In taking the first images of Minnehaha Falls, Alexander Hesler and Joel E. Whitney made 25 or 30 daguerrotypes in a single session on August 15, 1852. It was an unusual beginning to the photographic record. Mostly, professional photographers took one-off tourist pictures or scenic shots of the Falls. And some of these were, in fact, reprinted endlessly. But it actually was quite rare, in those early years, for a photographer to go down to Minnehaha and take several pictures in a sequence.
As early as 1863, there was a hotel at Minnehaha Falls, providing meals and accommodations to those who had come to Minnesota. Some were settlers, who came pouring into Minnesota by the tens of thousands throughout the 1860s. Others were tourists, perhaps come to partake of our famously invigorating climate. A great point was made to both groups to see our world-renowned waterfall out on the frontier of the “Great Northwest.”
This picture gets reprinted all the time in books, articles, and magazines. It’s the most popularly reprinted image of Minnehaha Falls in the 19th century. And it’s easy to understand why. The caption clearly states that it is from 1860, and invites the reader back into the past with its advice, “Note costumes.” Putting precise dates on photographs of Minnehaha Falls is a difficult project, as no one knows better than the researchers of urbancreek.com. The very specific date here seems like a gift from the past.
Unfortunately, it’s wrong. On some rare occasions when this image is reprinted, the people standing in the background on the traverse behind the Falls are pointed out. But no one ever mentions the graffiti.
Mollie Carbutt is, again, quite prettily posed against the butternut tree, while the Wilsons gaze across the gorge. Edward L. Wilson was a prominent publisher of the “Philadelphia Photographer” magazine, which seems to have had some national acclaim. And John Carbutt was among the most inventive and studious of early photographers. This image was printed as a photograph and pasted into the “Philadelphia Photographer.”
It was a relatively simple matter for John Carbutt to come to Minnehaha in the 1864-1866 period. He was in Chicago, and by 1865 there were trains between the Twin Cities and Chicago.
It took five days to travel to Minnesota from New York in the early 1870s. Probably it took another day to get from New Hampshire to New York. And perhaps French & Sawyer came out from Keene NH to the Great Northwest to photograph places like Minnehaha Falls. This photo is from the late 1860s (at a guess). Minnehaha was world-famous then, and fame was an inducement for photographers to visit here.
Chicago’s John Carbutt took this picture of his wife and Mr. and Mrs. Edward L. Wilson in October 1866, and it’s interesting for several reasons. That very first bridge across the creek is in terrible condition with obvious broken railings. It’s now a few years old.
Dating pictures of Minnehaha Falls is an imprecise art. The images themselves, as well as the physical objects–the photographs–offer little clues. Mostly, no one wrote the dates on these pictures, so assigning a date means putting together these little clues, and doing research, and then making best-guesses.
It’s a fine view of the falls, but the waterfall is slightly hidden behind those tree branches. And for every subsequent picture taken from this viewpoint, the branches have been cut away, as you can see.
John Carbutt, based in Chicago, was among the most innovative of 19th century photographers. He was the first to print on celluloid, opening the door to the entire film industry. And he perfected the printing of X-ray photographs on glass plates.
Carbutt also took commissions for series of images on the frontier. He was most celebrated for his images taken along the Union Pacific Railroad as it rushed west across Nebraska towards the 100th Meridian and the completion of the trans-continental railroad. But Carbutt also took a few series of pictures in Minnesota, including some for the Northwestern Packet Company.