“Just sit back and let Mother Nature carry us toward her own.”
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
In 1935 a family travelled from Canada to Yellowstone National Park, taking in Niagara Falls and New York along the way. They stopped at other sites, and may have gone further than Yellowstone (a photo not included is from Colorado), but these are the places in the photos that we have. Because these were bought in Montreal and because the inscriptions on the back are in French, we can reasonably assume the family came from Montreal or thereabouts. A pedant may clear his throat and beg to speak here but actually, we don’t care where they came from, only where they went.
The unifying idea behind all the photos in the collection is that they are about bigness. Niagara Falls is massive, New York is huge and Yellowstone is vast, but that’s not surprising. In 1935 America was still a big country, metaphorically if not so physically. Niagara Falls is only the ninth largest cataract in the world – waterfalls being measured by the volume of water that pours over per time frame, not the height nor the width.
The Empire State from ground level. How many of us have visited New York, stood at the bottom of the Empire State and jiggled around, finding that perfect position from where the sides of the building angle in as they move up to a vanishing point? If you haven’t tried it you haven’t been a tourist in New York.
New York was big; no one would argue with that, and whether it was the biggest city in the world was a matter of population or square miles, which again wasn’t so important. When this photo was taken from the Empire State Building, that , and the Chrysler, seen in the middle ground here, were only four years old and both were the tallest skyscrapers in the world. Interesting: whoever wrote the inscription on the back says this is Chicago, which it obviously isn’t. But what that tells us is that by the end our photographer was so overwhelmed by the experience he or she could no longer remember where the photos were taken. A common experience; usually indicating a good time.
We have skipped large parts of America and find ourselves with the family at the top of a summit in Wyoming. Which mountain our photographer doesn’t say but obviously one that was accessible to children. If the children were exceptionally well educated they could read the detritus around them for evidence of the last ice age that affected this particular mountain.
And now we are in Yellowstone. You may have seen footage of what happened to Yellowstone within a few years of the reintroduction of wolves in the 1990s. This photo gives you an idea of why they needed to be brought back. Before Yellowstone became a national park the vegetation had covered the slopes much more thickly. This prevented erosion, which in itself allowed more biodiversity. By 1935 there were no wolves in Yellowstone, the last being killed nine years earlier.
The paradox of America’s internationally progressive national parks programme was that it wreaked destruction on wilderness areas, usually under the directorship of men who aspired to protect the landscape. The question of how to balance conservation of the environment against the commercial demand to make it available to visitors was impossible to answer given the knowledge and general ethos of 1930s. It wouldn’t get a proper response until Aldo Leopard wrote his report on wildlife management in 1963. In 1935 these falls would have been viewed from a specially constructed platform, with the photographer crowded by others trying to take the same photo. Experiencing Yellowstone wasn’t much different to viewing a patient in an incubator.
Her hat isn’t fashion. It is part of a uniform. She is unlikely to be a tour guide because the rest of her outfit isn’t suitable. By 1935 the New Deal was in full swing and the Civilian Conservation Corps employed thousands of workers to maintain the national parks, but the CCC only employed men. She isn’t part of that. She could have a trolley off camera and be selling ice creams or sodas from it. In any case, this is exactly the type of platform tourists would have observed the park from.
Old Faithful blows its stack every 35 or 120 minutes. There is a theory, part paranoid conspiracy, part science based paranoia, that the volcanic caldera, the same force that drives Old Faithful will collapse any day and being of such a size it will drag most of the U.S with it. Maybe President Trump’s last thought will be that all his billions of dollars are now worth nothing. Fortunately Canada and Mexico don’t appear to be affected so we can relax.
Imagine travelling all the way to Yellowstone and not seeing a bear. Well, if you were Canadian you might have thought that was no big deal. Even so, Yellowstone didn’t have any wolves left but the bears had become emblematic, not just of the park but of wilderness. They were an apex predator and in the 1930s they were the animals that stood up to represent all others. Anyway, here is a photo of Wild America 1935; a black bear so inured to people that it knows how to perform for the camera.
We leave our holidaymakers here. They’ve shown us a fragment of America, from back when it was brash and self-confident and too obsessed with grand visions and great projects to be aware there was a concept called hubris. Still, there are glimmers in the darkness. Yellowstone is one.