Pioneering Photographer William Henry Jackson



One of the first images taken by William Henry Jackson of Mount of the Holy Cross in the Sawatch Range near the modern-day city of Vail.

William Henry Jackson

RUMORS OF A MOUNTAIN WITH A CROSS divinely sculpted into its rock façade circulated among mid-19th-century mining parties, trappers and early settlers of Colorado Territory. But there was no proof of its existence – that is, not until word reached the ears of famed frontier photographer William Henry Jackson.

In a cause he likened to the quest for the Holy Grail, Jackson was determined to document the elusive mountain. Doing so might uncover a symbol validating God’s blessing on the United States’ accelerating westward expansion – a movement called “manifest destiny,” then in full swing to map and colonize the breadth of the continent.

“No man we talked with had ever seen the Mountain of the Holy Cross. But everyone knew that somewhere in the far reaches

of the western highlands such a wonder might exist,” Jackson wrote in his autobiography “Time Exposure”. “Hadn’t a certain hunter once caught a glimpse of it – only to have it vanish as he approached? Didn’t a wrinkled Indian here and there narrow his eyes and slowly nod his head when questioned? Wasn’t this man’s grandfather, and that man’s uncle, and old so-and-so’s brother the first white man ever to lay eyes on the Holy Cross – many, many, many years ago? It was a beautiful legend, and they nursed it carefully.”

In 1873, Jackson was employed with the Hayden Survey, a series of geological expeditions led by Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden that included preeminent scientists, topographers and contemporary artists like painter Thomas Moran. Two years earlier, the survey documented the weird and wonderous volcanic features of Yellowstone, also once thought to be a myth. Jackson’s photographs helped convince Congress to declare Yellowstone the first U.S. national park.

Jackson’s explorations planned for Colorado in 1873 gave him the chance to hunt for the mysterious Holy Cross. Though work for the survey was unpaid, it provided protected transportation into some of the West’s most epic landscapes, and Jackson was permitted to keep the negatives he made, meaning he could sell prints to the public and the U.S. government with Hayden’s endorsement.

JACKSON WAS WELL-SUITED for the role of official photographer, having drawn or painted almost daily since the age of 10 and retouching photographs for studios near his Vermont home in his early teens. At age 19, he served in the Union Army during the Civil War, drawing maps and sketches of fortifications, and participated in the Battle of Gettysburg as a supply train guard. In his downtime, he drew scenes of military camp life, which he mailed to his family as proof he was alive and well amidst the brutal conflict.

After the war, Jackson eventually settled in Omaha, Nebraska, where he operated a photography studio with his two brothers, Ed and Fred. He further sharpened his artistic eye by photographing landscapes for the Union Pacific Railroad and taking portraits of local Indian tribes, including the Pawnee and Omaha.

The 1873 survey gave Jackson both a time to grieve and a new lease on life. His wife Mollie had died in childbirth, along with their infant daughter, the previous year, but he had been recently introduced to Emilie Painter, the daughter of the Omaha Indian Reservation agent, with whom he would correspond during his travels.

The expedition began in May on the Front Range, where Jackson photographed Longs Peak near modern-day Rocky Mountain National Park, then trekked southward. On June 18, Jackson climbed to the highest point on the Continental Divide, the 14,270-foot summit of Grays Peak. Using field glasses, he sighted a cross-cut mountain in the distance.

Jackson had good reason to search for the cross from Grays Peak. In 1869, William Brewer, a Yale professor on an expedition headed by geologist Josiah Whitney, reported “a cross of pure white, a mile high, suspended against its side” could be seen about 40 miles away. Later that year, journalist Samuel Bowles wrote of viewing the cross from Grays Peak in his book The Switzerland of America: A Summer Vacation in the Parks and Mountains of Colorado: “Over one of the largest and finest (mountains) the snow fields lay in the form of an immense cross … It is as if God has set His sign, His seal, His promise there – a beacon upon the very center and height of the continent to all its people and all its generations.”

Even if he wasn’t the first person to spot it, Jackson may have been the first to realize the myth of Mount of the Holy Cross originated because anyone who approached it from below would see its cross-laden summit disappear behind the adjacent 13,000-foot Notch Mountain. Now, he was hot on the trail, although assignments along the Front and Sawatch ranges remained between him and his goal.

THE AMOUNT OF EQUIPMENT Jackson carried made for slow going over the roadless and physically arduous route. Even though porters and mules assisted, his outfit, including cameras, glass plates and a portable darkroom, weighed at least 300 pounds and consisted of more than 40 items, such as chemical scales, toning containers, washing trays, retouching ink and brushes. Jackson used the period’s most technologically advanced wet collodion process. The technique demanded he light-sensitize his glass negatives in advance by coating them with a nitric acid and silver nitrate chemical emulsion in a dark tent. After loading plates to the back of his cameras, exposing the images was the easy part: He simply removed a lens cap.

Within minutes of the exposures, he returned to the tent to develop, wash and dry negatives over an alcohol lamp. Last, he varnished the images and stowed the plates in rawhide bags for protection. The full process took about 20 minutes for each image.

