Emery Kolb

Kolb Brothers

Emery C. Kolb and Ellsworth L. Kolb played an important role in the early development of visitor services to the Grand Canyon.  Ellsworth arrived at the Canyon in 1901 followed by his younger brother Emory the following year.  They moved their photographic equipment from Williams, Arizona, to the Canyon in 1902 and founded a photographic studio at the Bright Angel trailhead.  At first it was nothing more than a small cave in the side of the canyon wall.  With a blanket over the entrance, the cave served as a make-shift darkroom and lab until the first permanent structure was begun in 1904.  That year the crude darkroom was replaced by a two-story wooden structure built on a 55 x 20 foot rock shelf blasted out of the Canyon wall.

The Kolb brothers secured a prominent place in Grand Canyon history in 1912 with the completion of a boat trip down the Colorado River.  While not the first to dare the rapids, the Kolbs were the first to record their adventures (and misadventures) on the river with a movie camera.  After the river trip's completion and a trans-continental movie promotional tour, they returned to the Grand Canyon.

In 1915 the brothers completed a three-story addition (for living quarters) and a small showroom (part of the present auditorium).  The addition of the auditorium allowed them to show their river trip movie to Grand Canyon visitors.  The movie was presented by Emery daily from 1915 until his death in 1976, giving it the longest run of any movie in the world.  The film's recorded narration was added in 1932, although Emery continued to introduce the film in person.  Often, after introducing the movie, Emery would say he was too old and feeble to narrate the whole film.  Having said that, he would then spring past the astonished audience and up a flight of stairs to start the projector.  In later years, it was not the movie that drew the people into the auditorium but Emery himself, the last living pioneer of the Grand Canyon.

Kolb Studio

The bulk of the photographs the Kolbs sold consisted of pictures of people astride the famous Grand Canyon mules.  It was not an idle boast by Emery to say he had "taken more pictures of men and mules than any other living man."  This was not an easy task, considering the only clean water was located at Indian Garden, four and a half miles down the Bright Angel Trail, three thousand feet below the rim.  The mule trains were first photographed and later passed by a little man running by with a pack full of glass plates, en route to the nearest water.  Hours later as the mules lurched and swayed up the trail they were again passed by the same little man sweating in the afternoon sun as Emery or Ellsworth raced up the trail with the finished prints.  These daily trips to Indian Garden continued until 1932 when water became available on the South Rim.

Kolb Studio

The rapport between Emery and Ellsworth was never very strong.  After Emery married Blanche Bender in 1905, the brother's relationship became strained.  With the birth of Emery and Blanche's only child Edith in 1908, Emery began spending most of his time with his family.  The business partnership between Emery and Ellsworth dissolved during the summer of 1924.  Emery later claimed his brother suffered a nervous breakdown which made working (and living) with him impossible.  They used the flip of a coin to determine which brother would leave the Canyon.  Emery won the coin tosses, (two out of three) and the rights to the studio.  Ellsworth received a lifetime monthly allotment as a settlement, but was forced to move.  He died in Los Angeles in 1960, where he had made his home since 1924.

Old projector inside Kolb Studio

The last major addition to the studio occurred in 1926.  The auditorium was expanded as well as the lab and darkroom.  Throughout the following years, minor changes to the building occurred, but the structure has remained essentially the same for eighty years.  It is five stories high and contains twenty-three rooms.  Kolb Studio is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In later years, Emery Kolb grew to be as tenacious as his building.  The Fred Harvey Company attempted to run him out of business by constructing nearby Lookout Studio.  Lookout Studio, along with a newly constructed mule corral, effectively blocked access to Kolb Studio.  Many people visited Lookout Studio, mistaking it for Kolb Studio.

Dealings with the National Park Service became strained as political pressure mounted to rid the Canyon of Emery Kolb and his eyesore of a building.  But, like his studio, Emery Kolb weathered the storms and continued taking pictures and showing his movie until his death in a Flagstaff hospital in 1976 at the age of 95.  His projector is pictured above left.  He was laid to rest next to his wife Blanche in the Pioneer Cemetery in the park, adjacent to the Shrine of the Ages.  When Ellsworth died in 1960,  Emery continued the feud with his brother and made sure that Ellsworth's grave in the Pioneer Cemetery was far away from the lots Emery had reserved for himself, his wife, and daughter.  Blanche passed away in 1960 and his daughter Edith in 1978.

Kolb Studio paints a picture of the men who built it.  Perched aggressively on the brink, the building is anything but conventional.  It was built without a plan, its rooms added piecemeal over the years.  The building is a vivid reminder of the two pioneers who ran the rapids, hiked the canyons, and photographed it all.

Today, historic Kolb Studio is open year-round.  It contains an exhibition venue, bookstore, and information center operated by the Grand Canyon Association, a non-profit organization.  Proceeds from sales go toward the continuing restoration and care of the building.

Source material for this story: 2006 Grand Canyon National Park Calendar printed by the Grand Canyon Association and the Kolb Studio handout from the National Park Service.  Kolb Brothers' Pictures courtesy of the Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection.  Kolb Studio pictures were taken by Richard M. Perry.


Copyright Richard M. Perry, 2004-2022.  All rights reserved. This web site, its text, and pictures may not be copied without the express written consent of Richard M. Perry.