Updated: September 22, 2013 at 9:18 am
When the package landed on my desk in April, I was expecting a few unremarkable photos of Colorado Springs.
Instead, I opened a time capsule, a trove of pictures depicting the days when Cripple Creek was booming and Colorado Springs was a dirt-street town.
I spread the photos on the floor in a sepia semi-circle. These photos held a mystery - the photographer, A.J. Harlan, who had stamped his name on the back of each one, was a complete unknown to me. Harlan was one of many ambitious photographers who came here around 1900 to make a name for themselves by selling the landscape.
By sheer luck, a stack of his photos had been preserved in California among the papers of a former miner and his son. The miners, Roland and Orlando Montadon, might have purchased the pictures while on vacation, or maybe they were a gift - mostly likely we never will know. But by burying them for years, and perhaps forgetting them, the Montadons did Harlan and Colorado Springs a great favor.
More than a century later, some of the photos are the only surviving images of parts of historic Colorado Springs. Perhaps Harlan will cease to be a relatively meaningless name, instead known for taking a rare shot of the Sunny Rest Sanitorium as well as what historians believe is an unusual shot of the Antlers Hotel from the top of a nearby building.
The pictures tell a vague story of who Harlan might have been - a man who worked in mines, climbed mountains and adored the architecture of downtown Colorado Springs circa 1900. As I fingered each of the photos - some in perfect condition, others faded and nearly shredded - I wondered why he took them, and how he came to be in the depths of the Independence Mine in Cripple Creek in one shot and on the top of the Mining and Exchange building in downtown Colorado Springs in another. Later, I wondered what should be done with the photos. They fascinated me, but did they have anything to offer to Colorado Springs?
Many questions remain
I wouldn't even have the photos if not for stories I wrote two years ago and the magic of Google.
In April, Sharon Lockwood, the daughter of Orlando Montadon, found the photos in a pile of papers that her deceased father kept in his San Francisco home. After googling "historic buildings in Colorado Springs," Lockwood found my name and a series of articles about historic downtown that I wrote as an intern at The Gazette in 2011. She sent the photos to me, noting she knew little about their origin.
How the Montadons acquired the photos, why they took them to California and whether they knew Harlan are questions that no one I have spoken to can answer.
I found four main records of A.J. Harlan in this city: His death notice, an obituary in The Gazette, 62 photos in the Pikes Peak Library District archives and his gravestone in Evergreen Cemetery. It was months before I learned what his initials stood for - Andrew James - when I found his grave. Much of who Harlan was - the name of his wife, where he grew up, why he became a photographer - has disappeared in the annals of history.
His story, as I know it, is short: Born in 1858, Harlan came to Victor from Kansas in 1892. In 1900, he married, moved to Colorado Springs and set up shop on Pikes Peak Avenue. On the back of his photos, he stamped: "A.J. Harlan, 'The View Man.'" He worked for the Union Printers Home, the Modern Woodmen Sanitorium and the Cripple Creek Shortline Railroad. Harlan's family left Colorado Springs for Kansas in 1917 and returned in 1926 for a vacation. "It was at this time that my husband passed away," Harlan's wife said in a June 1926 Gazette article.
I found Harlan's grave in Evergreen Cemetery on a hot, late-August afternoon. The stone faces east, its back to the mountain Harlan so often featured in his prints. Harlan was not the only photographer to die while on a vacation here. Ronald W. Reed died in 1934 while visiting Colorado Springs, a landscape that made his photos famous. He, too, is buried in Evergreen.
Back then, photography was blossoming and becoming more modernized, and so was the region.
"Harlan was like so many photographers who were here in Colorado Springs that would set up shop, use the beauty of the landscape as a way of creating a market for himself," Matt Mayberry, director of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, told me. "Colorado Springs came of age just as photography was coming of age. And so we have excellent documentation of our community because of that. Because so many photographers were drawn here by the natural market and the natural landscape that we had."
