Kolb Studio In Grand Canyon Village

Kolb Studio in Grand Canyon National Park

Before we take a road trip or go on vacation, I always research all the different things to do and where each activity or sight is located. I then group activities by proximity to make it easier for us to do and see more things while we’re traveling. What I discovered is that the Grand Canyon South Rim in Grand Canyon National Park is naturally divided into three separate sections:

We spent our first day exploring Desert View Drive in the morning and Grand Canyon Village in the afternoon, and out second day hiking the South Rim Trail to Hermit’s Rest. After visiting Hopi House, the El Tovar, and Lookout Studio, we stopped in Kolb Studio to tour the gallery, view amazing photographs documenting Grand Canyon history and the Kolb’s adventures, and checkout historic cameras and film.

Built in 1906 at the head of the Bright Angel Trial, Kolb Studio is the Victorian home and photography studio of the Kolb Brothers who created a thriving business selling photographs of the Grand Canyon. While the Fred Harvey Company tried to shut them down and the National Park Service tried to demolish the building, today Kolb Studio endures as a bookstore, gallery, and Grand Canyon information center.

Kolb Studio History

Ellsworth Kolb arrived at the Grand Canyon in 1901, when there was no hotel and train passengers still stayed in small tent cabins. He loved it there and convinced his brother Emery to join him. Emery arrived in Williams, Arizona in 1902 with only his camera, guitar, and the clothes on his back. While waiting to catch the train, he wandered into a photography store that was for sale and $425 later he began their adventure in northern Arizona.

A year later, after receiving permission from Ralph Cameron, owner of the Bright Angel Trail, the Kolb Brothers moved their business to the trailhead. First, they pitched a small tent on the canyon rim, then in 1906 built a small wooden house they called Kolb Studio, which has endured two major additions and many minor changes.

The brothers became an integral part of the community and their studio became a hub of activity. They formed a small band and played phonograph records for dances and also showed popular motion pictures to entertain local residents. Over the next 12 years, Ellsworth and Emery established themselves as Grand Canyon photographers and adventurers and sold their photographs in a leather-bound book for three dollars each.

The Fred Harvey Company witnessed the success of the Kolb brothers’ photographs and wanted a piece of the action. They created their own photo album and signed an exclusive contract with the album company, preventing the Kolb’s from working them. The Fred Harvey Company completed construction of the El Tovar Hotel in 1905 and began to acquire other businesses in the area. The only two holdouts were the Kolb Brothers and the Verkamps.

This was only the beginning of a long standing conflict between the Kolb Brothers and the Fred Harvey Company and eventually the National Park Service.

Kolb Brothers Vs. Fred Harvey Company

A few years later, Emery and Ellsworth ran the Colorado River and captured 101 days of river-running mishaps and triumphs on film using a motion-picture camera. They wanted to show their film in Kolb Studio but the Fred Harvey Company influenced the government to prevent the film from showing. In retaliation, the Kolbs toured the eastern United States presenting a successful film lecture series and people packed the theaters to hear about their great adventure. However, an argument on tour proved too much for the already tense relationship and the brothers parted ways. A coin-toss granted Emery the studio and Ellsworth moved to Los Angeles.

The Fred Harvey Company watched the success of Kolb Studio and aspired to duplicate it. The company built Lookout Studio and a mule corral in 1914 that blocked the Rim Trail and obscured the view of Kolb Studio from tourists. Lookout Studio distracted tourists from visiting Kolb Studio and sold them photographs and postcards before they had a chance to visit Kolb Studio.

Ellsworth Kolb published a book Through the Grand Canyon from Wyoming to Mexico in 1914 detailing the brothers’ infamous Colorado River trip. In the introduction, author Owen Wister recorded his experiences at Grand Canyon when Harvey employees attempted to hinder him and his wife from visiting Kolb Studio. After much negotiation, they agreed that Harvey employees would provide accurate information regarding Kolb Studio and the Wister statement would be removed from the next edition.

National Park Struggles

Grand Canyon National Park was created in 1919 and the Kolb family signed the first of many concession agreements. While business boomed in the twenties, it suffered during the Great Depression. New park regulations were also passed that stated any public advertising or soliciting was strictly prohibited. Emery, believing the regulations negatively affected his business, protested against the policy for five years. Eventually, a directional sign to Kolb Studio was placed by the El Tovar and Bright Angel Hotels.

In 1962, Emery was presented a three-year concession agreement with a clause that stated Kolb Studio would be taken by the park service upon his death and demolished. Emery refused to sign the contract and demanded $65,000 for the studio and all rights to live there until his death. Luckily Congress soon passed the Historic Sites Act that states any park structure over 50 years old cannot be destroyed.

Unable to demolish Kolb Studio, the National Park Service planned to turn it into a museum and wanted Kolb to donate his papers and photographs to them. But instead, Emery gave his life’s work to the University of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, Arizona. He died in December 1976 at age 96, and is buried in Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery.

Know Before You Go

  • Kolb Studio, built in 1905, is located on the edge of the Grand Canyon South Rim in Grand Canyon Village, Arizona 86023 in Coconino County in Grand Canyon National Park.
  • Originally the Victorian home and photography studio of the Kolb Brothers, Kolb Studio, is now a restored bookstore, art gallery, and information center.
  • Kolb Studio is open from 8:00 am to 7:00 pm (8:00 am to 6:00 pm in winter).
  • In the downstairs gallery space, see unusual antique cameras, watch the Kolb Brothers’ movie that played continuously for 61 years, and learn about Emery and Ellsworth Kolb, pioneer photographers and filmmakers at Grand Canyon.
  • All proceeds from the Kolb Studio bookstore go directly to the upkeep of the studio itself.
  • The trailhead for the Bright Angel Trail is located to the east/left of Kolb Studio.
  • Walk west to reach the Bright Angel Trail, Hermit Road, and Hermit’s Rest, or east along the Canyon Rim Trail to Lookout Studio, the El Tovar Hotel, Hopi House, Verkamp’s Visitor Center, Yavapai Geology Museum, Mather Point, Grand Canyon Visitor Center, and Desert View Drive.
  • The Grand Canyon South Rim, including Grand Canyon Village and Desert View, is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
  • A free shuttle bus system operates on the South Rim connecting the visitor centers, parking lots, lodges and hotels, historic buildings, museums, and campgrounds with canyon overlooks. The Blue Shuttle serves Grand Canyon Village.

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