare and special tour of the Kolb Residence with Ranger Marna Bastian. The NPS is considering having more of these tours in 2012 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Kolb Brothers rafting & photography expedition of the Colorado River.
Peeking into Kolb Studio's past
House suspended below rim home to history and Grand Canyon legend
Clara Beard Williams - Grand Canyon News Reporter
A Hoosier Cabinet Silver Edition, circa 1900, sits in the kitchen once used by the Kolb brothers.
GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - How many of the Grand Canyon's 5 million yearly visitors experience a sunrise peering through the window of a home built precariously on the edge of the South Rim?
A handful at the most, which is one of the reasons local resident Bill Brookins counts himself fortunate to be one of the few.
Kolb Studio, a well-known and popular attraction and art exhibit location at Grand Canyon, houses five stories and 23 rooms of curiosities, which visitors to the upstairs gift shop rarely realize lie beneath their feet. Last week, Grand Canyon resident Bill Brookins generously offered the News an insider's look, where we discovered just how special Kolb Studio is.
Natives to Philadelphia, the Kolb brothers, Ellsworth and Emery, decided to make the Grand Canyon their home in 1902, 17 years before the establishment of Grand Canyon National Park. Avid photographers and river rafters, the Kolbs were the first to document a boat trip down the Colorado River with a movie camera, shown to park visitors from 1915 until 1956, making it the longest film showing in history. The 35mm projector used is available to view in the gift shop.
The Kolb brothers were passionate about photography, and the majority of their photos were sold to visitors meandering up the Bright Angel Trail on the backs of mules. According to Brookins, developing film was a journey in itself.
"When they were doing their photos up here, they didn't have any access to fresh water. It wasn't a park yet, and the person that had control over the water was Fred Harvey," he said. "The Kolb brothers weren't going to give anything to him since they were in competition with each other, so what they would do is take the pictures of people riding the mules down the trail, and then they would take the negatives in glass plates, put them in a back pack and run down to the only available source for fresh water. It was four and a half miles down and four and a half miles back up. That's a long way. And Emery must have done that a couple times a day."
Walking into the sitting room, Brookins brought out reproductions of photo scenes from their famous movie, 'Floating Down The River,' as well as actual furniture owned by the family.
"Emery Kolb had all sorts of interesting guests - John Muir, Albert Einstein the list goes on and on," he said. "I like to sit in here and think about, 'Well geez, what were they talking about or what did they have for dinner,' my little pea brain just goes crazy thinking about all those folks that were in here."
Heading into what could only be described as a sun porch, it is hard not to notice how startlingly close the structure is to the edge. Only a period window separates visitors from the bottom of the Colorado River. There, the brothers watched the stars and wildlife from the comfort of their brown wicker chairs.
"Can you imagine just sitting here every day, and looking out here? To take in the full experience here you just have to sit and relax and just take it all in," Brookins said. "The longer you sit here, the more you will notice things. During the summer there is always some kind of wildlife walking by, whether it is a deer of a bobcat, it is like a Disney moment."
Just sitting in silence is spectacular. The majesty of the Canyon changes every time you look, Brookins said.
Sitting so close to the edge is an incredible feeling, and Brookins added how difficult it is to imagine how people lived in the building prior to its structural stability assessment.
"When the Grand Canyon Association (GCA) decided to restore the building, they hired a structural engineer, he came down here and said, 'Well, the first thing you need to do is to attach the building to the wall,'" Brookins said.
Leaving the sun porch and stepping into the kitchen, the eye first lands on the brothers' Hoosier kitchen cabinet, which Brookins said has a unique story.
"The GCA got this cabinet back when Helen (Ranney, director of outreach and public relations, Grand Canyon Association) was trekking in Nepal," Brookins said. "They were talking to a park ranger who used to be at the Canyon and he said, 'Hey, I've got this Hoosier kitchen cabinet that I bought after Emery died. It is just sitting in my garage.'"
Donated to the GCA and restored, the cabinet sits prominently upright in the small kitchen, complete with a flour shifter and sugar bin built inside, which makes it an upgraded model according to Brookins.
"There is a packing list on each one of the pieces that says 'Ship to Mrs. Emery C. Kolb, Box 12, Grand Canyon,' so that makes it priceless," he said.
Traveling down into the dark room, which still holds the lingering smell of chemicals, Emery Kolb's hand-made photography stands and fascinating make shift tools still reside, which at one time helped to generate the photos that are famous in the park today.
"He made all of this, he didn't go to Wal-mart and buy any of it," Brookins said.
Kolb Studio is just one example of history sitting in the shadows of the Grand Canyon, and the people who helped shape its future.
"The more time you spend here, the more you see it isn't just all about the Canyon," Brookins said.
For more information on Kolb Studio and its rotating exhibits, visit www.grandcanyon.org.
Grand Canyon Photography and Movie History
Ellsworth and Emery Kolb, brothers who founded a photography studio at the Bright Angel trailhead, gained their notoriety as the first men to make a motion picture of the Colorado River amid its entire course through the Grand Canyon.
Seeking a life of adventure, Ellsworth arrived at the Grand Canyon in 1901 and worked as a bellhop at the Bright Angel Hotel. At his brother’s request, Emery made his way to the Canyon a year later with hopes for landing a mining job. When he arrived, though, the mine was closed.
Searching for another endeavor, Emery found a photography business for sale. Since he had experience in the field, he bought the business and moved it to the Grand Canyon, where the Kolb brothers opened a studio in 1903 photographing visitors who rode the Fred Harvey mule trains down the Bright Angel Trail.
Initially, the studio was housed in a small cave in the side of a canyon wall. The brothers placed a blanket over the entrance so they would have a makeshift darkroom. A year later, they built a two-story wooden structure on a rock shelf blasted out of the canyon wall.
In 1912, the Kolb brothers embarked on a historic boat trip down the Colorado River. They were the first individuals to record their exploits with a movie camera. The adventure started in Green River, Wyoming where John Wesley Powell’s famous expedition departed in 1869. The journey took two months and saw the brothers traverse the Green River to the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. The trip ended in Needles, Calif.
After completing the adventure and finalizing their movie, they toured the world promoting the film and then returned to the Grand Canyon. In 1915, they started showing the movie daily in an auditorium they built at their studio. It was part of a three-story addition (including living quarters). Ellsworth lost interest in the business and headed west for Los Angeles in 1924, but Emery operated the film daily until his death in 1976.
Today, historic Kolb Studio is open year-round. It features an exhibit venue, bookstore, and information center operated by the Grand Canyon Association, a nonprofit organization. Proceeds from sales at the bookstore are used for the continuing restoration and care of the building. Fully remodeled in 2004 for the Kolb Studio Centennial, the bookstore now contains a tribute to the Kolbs’ photography of mule riders at the Grand Canyon.