As an employee of the Grand Canyon Association, I had the opportunity to get a private tour of one of the historic buildings set on the rim. Built over the years of 1906 and 1915, Kolb’s Studio is an interesting piece of architecture, structured along, and below the rim, and just as interesting are the characters that brought it to life.
In the early 1900’s, Ellsworth Kolb set out from Pittsburgh, PA to explore the west. After working short stints at various places along the way, he eventually ended up at the Grand Canyon. His timing was right, as this newest tourist destination was being courted by the Santa Fe Railroad. Hotels were springing up along the rim, and Ellsworth soon convinced his brother Emery to join him.
Emery’s forte was photography. As luck would have it, when Emery arrived in Williams, AZ, the closest town to the Grand Canyon, he met a couple attempting to sell their photography business. Soon, the brothers were entrepreneurs, taking pictures of the tourists arriving on trains to visit the nearby attraction. But, the brothers didn’t want to be in Williams, they wanted their business situated at the Grand Canyon.
Unable to convince the concessionaire of the large hotels, the railroad, or the forest service to allow them to bring their business there, they made a deal with a gentlemen that owned the mining claims and therefore the right of access to a popular trail into the canyon. The brothers were able to set up business and their living quarters in a tent at the head of the trail as long as they collected the fee from each tourist entering the trail by foot or mule.
Taking advantage of their perch at the top of the trail, the brothers would take a picture of the tourists entering the canyon by mule. Then Emery would run 4.5 miles, down the canyon to the nearest spring where he had set up a darkroom to develop the film. The forest service and other businesses at the top of the rim had water hauled in by train, but the Kolb’s weren’t being encouraged to stay in business, and the railroad would not sell them any. After developing the film, Emery would then run back up the canyon, 3,000 feet, to the top of the trail, in time for the tourists to return on their mule ride. The brothers sold the pictures to those willing to buy.
Emery(top) and Ellsworth Kolb, 1913
The brothers branched out to pictures of the view sold as early postcards. Their dare devil stunts to get the best view point became legend. Their lives really changed when motion pictures came out. Emery and Ellsworth filmed themselves riding the rapids through the Grand Canyon. Once again, the other businesses at the canyon wouldn’t show the motion picture to the tourists. So, the brothers hit the road. Soon they had audiences across the country crowding theaters to watch their daring river ride. Tourists began visiting the Grand Canyon to meet the Kolb’s and to join the adventure.
Emery married within a few years of the brother’s arrival, and his wife insisted on more permanent housing. A small structure was built, which was expanded on over the years. The forest service again intervened, insisting the building couldn’t be seen from the top of the rim. Kolb Studio, along with the living quarters, was built against the canyon, with astounding views. An auditorium was eventually built, where Emery showed his motion picture to sold out audiences twice daily.
Not only did the Kolb’s continue to have contention with the forest service, and other concessionaires in what was to become the national park, they had their own arguments. Lawyers were hired, and silliness ensued. At one point it was decided that Ellsworth had the only rights to the one bathroom, but Emery had the rights to the hot water.
Finally the battle between the brothers ended on a coin toss. Ellsworth was out, with a monthly stipend, and Emery stayed on at the studio. Managing to continually win battles with the park service, Emery was able to hang on to the studio, and to live in it until the Historic Sites Act qualified the structure as a historic building, forbidding the park service to ever tear it down. Emery died two months later at the age of 95. His wife had died 16 years prior, the same year as Ellsworth. Emery had one child, who had done the unthinkable, and married a park ranger. All was forgiven though, and a grandson, nicknamed Smokey, shared stories of his famous family in the years to come.
The eccentric Emery had the last laugh, even beyond his death. A skeleton was discovered inside a boat tied to the rafters in his garage. Rumors and speculation began, and escalated when a bullet hole was found in the skull. From its discovery in 1977, until 2007 when photographic evidence and historical proof was uncovered, speculation as to how the remains came into Emery’s possession increased the stories of his eccentricity. Photographic proof and stories from friends and relatives eventually resulted in the conclusion that the skeleton was the remains of a suicide victim from 1933. How the skeleton ended up in a boat tied to the rafters is a mystery Emery, probably laughingly, took to his grave.
by Diane Moore