LEFT July 25-26, 1871 No. 233. TOWER FALLS, near view from near its base. (William Henry Jackson) RIGHT The stones and boulders in Tower Creek as it flows away from Tower Fall have been shifted by decades of spring runoffs. The columns of volcanic breccia, which give the cascade and creek their name, have crumbled over time; recent photographs indicate the large, broad column immediately to the viewer's right of the waterfall in Jackson's photograph fell in the late 1990s, obscuring the large boulder at the base of the falls and changing the course of the creek below. Other recent photographs indicate the taller spire above and behind it, known as Sulphur Rock, crumbled in the early to mid-2000s. (Bradly J. Boner)

More than 140 years ago Yellowstone National Park was an almost mythical place, not yet fully explored or even photographed.

In 1871 William Henry Jackson with the Hayden survey captured the first images of gurgling mud pots and spouting geysers. These images, along with paintings by Thomas Moran and oral and written accounts of the area, convinced Congress Yellowstone deserved protection.

Photojournalist Brad Boner spent three summers retracing Jackson’s steps and recreating those influential images. The resulting book “Yellowstone National Park: Through The Lens Of Time,” will feature his images next to Jackson’s. It will also, Boner believes, be the first time all of Jackson’s photographs from the first expedition are printed in one place.

Peaks to Plains caught up with Boner, who is also writer Kelsey Dayton’s former colleague, to talk about the project and the park.

TOP July 28-30, 1871
No. 252. GRAND CAÑON. West side, one mile below the falls, looking down. (William Henry Jackson)
BOTTOM A pine tree bisects the scene from where Jackson made this photograph looking down the Grand Canyon from near the Grand View overlook on the west side of the canyon, and a large chunk of the stone tower on the right side of Jackson’s image has fractured off, exposing lighter, less weathered rock underneath. (Bradly J. Boner)

How important were these images to Yellowstone becoming the first national park?

They were tangible proof that all these things in Yellowstone existed. There had been accounts of these things, but they sounded so extraordinary they were passed off as embellishment. Mountain men talking about geysers, mud pots and huge waterfalls — people thought those were romantic embellishments of the fur trappers.

LEFT: Wednesday, Aug. 2, 1871
No. 266. YELLOWSTONE RIVER where it leaves the lake, looking down from the same stand point as the following. (William Henry Jackson)
Fishing Bridge now spans the Yellowstone River just north of where it exits Yellowstone Lake, and trees and other vegetation line the steep west riverbank in the foreground. The 10,760-foot summit of Cathedral Peak, which sits on the boundary of Yellowstone National Park and the North Absaroka Wilderness, is on the horizon at far right. (Bradly J. Boner)

You already had spent time in Yellowstone, what new places did the book take you?

An 11-day canoe trip around Yellowstone Lake, where about a dozen of Jackson’s photos were taken at different points. Then of course there was the Mirror Plateau, a place I never would have even thought to go. There are no trails leading up to Mirror Lake. There would have been no reason for me to go up there. There’s not a reason for anybody to go up there. It’s a beautiful landscape, but it’s very rugged. It’s very remote.

Were those the hardest shots to get?

The Mirror Plateau was definitely the most difficult to get to. We hiked more than 30 miles just to shoot four pictures. From an effort standpoint, that was a difficult set of photographs to get. There’s one place in the Grand Canyon where Jackson took a photograph and I tried to get to that spot. I was standing on the edge of this 1,000-foot cliff and I realized where Jackson took this picture was another 15 feet out in the void.The place where Jackson stood to take this photograph doesn’t exist anymore.

Did you recreate every image Jackson took on the trip?

I focused on the pictures from when they were in Yellowstone. There are 108 In Jackson’s official catalogue. I re-photographed all of them except one, because that photograph doesn’t exist. It’s listed in the catalogue. There’s descriptions of two pictures of Crystal Falls between the upper and lower falls of the Yellowstone River. But I could only find one of those pictures.

Did changes, or lack of changes, surprise you?

I didn’t go into it with a lot of expectations, but there were several times that I was very surprised, not just how unchanged the landscape was, but the level of detail that remained over time. There were individual rocks the size of bowling balls that were still in the exact same place, but at the same time massive boulders shifted, moved or disappeared entirely.

What place changed the most?

