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Thursday, 8 November 2012


Postcards of US highways from Washington to California

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”
Jack Kerouac

Before the US had highways it had routes and roads, and before them, trails. Some of those had been charted by trappers and wagon trains and most started somewhere in the east to end up on the west coast. The basic network that would become the highway system was in place before the arrival of the automobile and when the highways were being mapped out in the 1910s it made sense to stick to the pioneer trails because they followed the most accessible courses and they were where the towns had sprung up. When Americans seriously started taking to the road in the 1930s it wasn’t always with the awareness that the routes were the same their grandparents took four months to cross, assuming they survived typhoid and yellow fever.
When the Grand Coulee Highway was officially opened on May 13 1934, it was praised for being the most scenic in the country. Today the name exists in a short strip cutting through Grand Coulee, itself overshadowed and some might say only surviving, because of the dam. 

Still on the Grand Coulee Highway. All these Washington photos are all by J Boyd Ellis, former schoolteacher who tried his hand at wedding photography before nature called. People are inclined to dismiss scenic views as kitsch, but kitsch implies a vapid or false sentimentality, which I don’t see here. True, they are too few to be considered a real sample of Ellis’ photographs – like a lot of photographer’s we’re going to meet on our road trip, he published thousands as postcards - but they have a definite enthusiasm for the highway. This was taken in the 1940s, when cars were relatively cheap, gas exceptionally so and America swelled with patriotic pride. All that is in this scene: the Texaco billboard, the tyre marks on the asphalt and the underlying message that this is a great land you have to get out and take a look at; a notion that had a much shorter life span than people imagined.

Originally the Sunset Highway was a wagon road laid out with timber sleepers, and because it provided access through Snoqualmie Pass and a direct route to Seattle, it gave the city eminence over Portland. When the highway was built in the 1920s, it was famous for its switchbacks, much loved by motor heads until they lost control and plummeted over the edge. Though just over 12 miles long, it was part of a system that linked Chicago to the Pacific. All that is interesting but this photo gets to the point of what this post is about. In the 1940s the landscape of the US northwest may have been spectacular, but it was nothing without a streak of black tarmac cutting through. What did Americans love more, their country or their cars? It was a close call.

The pioneers might have been scared of Indians – they were told to be – but the real dangers were disease and becoming trapped in the mountains. The Rockies stood sullenly in their way, like grim bouncers in a nightclub doorway, and you don’t read too much from the early crossers about the glorious views looking over the peaks. Mostly they shivered and prayed and scratched entries into their diaries about how the folks in the neighbouring wagon buried their youngest last night. There was no Summit Inn to welcome them once they got to the top. 

Roads in Washington don’t stretch on forever. They twist around, following river systems, rise up through hills and mountain passes and generally think of themselves as interesting. Some thirty years after this photo was taken, a generation of photographers would come along for whom the tarmac and the powerline would represent urban degradation and the destruction of the wilderness. What did J. Boyd Ellis see in this scene? Probably a sunny spring day.

Heading south from Washington into Oregon, the most beautiful of the American states (according to its residents), with three mountain ranges, the Columbia River, a desert, wild coastline and a lot of trees, relatively speaking. It also has the Bridge of the Gods. Despite the grand name it wasn’t considered an exceptional feat of engineering, not compared to other structures being built in the 1920s. The original Bridge of the Gods was a landslide that had occurred recently enough to enter indigenous folklore and which dammed the Columbia River. The bridge links Washington with Oregon and the Columbia River Highway. You can’t talk about Oregon’s early highways without mentioning Sam Hill, Quaker, philanthropist, inveterate traveller and champion of good roads. Frequently depicted as an eccentric and a genius, he was more likely an astute businessman who realized in the 1910s that the prosperity of the northwest depended on a proper road system. Oddly enough, most politicians ignored him so he built the first asphalt road in the area out of his own pocket. He also built Maryhill Stonehenge, which sounds like a typical American roadside folly but was a respectable monument to the fallen soldiers of World War 1.

