Real photo postcards from Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota
"Leave me alone and let me go to hell by my own route."
Calamity Jane, 1903
In America a village of 200 people can be called a city and a dirt track a highway. For years Pikes Peak Highway was just that, a stretch of gravel winding to the summit, 4300 metres above sea level. Like a lot of US highways in the first part of last century it was a privately built toll road. Why mining magnate Spencer Penrose thought in 1915 that Pikes Peak needed a highway to the top is unclear. Weather conditions could close it down for a lot of the year and when you got to the end there wasn’t much else to do except turn back and go down again. Maybe that was why he set up the Race to the Clouds the next year. It became one of the premier vehicle endurance races in the country and a testing ground for automobile companies. Bottomless Pit is near the top, just after the Devil’s Playground and before Bighorn Sheep Pullout.
The photographers who specialized in real photo views were tougher and more ruthless than we give them credit for. They marked out their territories, bought concessions and didn’t appreciate intruders. Harold Sanborn’s turf was Colorado and parts of Wyoming and Montana, hence with one exception, every postcard from these states that we’ll see came from his company. In 1995 Colorado businessman Derick Wangaard bought the Sanborn Postcard publishing Co and discovered some 40 000 of Harold Sanborn’s negatives and his journals wherein he had annotated every photo he had taken. Wangaard offered the archive to the Colorado Historical Society, which agreed it had extraordinary value but doubted they could raise the $500 000 he was asking. We’re not sure what happened after that. The usual story is that the archive gets broken up and scattered about then a few years later someone in the government realizes they lost an invaluable record of the state’s history.
A camera and a car were useful but what every itinerant photographer needed was the willingness to travel. That might sound banal but in the 1930s and 40s it meant putting up with car breakdowns, awful weather and hours of solitude behind the wheel. Often as not the photographer knew exactly what he was after and the best time to get it but there were times he chanced across a scene. This postcard was mailed in 1949 from Oakland California to Hingham in Massachusetts by ‘Meg’. She had just driven across the country and somewhere in Wyoming, probably Fort Bridger, she saw this in a rack and it reminded her of the miles of open road she had just experienced.
When the Lincoln highway system was proposed in the 1900s the planners were possessed with the notion that the route needed to be scenic. A straight route might be cheaper but if it missed a scenic wonder the added expense in rerouting was of little concern. What was the point of driving across America if you missed all it had to offer? To cross Wyoming without passing by Tollgate Rock was like visiting Paris and skipping the Louvre. In the 1970s and 80s a new breed of planner came along. Cut costs and forget what the world looked like outside the windscreen, they said. Since government had handed responsibility to private corporations it could hardly complain.
Another view of Tollgate Rock, this one not by Harold Sanborn. Notice the highway and the speck of a car between the Rock and the cliff face in the foreground. It would have been easy to photograph Tollgate Rock from both vantage points and not include the road but this was an era of massive engineering projects and Detroit was building cars for the world. Scenic views we as much about America’s power as they were about its timeless landscape.
By 1925 the first age of the Wild West was dead and buried but the second was just climbing into the saddle. An industry built on cowboy nostalgia was hitting its strides and ranchers in Wyoming realized there was good money to be made if they diversified from sheep and cattle into tourism. For a weekend guests at dude ranches could don Stetsons, strap a lasso to their saddle and ride out along a mountain trail. At night they sat around campfires singing Big Rock Candy Mountain and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and maybe listened to a grizzled old timer talk of Sitting Bull. Sounds unmissable, but it wasn’t. The ranches were so popular that there was soon a demand for a place of worship the guests could head to on a Sunday and so the Chapel of the Transfiguration was built. It was constructed in the Western Craftsman style, which was as authentic as a Boston accountant in woollen chaps, but never mind. It fitted with the setting. Anything else would have been either ugly or absurd.