Man was also a daredevil
The Pikes Peak Library District's collection of Harlan's photos includes commercial shots of buildings and collages for postcards. The Montadons' collection of photos reveals more about the intrepid photographer, whose ambitions apparently went beyond making a buck.
Bill Thomas, photo archivist for the library, said Harlan took photos to make money, but he was also a daredevil. In a 1903 copy of "The Garden of the Gods Magazine," Thomas found a story about a Harlan photo of Pikes Peak. Harlan "was obliged to spend three days and two weary nights alone upon the barren peak," the article reads. "The camera, a machine taxing the strength of one man even under the most favorable circumstances, was carried to the point of view in three sections, it being necessary to make a dangerous ascent of 2,000 (feet) up almost perpendicular rock walls to a ledge."
Harlan spent the first day of the three-day venture lugging pieces of equipment up to the ledge. The second day he spent carrying his camera plates and the actual camera to the spot where "a slip would have meant a fall of hundreds of feet and sure death upon the jagged rocks below."
Long before the days of the iPhone camera, it took a brave and passionate photographer to do that, Thomas said.
Harlan went into the pits of the Gold Coin and Independence mines for his photos. He shot steam locomotives chugging below St. Peter's Dome and massive crowds on the streets of Cripple Creek. The old Antlers Hotel appears again and again in his photos, presiding over a muddy Pikes Peak Avenue crisscrossed with trolley cables and horse-drawn buggies.
Everyone who sees the photos has favorites.
Mayberry was delighted by the shot of tubercular men, resting in neat rows in the Sunny Rest Sanitorium. The sanitorium was "just not photographed or rarely photographed," and Mayberry covets the one-of-a-kind photo for a planned museum exhibit.
Casey Pearce, a historian at the Western Museum of Mining and Industry, pored over the shots of dilapidated mine shafts, populated by a few wide-eyed and dirty miners. Some of the photos offer glimpses into mines that rarely were captured, she said. Although Harlan in many ways remains an enigma, the package of photos will encourage more research and discovery about the photographer himself, Thomas believes.
I know the photos by heart now; I have my favorites, none of them particularly rare or unusual. There's a small panorama of a train as it rolls along the Front Range, a black smoke plume running across the snowy mountains. And I never tire of the shots of the Antlers, which was torn down in the late 1960s. Hold a magnifying glass to the photos and you can see people walking through the hotel's arches. I envy them, and Harlan, for a familiarity with something that I barely can imagine.
I have carted the photos across town - to museums, to the library, to the office. For months I postponed the inevitable of deciding where to leave them. As Mayberry showed me around the museum's archives - where photos such as Harlan's would be stored - I clutched the package tightly, as if its contents were mine. But the photos are not mine, just as Harlan's story is no longer his own. It's the story of Colorado Springs, of miners, pioneers, photographers and of Colorado.
Harlan's photos were meant to capture memories. Mayberry thinks the photos were maybe souvenirs. Some were glued to pages that might have been part of a book, he said. People, perhaps like the Montadons, bought them when in town and took them home, exotic mementoes of a breathtaking spot.
The Pikes Peak region is still breathtaking, but it's not the same. The old downtown that Harlan photographed largely is gone. The interstate cuts across the plains, which used to run uninterrupted into the hillsides. Williams Canyon, featured in a few of the photos, was denuded by the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire.
The photos are not memories of a place that is, but of one that was. They will go to institutions that can share them with the public. The Pikes Peak Library District can digitize them and share them online. The Pioneers Museum can use them to curate exhibits.
For the time being, the case of A.J. Harlan is closed. After all of my searching, Colorado Springs might not know much more about Harlan, but at least it has more of his photos.
In an email, Sharon Lockwood asked to have the photos donated in the names of her father and grandfather.
"I'm certain that they both would be pleased that the years of holding on to the photos was well worth it," she wrote.