W. H. Jackson’s Photographs of Duluth

Pioneer photographer William Henry Jackson aboard one of the Detroit Photographic Company’s special train cars, c. 1902. (Image: Library of Congress)

One day in the summer of 1899, a Chicago & Northwestern train pulled into Duluth, Minnesota, carrying with it a private “photography car” owned by the Detroit Photographic Company. The sight of it probably drew little attention. The DPC was one of the largest publishers of color postcards and photographic views and used several such special cars to haul their photographers around the country to capture images to publish. Inside this particular train car sat one of the greatest landscape and railroad photographers of the nineteenth century, William Henry Jackson. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Jackson’s stunning photographs of wilderness landscapes, diminishing native tribes, boomtowns, and railroad construction had preserved views of the mythical and fading American West. His otherworldly images of the Yellowstone region in northwestern Wyoming had brought Jackson great acclaim—and helped create the country’s first national park. The handful of photographs he made in Duluth are no-less remarkable and only add to his reputation as one of the finest photographers of the American landscape.

Jackson’s old acquaintance Edwin H. Husher had established the Detroit Photographic Company with William Livingstone Jr., and the pair courted Jackson to join them in exploiting a Swiss colorization process called Photochrom (later called Phostint), for which they had acquired the American rights. The process involved using up to ten lithograph stones to create a realistic color print from a black-and-white image that was second to none. Jackson, with his knowledge and experience, would be made an equal partner with a paid position, and would sell to the company his vast collection of negatives for $30,000. Jackson moved to Detroit in 1898, the same year Congress authorized use of the penny postcard. The DPC would become the giant of the postcard industry. Jackson began work managing the new color process at the DPC plant, but within a year he was back on the road doing what he loved best—shooting photographs.

Three negatives made by William Henry Jackson were used to create two different panoramic postcards of Duluth. (Image: Mark Ryan)

A color postcard of a panoramic view from the Boulevard (today’s Skyline Parkway), Duluth, Minnesota, made from three photos by W. H. Jackson and published by Detroit Publishing Co. in 1902. (Image: Mark Ryan)

In 1906 Detroit Publishing used the same three negatives for another panoramic view, but they also enhanced the postcard by adding an image of Duluth’s Aerial Transfer Bridge, built in 1905, and the cloud pattern is different. (Image: Mark Ryan)

His first assignment that summer of 1899 was shooting scenes along the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, the line that would eventually bring him to Duluth. Jackson covered 20,000 miles in less than five months, and the port city was just one of several he photographed that year.

Life on the road was nothing like the old days. Jackson now relaxed in a special Detroit Photographic Company train car that was outfitted with all the necessary equipment for making photographs, and all the comforts of home.

View from Cascade Park, Duluth, Minnesota by W. H. Jackson, 1899. (Image: Library of Congress)

In 1902 Detroit Publishing made this oversized colored print from Jackson’s negative. (Image: Library of Congress)

The veteran photographer’s arrival in Duluth went unnoticed by the local newspapers. The height of Jackson’s fame—at least with the public—had mostly peaked during his prolific years with the Survey in the 1870s and had long begun to fade away. In his autobiography, Time Exposure, he mused about visiting his son Clarence (also a photographer) in Deadwood, South Dakota, just a few years earlier. An item in the local paper noted his visit as “W. H. Jackson, father of the well-known Denver photographer, C. S. Jackson, is in town.”

Jackson makes no mention of his Duluth visit in any of his writings. The only evidence he was in Minnesota at all is a collection of original glass negatives shot in the Twin Cities and Duluth that are today held in the Prints and Photographs collection of the Library of Congress. None of the negatives are dated, but each is inscribed with the initials “WHJ” and numbered in series, ranging from 1197 to 1233. The consecutive numbering of the plates allows for a correlation with the 1899 date in one of Detroit Photographic’s early catalogues.

