Flagstaff museum to display unpublished photos of Arches
A new exhibition opening Aug. 25 at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff will display old photos of Arches prior to its designation as a national monument. A press release from the museum says the images of “surreal and sculptural sandstone formations” will be displayed for the first time. The photos, taken in 1923 by photographer George L. Beam, were instrumental in convincing the National Park Service and Herbert Hoover to protect the area as Arches National Monument, according to the press release.
“Though taken 95 years ago, the black and white photographs of rock towers and gravity-defying arches still inspire awe. The effect of the images would have been even more striking at the time,” said the release.
“Arches has become an iconic landscape, particularly Delicate Arch, but in 1929, nobody outside of Moab knew anything about this landscape,” said David Purcell, one of the curators. “I can only imagine how anybody sitting in D.C. or New York felt first seeing these photos. It was probably something pretty unexpected and pretty exciting. ”
Professional photographer George L. Beam had a private studio in Denver, and he worked for the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. In September 1923, Beam and his supervisor Frank A. Wadleigh, traveled to Thompson, Utah, at the invitation of prospector Alex Ringhoffer, who had discovered an exotic landscape of arches and pinnacles. A party of six, including Ringhoffer’s sons and son-in-law, spent two days exploring an eroded sandstone ridge that Ringhoffer had dubbed “The Devil’s Garden.”
“We found what undoubtedly is the fifth in size of the known natural bridges. We had but two days at our disposal and could only cover a small part of the district in that time, but Beam managed to make 40 or 50 exposures, and his pictures will convey some idea of the freakishness of the region,” wrote Wadleigh.
Beam took 40 to 50 large-format monochrome photographs, documenting the landscape and expedition. Wadleigh sent the images to Stephen T. Mather, then-director of the National Park Service, with a letter recommending that the landscape be made a new national monument. Mather showed Beam’s photographs of what is now known as the Klondike Bluffs and Marching Men to influential people in Washington and New York to build political support for the creation of Arches. In 1929, President Herbert Hoover proclaimed the establishment of Arches National Monument.
According to the museum, the images were never publicly displayed and were out of sight for many years before James L. Ozment added them to his collection of railroad photographs. MNA archaeologists Kim Spurr and Purcell discovered the Beam photographs in the digital archives of the Denver Public Library, while researching the Arches National Park administrative history for the NPS, one of many collaborations underway at MNA.
“We found Beam’s photos hiding in plain sight – on the internet – while researching the connections between Frank Wadleigh and NPS Director Stephen T. Mather. I found an image Beam had taken of Wadleigh’s Victorian mansion in Denver. A couple of mouse clicks later, I was looking at Beam’s photos of Tower Arch and the Marching Men!” wrote Purcell in an email.
Since 2014, the MNA and the NPS collaborated on preparation of an administrative history of Arches through a Colorado Plateau Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit Cooperative Agreement. Purcell conducted most of the research and prepared the administrative history document. When finalized it will be available through the NPS History website.