Jackson’s work was further delayed in the Elk Mountains on Aug. 10 when a mule named Gimlet slipped his pack and broke several glass plate negatives, causing Jackson to lose a month’s work. “I think I have never been so distressed in my life – my finest negatives lost before anyone had even seen a print. Nothing could be done to repair the damage, nothing,” Jackson wrote.

Jackson cursed “evil” Gimlet for tossing the load, but his demeanor improved when Hayden allowed him to retrace his steps and re-photograph the lost scenes.

“The new negatives proved to be better than the old ones, and the delay brought me to the Mountain of the Holy Cross at the exact moment when every condition was close to perfection.”

As the explorers searched for the best approach to the peak for photographs, they became mired in a sea of downed timber that prevented their mules from navigating a maze of marshy creek beds. On Aug. 23, Jackson, botanist John M. Coulter and packer Tom Cooper decided to carry their photographic equipment, a load of 40 pounds each, on their backs and climb to the top of Notch Mountain, where Jackson theorized the best view of Holy Cross could be had.

JACKSON CUSTOMARILY PUSHED ahead of his companions to spare them his meanderings while prospecting for the ideal perspective. As he summited Notch Mountain, he became the first survey member to see the cross.

“Near the top of the ridge I emerged above timber line and the clouds, and suddenly, as I clambered over a vast mass of jagged rocks, I discovered the great shining cross dead before me, tilted against the mountainside. It was worth all the labor of the past three months just to see it for a moment.”

Jackson admired the great chasm filled with crusted snow that ran directly up the side of the adjacent peak. Approximately two thirds up, the crevice broke into two deep snow-filled arms intersecting at a 90-degree angle to form the white cross. The perpendicular ravines sculpted from thousands of years of erosion sheltered the winter snow from the sun well after the rest of the mountain’s snow had melted away. Jackson was lucky. The cross might have completely melted by late summer in drier years.

Within three hours, Jackson’s two comrades joined him, but bad weather also moved in.

“Below us as well as before us the clouds billowed majestically. Then when the mist was heavy in the valley the sun came out – not enough for picture-taking, but enough to create a great circular rainbow at our feet. I have never seen another like it.”

No pictures would be made that evening in the dim light. However, Jackson declared “We must have pictures before going down. And we would have pictures.” The trio left their equipment at the crest, walked back below treeline and built a fire. Without food, blankets or coats, they spent the night on the stony ground.

The dawn of Aug. 24 greeted the cold, stiff, hungry, yet elated, trekkers with clear and sunny conditions. Jackson hurried to the top and set up his cameras. The rush was unnecessary, as a new problem emerged. The sun was still too low, even in midsummer, to have melted any snow, and Jackson needed water to prepare the emulsion for the glass plate negatives. He had to wait for the sun to rise higher and warm enough snow to seep from a nearby crevice.

“By the time I had enough to develop and wash a few plates the long flamelike shadows on Holy Cross were rapidly sweeping down into the valley, and, using two cameras, I had made just eight exposures when they were gone. But, with the early sun, those shadows had already helped me to take the finest pictures I have ever made of Holy Cross.”

He finished his photo shoot by noon, repacked his gear and the three trekkers descended Notch Mountain in much less time than it took to climb up. At base camp, Jackson and his group reunited with Hayden, who had taken a separate party to find routes to the top of Holy Cross. Over supper, Jackson regaled his boss with tales of making the first images of Holy Cross.

JACKSON’S COLORADO TIES strengthened after his travels there. He married Emilie and they had three children. In 1879, the family settled in Denver and set up a studio, which he operated with his son Clarence until it foundered in the financial panic of 1893.

In 1897, Jackson became a partner in the Detroit Publishing Co., which had exclusive rights to a “chromolithograph” process allowing color enhancement of black-and white photography used in souvenir postcards to large panoramas. At its height, the company drew upon 40,000 negatives, more than a quarter of which were contributed by Jackson, had sales of seven million prints annually, employed about 40 artists and more than a dozen traveling salesmen. The company declined during World War I, as cheaper printing methods were developed by competing firms. In 1924, it went into receivership. Jackson moved to Washington, D.C., and later New York City, where he resumed his painting avocation.

While back East, Jackson become the research director of the Oregon Trail Memorial Association, produced murals depicting Western scenes for a new U.S. Department of the Interior building and for the National Park Service. He also acted as a technical adviser for the filming of Gone with the Wind. He died in 1942, aged 99, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery as one of the last surviving Civil War veterans.

In a few short years after Jackson’s first images of Mount of the Holy Cross were published, the once-obscure mountain gained international fame. Thomas Moran used Jackson’s negatives as inspiration for his own colorful paintings. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow referenced the peak’s imagery in his poem Cross of Snow, about his late wife’s death. By the early 20th century, a Jackson print of the Holy Cross hung in the Vatican papal quarters.

Jackson never forgot his first impression of the cross and felt compelled to make several repeat visits.

“Since 1873 I have been back four or five times. I have used the best cameras and the most sensitive emulsions on the market. I have snapped my shutter morning, noon, and afternoon,” he wrote. “And I have never come close to matching those first plates.”

For the rest of the story see the January/February 2020 issue of Colorado Life.

Add your comment: