Then and now: Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah – 1869 and 2006


Photographer Timothy H. O’Sullivan toured the western territories — not yet states — for either the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the U.S. Geological Survey, around 1868 and 1869.  Color photography hadn’t been perfected.  His plates were black and white only.

He had been one of the photographers who captured parts of the Civil War on film, with particularly poignant photos of the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, within hours after the battle ended on July 4, 1863.

O’Sullivan’s photos appear in the collection at the Library of Congress, and at the George Eastman House (Eastman was the founder of Kodak, as you know).

O’Sullivan’s photos show the mineral and mining operations of Nevada, Utah and Idaho, and Arizona and New Mexico, so far that I’ve found.  Particularly in the mountains, the places he photographed can be tracked down today.

In this post we compare O’Sullivan’s photo up what he called “Great Cottonwood Canon of the Wahsatch,” what is today one of the beautiful canyons leading out of Salt Lake City, Big Cottonwood, in the Wasatch Front.  O’Sullivan took a shot up the canyon, then very much unroaded, at an enormous block of granite that came to be known as Storm Mountain.

In 1869:

"Great Cottonwood Canyon, Wahsatch Mountains," 1869 photo by Timothy H. O'Sullivan - USGS photo from Eastman collection

"Great Cottonwood Canyon, Wahsatch Mountains," 1869 photo by Timothy H. O'Sullivan - USGS photo from Eastman collection

Rich Legg of Salt Lake City captured the same mountain in 2006, and graciously consented to let us use it here for comparison.  This is Storm Mountain, now:

From LeggNet:

Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, 2006 - photo by Rich Legg, copyright and rights reserved

Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, 2006 - photo by Rich Legg, copyright and rights reserved; image here by express permission

Note from LeggNet blog: This recent capture was made in Big Cottonwood Canyon just outside of Salt Lake City. The striking shadows along with the jagged ridges create a dramatic lighting effect.

Legg’s camera and film allowed a quicker shot, I’ll wager (if he used film at all — it may be an electronic image).

The granite didn’t change much.  Storm Mountain is literally a fraction of a mile outside the city limits of Salt Lake City.  A photo the other way would show dramatic change.  A photo of Storm Mountain, which consists chiefly of naked granite, appears almost unchanged in over a century.  It’s difficult even to find places where the vegetation has changed.

In the past 20 years we have seen comparisons of America’s and the world’s glaciers, from photos through the late 19th and 20th centuries, compared to photos of today.  The archives of landscape photos held by groups like the George Eastman House offer opportunities for historians and land managers and policy makers to compare American lands from more than a century ago, to those same lands today.  Much of those older photo archives are available on line, at least for searching.  Will scholars make methodical use of these resources?

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