Museum of Northwest Colorado features then-and-now photos throughout area
Exhibit unveils photographic images of Steamboat Springs, Craig and Hayden
Craig — For about five years, Dan Davidson has been collecting postcards with local photographs taken by E.T. Davis in the early part of the 20th century. Davidson, director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado, said Davis’s photographs tended to be well-executed technically, with strong focus and framing.
Davis also captured a time of early growth in the communities.
“He was really working on showing the built environment,” Davidson said. “He was showing structures as well as anybody who was out there doing it.”
Now, through the photographic work of assistant director Paul Knowles, the museum has updated the images to create a then-and-now exhibit with 64 photographs. It’s called “Yampa Valley 1914 & 2015: A 101 Year Journey Through Craig, Steamboat Springs & Hayden.”
Davidson said the exhibit includes 32 photographs from 1914 — with all or most taken by E.T. Davis — along with accompanying photographs that Knowles recently snapped from identical locations. Knowles and Davidson scrutinized the old photos and determined their whereabouts, sometimes with help from the outside. Knowles went to work last summer to capture new, color photographs to accompany Davis’s black-and-white images.
Knowles described the process of finding the precise location from which Davis captured his photographs. Even the shape of the horizon became a clue to the location of an old image.
“Once you had a skyline, then you could start matching it up,” Knowles said. “What made some of this tough in Craig is that there’s been a big strip mine, so the skyline has actually changed. But it’s close enough that you can start making some comparisons.”
Google Earth helped Knowles at times, especially with the Steamboat Springs photos, but sometimes Knowles needed to adopt more basic methods.
“Sometimes I just would have to start knocking on doors and show people the photo,” he said, noting that he received some excellent help from long-time residents.
Davidson often contributed to the identification process, with a place-rooted memory that helped him to recognize details that no longer exist. He pointed to one of the 1914 Craig photos that contained a ditch, paired with a 2015 photo of the same place, minus the ditch. Davidson knew just where the ditch had been.
“I’ve lived here my whole life,” Davidson said. “The ditch was a huge landmark, and the ditch is gone (in the recent photograph). But when I was in high school, the ditch was still there.”
The museum’s photo displays also include maps that identify the exact spots of the photographs.
Most of the photographs are from postcards, and Davidson noted that 2014 fell within what’s sometimes called the “Golden Age of Postcards,” in the early 1900s. He called the popularity of postcards a “cultural phenomenon.”
“It was a way to communicate a picture easily to family and friends,” Davidson said. “It was the 100-year-ago Facebook.”
Davidson and Knowles pointed out one particular theme running through many of the photographs.
“Almost all of these incorporate a road,” Knowles said. “Auto roads were a new thing. Automobiles were still somewhat rare up here, and he really was capturing these roads that went to these communities.”
The sparsity of trees also marks the old photos, and then trees spring up in the new ones. Massive tree-planting efforts in the Yampa Valley were still to come when Davis snapped his photographs.
“You go from sagebrush flats to rainforests,” Knowles said with a laugh.
The unpaved roads that attracted Davis’s gaze look to tough to travel today, but this was a time, Knowles explained, when once-separate communities were beginning to carve passageways that brought them together. It was the feeling of dwelling on the cusp of a new way of life that seemed to enchant Davis.
“You don’t see a lot of idyllic mountain scenes,” Knowles said. “Almost every postcard from back then was of buildings and structures and towns. It’s as though that’s what was fascinating because they were all somewhat new.”
Davidson noted that the roads in the old photographs were practically devoid of cars — horses were more plentiful — but that would all change in the coming years when the automobile and the train would proliferate throughout the region.
“He (Davis) really did catch the end of the pioneer era for the Yampa Valley,” Davidson said.
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