TOP July 21-24, 1871
214 GROUP OF LOWER BASINS (William Henry Jackson)
Several of Jackson’s images at Mammoth Hot Springs, including this of Minerva Terrace, were re-photographed at a wider field of view in order to show almost a century and a half of growth and expansion. The hot springs at Mammoth can deposit anywhere from a trace to one meter of travertine, or calcium carbonate, per year. Combined, the hot springs at Mammoth are estimated to flow at a rate of about 500 gallons per minute, leaving behind more than 2 tons of travertine every day. (Bradly J. Boner)

The terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs. It’s incredible to see how much growth the terraces have seen in 140 years. You can see subtle changes day-to-day, but you really only get the magnitude by looking at these pictures with such a great span of time between photographs. There were several hundred feet of expansion in some of these terraces. Most of the time I tried to shoot exactly what Jackson photographed, but there were times, like at Mammoth, where I had to photograph them at a much wider angle to show the growth and expansion.

What gear did Jackson use to create his photographs?

An 8-by-10-inch large format camera and also a 5×7, which creates two photos side-by-side with one negative. The 8×10 used a glass plate negative that had to be exposed and processed on site. He couldn’t take a picture and develop it later. He had to set up a dark tent. He had between five and 15 minutes to apply the chemicals, expose it to light and develop it. He wrote how efficient he got getting off a pack mule, unpacking his gear, taking the photo and developing it and then loading everything back up. He could do it in half an hour. So if he was riding across the trail and saw something he wanted to photograph it would take at least 30 minutes.

What do you hope people get out of seeing this book?

I’d like to think that in 140 years someone might try to recreate my pictures and see what the changes are, and I’d like to think these places will look the same other than a forest fire, or an earthquake that has influenced the landscape. I would like to think my kids and my grandkids will be able to look at the same scenes I did, because I’m looking at the same scenes that Jackson did.

I definitely hope that people take away that our effort to preserve Yellowstone is worthwhile and this is visual proof. I think it’s a powerful message. And I think that message is sometimes lost in the volatile discourse that we have. We can argue the nuances of appropriate uses of Yellowstone, but I think we should universally embrace that preserving places like Yellowstone is a worthwhile endeavor and that it’s something we should all support.

Tuesday, Aug. 8, 1871
No. 298. THE GROTTO IN ERUPTION, throwing an immense body of water, but not more than forty feet in height. The great amount of steam given off almost entirely conceals the jets of water. (William Henry Jackson)
The eruptions of Grotto Geyser can last anywhere from one to 24 hours and can splash water more than 40 feet high. The length of Grotto’s eruption will often determine the duration of the nearby Rocket Geyser, seen here in eruption with the Grotto. (Bradly J. Boner)

Did this project change your feelings about Yellowstone?

I would say this project gave me a much deeper appreciation of the place and it also gave me a much deeper appreciation for the general idea of preservation of Yellowstone National Park and the general mission of the National Park Service to preserve these places for the next generation. That’s what these people did back in 1871 and 1872 — they decided this place was too important and too extraordinary to just let it be developed and exploited. They saw the importance and value of preserving it for generations. We can see that in these photographs. In a lot these photographs, we’re looking at exactly what they saw 140-plus years ago.

Boner’s expedition is complete and his photos have all been taken, but “Yellowstone National Park: Through The Lens Of Time,” isn’t yet assured of publication. He’s using Kickstarter to raise $20,000, about a third of the total printing cost, as part of a publishing deal with the University Press of Colorado.

TOP Aug. 5-6, 1871
No. 273. THE ANNA, the first boat ever launched upon the lake. Its frame-work was brought up from Fort Ellis and then put together, and covered with tar-soaked canvas. A tent-fly made the sail. In it two adventurous members of the survey visited every arm and nook of the lake, and made all the soundings. It is so named in compliment to Miss Anna Dawes, a daughter of the distinguish statesman whose generous sympathy and aid have done so much toward securing these results.
*Jackson probably took this photograph (William Henry Jackson)
Recreating the photograph Jackson made of James Stevenson and Chester Dawes in the Anna, Brad Boner, left, and Matthew J. Reilly, PhD, sit in the canoe used in the present-day research project to navigate Yellowstone Lake and locate several of Jackson’s 1871 photo points. This location is on the shoreline of the West Thumb Geyser Basin. (Bradly J. Boner)

Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. Lovely story. The photos side by side, the difficulty in recreating them, all just great. I got a big kick out of reading this. There are some old old travelogues that are in the public domain on Gutenberg site, and it’s fun to look at the pictures they took back then, and then to try and compare them to today- this way is much more fun as you can actually see the images exactly from the same viewpoint. What a very cool idea to do this.