Brothers at the rim

Pair left Pittsburgh a century ago to open a photo studio at the Grand Canyon


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GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK -- With only a day to explore this 1.2 million-acre park, we popped into the main visitor center upon arrival to get our bearings and decide which hiking trails might provide the best vistas of one of America's top scenic gems.

After grabbing some maps, we opted to sit through the short film -- a staple at all national parks -- to absorb some perspective that might help us better appreciate the rugged canyon carved through the northern Arizona mountains more than 5 million years ago.

Among the scenes in the film that stood out was the black-and-white footage of the canyon shot more than a century ago by two brothers during a harrowing boat ride along the Colorado River. Their 1912 movie became part of Grand Canyon history but it wasn't until a couple of hours later we learned, quite by accident, that the Kolb brothers were Western Pennsylvania natives who left jobs in Pittsburgh industrial plants to make their livelihoods taking pictures of tourists and scenery at this iconic American attraction.

An exhibit that runs at the park's Kolb Studio through Sept. 7 chronicles the story of Emery and Ellsworth Kolb through photos and artifacts including a replica of the 125-pound boat in which they traversed the Colorado rapids. We saw the exhibit during our visit last August before it went on hiatus to make room for an annual exhibit of paintings that celebrate the Grand Canyon. On Feb. 1, "The Amazing Kolb Brothers: A Grand Life at the Grand Canyon!" reopened.

It's tough to miss the Kolb Studio as you walk west along the South Rim of the canyon from the main visitor center. Proceed just over 2½ miles along the Rim Trail -- the stretch that includes the popular Trail of Time -- and on the brink of the canyon sits the dark brown structure that Emery and Ellsworth Kolb erected in 1904. Built as a photography studio, lab and living quarters, it juts out precariously over the cliffs near the head of Bright Angel Trail, one of the most popular trails in the park. The brothers picked that strategic spot because their business relied largely on taking photos of tourists who rode mules down the challenging, 9½-mile trail from the rim to the river.

PG map: Kolb Studio
(Click image for larger version)

The original two-story building now includes several additions that house exhibition space, antique photography equipment, a bookstore and information center. The facility is operated by the nonprofit Grand Canyon Association, which uses proceeds of sales to maintain it.

We darted inside not only because it looked intriguing; the place provided a break from a quick rain shower that is typical during Arizona's late-summer monsoon season.

I was immersed in the Kolbs' photographs of dramatic canyon views, women in long dresses riding mules along Bright Angel, and dignitaries who visited the canyon including President Theodore Roosevelt, when my son pointed out a wall placard that stated Ellsworth Kolb came west from Smithton, Westmoreland County, and Emery was from Wilkinsburg. But there were no details about their Pittsburgh roots or why they settled in the Grand Canyon years before it was designated a national park in 1919.

Digital technology helped answer those questions. Through an online biography by William Suran, "With the Wings of an Angel," and a short video clip from Ken Burns' acclaimed PBS series "The National Parks, America's Best Idea" I learned the brothers were among the children of Edward Kolb, an ordained Methodist minister in Pennsylvania. The family moved frequently, although the elder Kolb wasn't linked to any congregation. Ellsworth was born in 1876 and Emery in 1881.

At some point, they lived near Buffalo Creek in Armstrong County where the young boys may have gotten their first taste of riding recklessly through rising waters. During a heavy downpour in May 1889 -- perhaps the same storm that resulted in the Johnstown Flood -- they built a lumber raft and paddled down the swollen creek without supervision. The "family home" later is described as being in Pittsburgh, near Pennsylvania Railroad tracks. The trains that passed by fascinated young Emery. He quit school after eighth grade to work at Westinghouse Electric Corp. as a drill press operator while Ellsworth worked at an unidentified steel mill among other jobs. Ellsworth left home at age 24 and found jobs plowing snow and working with road crews at Pike's Peak, Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks before he was hired in 1901 by the Bright Angel Hotel in the Grand Canyon.

Emery joined him there in 1902 after leaving home with a camera, a guitar and a mouth organ that he used to entertain other passengers on the train during his journey to Arizona.

They operated their first studio out of a cave in the side of the canyon. After filming their boat trip down the Colorado, they traveled around the U.S. to promote the movie. In 1915 they added an auditorium to the studio where Emery showed the movie daily to visitors until his death in 1976 at age 95.

Ellsworth had long since left the business. In 1924, after their personal relationship deteriorated, they flipped a coin to decide who would keep the studio and who would leave. Ellsworth lost the toss but received a settlement for his share of the enterprise and moved to Los Angeles, where he died in 1960.

After Emery's death, the studio sat empty until the 1990s when the Grand Canyon Association began repair and restoration efforts.

The studio is now open year-round and admission is free. Hours are 8 a.m.-8 p.m. from Memorial Day through Labor Day and 8 a.m.-6 p.m. the rest of the year.

For more information, call 1-800-858-2808 or go to www.grandcanyon.org.

Travel tip: An alternative to driving your own vehicle into Grand Canyon National Park is to park about five miles south in Tusayan and catch a shuttle bus into the park. When you get off at the main visitor center, you can easily walk to observation points and trails along the South Rim; or take free shuttles to other park destinations. The shuttle from Tusayan bypasses the main entrance to the park where traffic backups can be heavy, especially during peak summer months. Purchase park admission tickets from Tusayan merchants along Highway 64 where the bus stops. Because our journey to the canyon was a day trip from our vacation base in Sedona, Ariz., two hours south, we welcomed the opportunity to leave the car behind while hiking and touring through the park.

Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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