The sepia photograph depicts a line of mules, twisting their way down a narrow path, lined by a steep sandstone wall on one side, a vertiginous drop into nothingness on the other. Seated on the mules’ backs are the tourists: women in long white dresses riding sidesaddle, their broad-brimmed hats held on by gauzy scarves tied beneath their chins; men in dark suits complete with ties and bowler hats, all smiling into the camera. Taken in the early 1900s by Emery and Ellsworth Kolb, the photograph offers a glimpse into early Grand Canyon tourists.
Most of the first people to come to the area to sightsee were transcontinental travelers, who disembarked in Williams or Flagstaff and came to the canyon via stagecoach on a journey that took two days. Here they stayed in primitive tent camps around a central lodge for several weeks at a time before heading back to the train to continue their way west. In 1901, a spur railroad line connected Williams to the South Rim and shortened the one-way journey from two days to three hours. With the coming of the railroad, the nature of the tourist changed from hardy, adventurers willing to rough it, to the wealthy elite who were used to traveling in luxury.
The El Tovar Hotel, which opened in 1905, catered to this new population. The rooms were finely furnished and had steam heat. A greenhouse provided fresh fruits and vegetables, and meals were served by the black and white uniformed Harvey Girls, young women between the ages of 18 and 30 who were hired to be cheerful, accommodating, and attractive servers. The hotel had a billiards room, and art and music studios. Guests dressed for dinner, watched Hopi dancers perform, shopped in the curio shops along the rim, and rode mules down into the canyon.
The Kolbs documented their adventures: running down the Bright Angel Trail in front of the departing mule trains to snap photographs, then dropping 3,000 feet to Indian Springs where they had access to clean water for developing the prints, before returning to the rim to sell the photographs to the tourists at the end of their ride. Emery estimated that he’d photographed 3 million “dudes” during his 70 some years in the canyon.
The tourists often combined their visit to the Grand Canyon with other national parks, continuing the journey by rail through the American West, which had been glorified and romanticized by dime-store novels, traveling Wild West Shows, landscape painters, and the growing sentiment that the frontier was disappearing and its remaining natural wonders were worth preserving and seeing.
In the 1920s, America’s society boomed and the people who could afford to travel expanded as well. Suddenly, the automobile replaced the train as the primary method of transportation, and middle-class travelers began heading to the nation’s national parks, democratizing its tourist demographic. Less ostentatious accommodations and campgrounds sprang up to cater to the changing clientele but the Great Depression brought an abrupt end to those early Golden Years.
Post World War II saw a second boom in national park visitation and since then the profile of the average visitor has changed dramatically to the point where it is no longer possible to stereotype. Gone are the prototypal Victorian elite in their elegant clothing. Today’s visitors come from around the world and represent a wide-range of socioeconomic backgrounds and recreational interests. The Grand Canyon still has its luxurious historic hotels, but it also has drive-in campgrounds, wilderness campsites, and motel and cabin accommodations catering to people of different means and desires.
Travelers still share much the same reaction to the canyon as their early predecessors, however: awe. But the differences are stark. One hundred years ago, they came with little to prepare them for the size and scale of the canyon. They came to a place where visitors numbered in the thousands, not millions. They came without the jaded, cynicism of modern society and left with a sense of being changed by the experience. As one man wrote in 1909:
“From the rim one gets two impressions, so strong that they seem almost too big for the soul to hold, like the soul-smiting terror that comes to one who gazes long at the stars. The two impressions are of numberless infinitely-reaching horizontal lines and of eternal silence?”