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San Francisco, California

A rare photo of C. E. Watkins.

Carleton E. Watkins was born in 1829 in the small upstate New York town of Oneonta. One of many young men drawn to the West during the Gold Rush, he headed west in 1851 and first worked in Sacramento as a teamster and carpenter for a dry goods establishment. In 1854 Watkins, having moved to San Francisco, was hired by photographer R. H. Vance to operate one of his galleries. He soon established his own business making photographs for land dispute cases and mining interests and by 1861 Watkins was working for himself as a landscape photographer. 1861 was also the year in which Watkins made the first of seven trips to Yosemite, the results of which would make both Watkins and Yosemite famous.

People around the country were marveled by Watkins' photographs. Ralph Waldo Emerson stated that his images of the massive sequoia, Grizzly Giant, "made the tree possible," for these photographs provided evidence of its existence. The landscape painter, Albert Bierstadt, saw Watkins' photographs at the Goupil Gallery in New York in 1862 and was inspired by them to visit the Yosemite Valley. Senator John Conness of California, who laid the foundations for the Yosemite Bill of 1864 to protect the area from development and commercial exploitation, also owned a set of Watkins' prints.

In 1863 Watkins visited the inaccessible northern California town of Mendocino to document its thriving lumber industry on behalf of its mill owners. In addition to making photographs of the burgeoning coastal community and its millhouses, he also focused on the area's citizenry, indigenous wildlife, and rugged coastal geology.

In 1864 and 1865, Watkins was hired by the geologists Josiah Whitney and William Brewer to make photographs of Yosemite for their California State Geological Survey. A new wide-angle lens and several new trails along the precipitous rim of the valley allowed him to make pictures of increasing complexity and daring. Watkins returned to Yosemite on several other occasions in the 1860s and 1870s.

Hired by the Oregon Steam Company, Watkins departed in July 1867 on an expedition up the Willamette and Columbia Rivers to photograph their scenic beauty as well as the company's railways, which ran along unnavigable stretches of the rivers. The Columbia River series, which consisted of 60 large negatives and 136 stereographs taken along the route upriver to Cape Horn, represented a high point in Watkins' career.

Watkins received support in his travels from his friend Collis Huntington, a principal in the Central Pacific Railroad, who offered him a flatcar to carry his van filled with photographic materials. By 1869 the Central Pacific line had pushed through the Sierra Nevada mountains, enabling Watkins to make photographs of the wilderness landscapes that could now be seen by railroad travelers.

During the early 1870s, he traveled further afield in search of new subjects: he sailed to the barren Farallon Islands, twenty-six miles off the San Francisco coast; he photographed the geysers of Sonoma County; he traveled to Mount Shasta in the northern part of the state; and he documented the massive hydraulic gold mining operations in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

During the last years of his career, Watkins' fortunes declined. Following the banking crisis of 1875, he was forced to turn over his gallery and entire stock of negatives to a creditor. Without inventory, he began again with a "New Series" of photographs, which included a wide variety of subjects and formats. With the railroad reaching Southern California and Arizona, Watkins was able to travel to the resorts at the end of its tracks. In Kern County, California, he photographed peaches and other crops grown with the aid of new irrigation systems, and in ever more remote parts of the West, he continued to make pictures for land inventories.

Watkins returned again to the northwest during the 1880s. It was this last trip where Watkins produced his very rare E series. This series included views from the Columbia River and at least 17 stereoviews of Yellowstone. The entire series consists of 53 stereoviews. It appears that this series was produced in 1884-85. The Yellowstone views in particular are extremely rare.

After this, however, his travels began to be curtailed by deteriorating health, and by his marriage at the age of fifty and the subsequent birth of two children. For the rest of his life, Watkins was plagued by economic hardship; in 1895 he lived with his wife and children for several months in an abandoned railroad boxcar. He lost his studio to the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, by which time he had stopped making photographs, and died in 1916.


A rare view of Old Faithful by C. E. Watkins. His Yellowstone views are among the rarest of all Yellowstone stereoviews.


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