While Ansel Adams campaigned for pure photography and insisted justice couldn’t be done to the American landscape without using his zone system, the less intense were happy to buy a Sawyer’s postcard for a penny, and they probably reckoned they got more for their money. Coming out of Portland, Carlton Sawyer was only running his studio for a few years in the 1910s before he sold it, the new owners keeping the name. The same company later invented the Viewmaster. The big difference between a Sawyer's photo and one by Adams wasn’t so much technique or printing method but rather, Adams generally shunned the highway, Sawyer's celebrated it. So long as you have a car and a tank full of gas, the company was saying, you don’t need us. Get out and see America for yourself.

The two people you were most likely to encounter in real photo postcards of Oregon were Arthur Cross and Edward Dimmitt. From 1916 they travelled along Oregon’s highways snapping the landscape but they showed more initiative than most. Not happy enough with selling their postcards in the racks at local gas stations and hotels, they went to the spots tourists were most likely to gather and set up a stall from their car. They could appreciate a good view as much as the next person but they knew that the drive was the real experience and a photo captured nothing if it didn’t include the road. This is a good one, the white barrier lending what the critics would call a subtle touch to the scene.

“Go where you may, within a radius of from fifty to a hundred miles or more, there stands before you the colossal cone of Shasta, clad in ice and snow, the one grand, unmistakable landmark - the pole - star of the landscape.”
That was John Muir writing in 1888. He wasn’t the only European to feel the spiritual pull of this geographic anomaly, which rises alone on a coastal plain. In the 1930s, not long before this photo was taken, Guy Ballard was hiking on the mountain when he met a man who was either Count Saint Germain or a Lemurian. One thing led to another, as so often happens, and soon Ballard was leading an esoteric cult with a membership claimed to be in the tens of thousands gathering annually at the mountain’s base. I prefer this image of Shasta. You still have the impression it is a special place and there is a road worth taking, only the revelation will be less about self-importance, more about insignificance.

Spare a thought for Lewis Mumford. In the 1950s he was warning that the highway system would ruin small towns, suck the soul out of major cities and destroy any genuine sense of community, and it was his tragedy that he died in 1990 having seen his prophecies come true. But they sounded ridiculous when he first made them. For Americans with cars highways were the nervous system of the country and the notion that it was a bad thing to be able to drive from Chicago to Los Angeles on one seamless road sounded bad itself. Note the caption: “Mt Lassen from Red Bluff, California”. Actually it’s a photo of a viaduct on one of the few straight stretches of Highway 36. It looks like Jervie Henry Eastman was so taken by the juxtaposition of the road and the mountains that he got out of his car and stood on the sidewalk to take this.

Heading south before we turn up again we hit the Joshua Tree National Park, and the Mojave Desert; stage set for countless westerns, haunt of ancient spirits and modern mystics and a place of pilgrimage for Gram Parsons worshippers, but he was likely just a baby in Florida when this was taken. Interesting that someone wrote on the front of the card without posting it. People did buy postcards because it saved them the trouble of taking photographs. Maybe someone picked this up in a roadhouse and figured they couldn’t do better themselves.

Eastman admired the Californian landscape but I think he loved its highways, gas stations, motels and small towns. He was a commercial traveller whose trade was photography and people in itinerant occupations quickly learn to appreciate the little comforts, like the diner that serves a decent coffee and the motel with air conditioning. The landscape will always be there but the barmaid who serves a larger slice of pie to the regulars will move on. Most of California’s famous photographers – there are quite a few of those – made their reputations concentrating on a specific area but Eastman covered the state, leaving an archive of thousands of photographs, including postcards of small towns like Loyalton that wouldn’t earn a glance from most people. Why? Obviously, since he was in the business of making postcards he’d want to offer a comprehensive selection but who would be after a scene of Loyalton’s main street, especially when it was overshadowed by the spectacular Sierra Nevada just a few miles away? I suspect he had an obsession, call it a personal responsibility if you want, to photograph the state in encyclopaedic detail. No town could be left out and if no one ever bought a postcard of Loyalton it didn’t matter because he had done his work. Loyalton is on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, not far from where the Donner Party began their ascent to starvation and cannibalism in 1846. Using Google Street View and taking the hill in the background as a locus, this looks like Main Street viewed from the corner of Railroad Ave. The Golden West Hotel still stands and it is possible the shopfront with the barber poles does too, but little else. Reno lies just across the border.  



  1. This was just wonderful! Absolutely wonderful!

  2. A work really delicious, very good post. Very good blog.

  3. These old landscape postcards are in a forgotten corner of photography's history, aren't they?


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