National Park Service: The First 75 Years
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William Henry Jackson

                                          by William H. Sontag

William Henry Jackson

Watching, documenting, and grubbing around in more than 90 years of history are ample justification for a pioneer photographer to entitle his autobiography, Time Exposure. Thus, did William Henry Jackson document his incredible life in 1940, two years before he died. He was born in 1843 in New York. At age 15, he landed his first job, as a retoucher, in the emerging craft of photography. In Vermont, Jackson was mustered into the Union army to help fight the "War of Secession." After a year with the Army of the Potomac in Washington, D.C., Fairfax Courthouse, and Gettysburg, he returned home. Saddened by a broken engagement, Jackson left Vermont, bumming his way to St. Joseph, Missouri. He bullwhacked freight wagons to Salt Lake City, then recrossed the nation driving mustangs from Los Angeles to Omaha. There he and his brother, Ed, opened Jackson Brothers Photography.

The year 1869 marked the Jackson Brothers' first major contract — 10,000 "views" along the new transcontinental railroad. In 1870 Dr. Ferdinand Hayden convinced him to join his U.S. Geological Survey of the territories. In agreeing, Jackson launched a nine-year commitment to the Survey. Jackson's retrospective declared, "And if any work that I have done should have value beyond my own lifetime, I believe it will be the happy labors of the decade 1869-1878." His first expedition only afforded one principal assistant: "Hypo — a fat little mule with cropped ears... as indispensable to me as his namesake, hyposulphite of soda." Jackson's portable darkroom and cameras included glass plate sizes up to 20' x 24'! Jackson's "happy labors" resulted in first-ever photographs of some of the most significant resources of North America — falls and geothermals of Yellowstone, ruins of Mesa Verde, mountains of Colorado, southwestern pueblos, and so on. These pioneering photographs are accurately credited with convincing Congress to preserve many of these treasures of the West as national parks.

In 1879 Jackson set up a studio in Denver, sold to and became director of the Detroit Photographic Company. Traveling with the "World's Transportation Commission," he photographed the Taj Mahal in India and traveled across Siberia in an open horsedrawn sleigh. At the age of 66 years, he "learned to pilot an early Model T," played golf until the age of 81, rode horses until age 94. At age 92, he was brought out of retirement by NPS Director Arno Cammerer. As a National Park Service employee, Jackson painted murals, oils, and watercolors depicting his early Survey days. Jackson's own assessment of his contributions to the Survey, typically modest, was "I cannot be too careful in emphasizing ... that ... I was seldom more than a sideshow in a great circus." Nevertheless, William Henry Jackson's vast photographic record is distinguished by integrity and determination. Most importantly, for the national parks and preservationist movement, he was there — with all the skills, in all the right places — discovering and documenting the nation's heritage.

From National Park Service: The First 75 Years


Last Modified: Dec 1 2000 10:00:00 pm PDT

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