Since we were speaking of engineering marvels and scenic wonders, a detour to the Spiral Highway in Idaho is essential. Built in 1917 to connect Lewiston with Moscow, the problem to contend with was the 2000 foot incline out of Lewiston and though it could have been solved by avoiding the hills altogether, why pass up a challenge like that? The Spiral Highway wasn’t quite a folly - the point to so many curves was to slow traffic down to a manageable 30 mph – but try to imagine the detail involved in the surveying and engineering. It did inspire at least one song; Hot Rod Lincoln by Charlie Ryan, a 1955 answer song to Hot Rod Race. The basic premise was that Californian hot rodders were all talk until they’d taken on the Spiral Highway.
Gardiner, Montana, population about 850 and entrance to Yellowstone National Park, which officially begins once you have passed through the Roosevelt Arch to the left of the photo. Sanborn took this photo in the 1940s and though the neon signage has gone, the cars have long since turned to rust and we can assume the dog passed away some time back, most of what you see still survives. But for how long? Some scientists claim the next time the subterranean volcano bubbling away under Yellowstone blows its stack it will wipe out Montana, Colorado and most of Nevada. Since the last eruption was 640 000 years ago, another is due, maybe tomorrow.
Assuming Yellowstone’s volcano doesn’t blow its stack, by the time you read this, the Two Medicine River Bridge in Montana will have been dismantled anyway, its structural flaws making restoration a waste of time and money. It was only built in 1940 so arguments about its heritage value are a little thin and the plans for the replacement suggest that won’t completely ruin the view. Two Medicine River has its place in American history as the only site where the Lewis and Clark expedition had a violent conflict with Native Americans. Guess who started it. Lewis, the one with the flaky sounding first name, told a group of Piegan people he intended to sell guns to the Shoshone, their long time enemies. (Arms trade was already big business in America; the Piegan controlled the region’s gun market so Lewis was effectively threatening to break their monopoly.) Two casualties, both Piegan, and another omen of what was to come.
Into South Dakota, and if the number of postcards floating about the internet is any indication the Badlands were the most photographed area in the USA between 1930 and 1960. Why that should be is only speculation though geographically they were the entrance to the West for the north-eastern cities and a relatively short drive from Chicago and Minneapolis. Rise Studio was run by optometrist Carl H. Rise until his death in 1939 though it remained in operation until ‘fairly recently’, whenever that may mean.
On some of Rise’s postcards this stretch is labelled ‘Satan’s Speedway’, which is much better than ‘road scene’. Once again we have a magnificent landscape serving as a mere backdrop to a photo of a highway, but who is to complain? Remove the road and you would think something was missing from this image. Rise was born in South Dakota in 1887, ten years after the Battle of Little Bighorn and the death of Crazy Horse. Deadwood’s heyday had passed but Calamity Jane was very much alive. It’s unlikely anyone thought they had lived through an era that would become mythical. They probably welcomed progress, whether that was a railway, running water or a dirt road. The point is, when he took his photos, Rise could remember a time when cars let alone highways were unimaginable in the back parts of Dakota.
In 1937 21 year old amateur herpetologist Earl Brockelsby figured he could make money from his hobby by opening a roadside attraction. Back then, not long before this photo was taken, the idea was that travellers would pull in off the highway, buy a soda and look at the rattlers slithering about in their cages, which was more fun than finding one in your sleeping bag. These days the Black Hills Reptile Garden claims to have the largest collection of venomous reptile species of any zoo in the world and to be internationally recognized for its work in protecting species.
Which is the better prospect for getting you to pull off the road, a hissing snake showing off its fangs or a fake tree? Another of Brocklesby’s ventures was the nearby Skyline Petrified Forest, which didn’t have quite the same success as the Reptile Garden. This giant log, which stood at the entrance to the park, was basically a timber frame with a concrete and wire façade. It burned down in 1965 and wasn’t replaced. Had it survived, doubtlessly it would now be venerated along with the concrete dinosaurs, cowboy towns and giant portraits of four presidents and one Lakota warrior that, depending on your point of view, enhance or disfigure South Dakota’s landscape. It is time to leave the American West, to head south to the flyover states.
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