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Historic photograph taken in 1889 by Franklin Nims during the Stanton Expedition just downstream of the Glen Canyon Dam site, well before it was built on the Colorado River

Detailed Description

A historic image taken on December 23, 1889, of the Colorado River at River Mile Mile -14.7, near the site where Glen Canyon Dam would later be built. The view is taken looking downstream from where the dam is now from river left by Franklin Nims during the Stanton Expedition. Photo credit: Franklin A. Nims, original courtesy of The National Archives, 57-RS-236, public domain. Stake (camera point) s2638 in the SBSC’s Southwest Repeat Photography Collection.

Excerpt of the Stanton Survey History by Robert H. Webb, USGS, public domain (from the now unavailable webpage on the subject):

In May 1889, railroad engineer Robert Brewster Stanton, in collaboration with real estate investor Frank M. Brown, began a survey of the Green and Colorado River corridors. Their goal was to construct a railroad line from Grand Junction, Colorado to San Diego, California, one that would wind at river-level through several of the Colorado River’s canyons. While that expedition ended in disaster in July after three men—one of them Brown—drowned in Grand Canyon, Stanton successfully completed the survey that winter (1889-1890). The expedition quickly discovered that conducting the survey by instrument was far too time-consuming for their allotted time, so the men turned to line-of-site photographs taken on newfangled flexible roll film (rather than the cumbersome glass plates used by their predecessors). Although the railroad project never got past the planning stages, the photographs would prove to be invaluable as the basis for repeat photography a century later. From 1989 to 1995, the USGS re-photographed nearly all of the images that the expedition’s photographers—Franklin A. Nims and, after Nims was injured and left the expedition, Stanton himself—took in both Grand and Cataract Canyons. The photographs reveal changes in desert and riparian vegetation, rapids, and beaches, as a result of both natural and human-caused processes. Many of the Grand Canyon images were published in the book “Grand Canyon, A Century of Change,” by Robert Webb, and a selection of the Cataract Canyon images appeared in “Cataract Canyon: A Human and Environmental History of the Rivers in Canyonlands,” by Robert Webb, Jayne Belnap, and John Weisheit. In 2010, the USGS re-matched many of the images, both in Grand Canyon and Cataract Canyon.

While the Brown-Stanton expedition would eventually switch from an instrument survey to a purely photographic survey of the canyons of the Colorado River in order to save time, at this point, they were still conducting an instrument survey. Three members of the expedition, with plane table and stadia rod, are visible in the center foreground. Shrubs, likely Mormon tea and saltbrush, grow upon the slope in the foreground, while the river’s edge is barren.


Public Domain.