Duluth’s 1892 Federal Post Office and Customs House, Duluth, Minnesota, by W. H. Jackson, 1899. (Image: Library of Congress)

A color postcard of Duluth’s 1892 Federal Post Office and Customs House, Duluth, Minnesota, made from a photo by W. H. Jackson and published by Detroit Publishing Co. in 1902. Note that power lines have been removed, clouds added, and the building—made of brownstone—is miscolored. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Of the Duluth negatives, 11 exposures are attributed to Jackson, numbered from 1219 to 1233 but with several gaps in the sequence. If Jackson was diligent in his record-keeping—and if he numbered his shots in the order he made them—the numbers suggest that the very first thing he did in Duluth was head up to the hilltop, likely using the Incline railway, to capture the Boulevard. That first segment of today’s Skyline Drive was the city’s prime attraction at the time.

Jackson quickly made a series of three shots from the hilltop numbered 1219, 1221, and 1222 that would be later composed into a panorama. On the glass plate, the Central High clock tower is visible in the left panel and shows the time as 3 p.m. Within ten minutes, Jackson had moved east to the top of Cascade Park to shoot another view of the city. The clock in this negative reads 3:10 p.m.

Jackson then headed down to the canal to the south pier to make a couple of shots of ships coming into port, and then downtown for a photograph of the Post Office. His next negative captured a view of Superior Street looking east from 5th Avenue West, with the afternoon crowd and Spalding Hotel prominent in the image.

View of Superior Street, looking east, Duluth, Minnesota, by W. H. Jackson, 1899. While we have yet to track down a postcard made form this exact negative, dozens of photographs from this perspective—looking east down Superior Street from just west of 5th Avenue West—were turned into postcards by various publishers. (Image: Library of Congress)

Later in the day he had his camera set up on the banks of the Lester River, taking what is probably the best of all the images made of the popular Rustic Bridge built by John Busha and his two sons just the year before. The angle and composition of Jackson’s superb photograph (numbered 1233) are ideal, and the late-afternoon lighting and long shadows add much drama to the picture.

Click here to see Jackson’s photo of the Lester River Rustic Bridge and the postcard made from it and read the history of the bridge.

At some point, he made a shot of the grain elevators, but it is not included in the Library of Congress’s online selections from the collection. It’s a print attributed to Jackson on the reverse side and numbered 1237, placing it in line with the others and making it the last-known exposure from his time in Duluth.

All his negatives (and those of every other DPC photographer) were shot in black and white and later colored at the plant utilizing the Photochrom process. Each photographer was expected to take notes of color while shooting each black-and-white photograph.

At least three of the subjects Jackson photographed in Duluth were eventually made into postcards, a primary market for the Detroit Photographic company. Jackson’s three-panel panorama of the Boulevard and the Rustic Bridge were both colorized and published in 1902. The Federal building photo also became a postcard, although the building itself—made of brownstone—was miscolored as white. Jackson’s photograph of the city taken from Cascade Park was also colorized and published, but as a larger format print rather than a postcard.

The company produced up to 30,000 different postcards—depending on how one defines “different.” Sometimes an image was altered slightly in color or composition and then reissued. The adding and subtracting of elements to enhance or update an image was a common practice used in photography from the very beginning, long before the advent of computers and Photoshop. There are at least three different versions of Jackson’s three-panel panorama of the Boulevard and city. There are marked differences in the image cropping for each, and the Aerial Bridge—which did not exist in 1899—was inserted in the updated 1906 version.

Detail of a photograph of the Duluth Ship Canal, Duluth, Minnesota, by W.H. Jackson, 1899. The concrete piers were constructed between 1896 and 1902; note that while the light poles are in place, their diffusion globed have yet to be installed. (Image: Library of Congress)

Within three years of visiting Duluth, Jackson ended his travels as a professional photographer and settled into managing the plant at the Detroit Photographic company, which became the Detroit Publishing Company in 1905. The new position allowed him to make up for lost time away from his family. Following World War I, cameras became more accessible to the general public and the need for professionally produced photographs or prints diminished. In 1924 the Detroit Publishing Company went into receivership and its assets were liquidated eight years later.

By the time the company failed Jackson was in his 80s and living in Washington, D.C., with his daughter’s family. He spent his time consulting with museums and historical societies, painting, writing, visiting the Library of Congress, and reminiscing with old friends from his years with the Survey.

At age 94 he broke several vertebrae in a severe fall while window shopping in Cheyenne, but even that didn’t stop him. He recovered fully and until his death in 1942 continued to travel every summer, taking photographs for fun with his small, folding Kodak Retina camera, which he called “a miracle.”

Story by guest contributor Mark Ryan.