What is the Oldest Photo of the Garden of the Gods?


Is this photograph by George D. Wakely the oldest verified photo of the Garden of the Gods? Photo courtesy of the Getty Museum.


I’ve been working on a modern version of a book about Colorado that was published in 1877 (more to come of that at a future date), so I’ve been researching historic photographs of Colorado and the Colorado Springs area in the second half of the 19th century. Looking at the old images made me wonder about the earliest photographs made in Colorado and what is the oldest existing photo of the Garden of the Gods.


The Denver Public Library has a faded photograph that is believed to be the oldest existing photo of Denver. Probably taken in 1859, the initials R.E.C. are inscribed in the corner of the photograph, which historians think indicate that Rufus C. Cable was the photographer. An 1860 Rocky Mountain News article, entitled “Exhibition in Denver, September, 1860” refers to a photo exhibition by Cable and an associate, describing it as “several handsome photographs and pictures of sceneries, streets, and structures, in Denver City, Colorado City, and other sections of the country. Their pictures are handsome and hard to beat.”


Mr. Cable was in Denver City as early as December 1858 and his name is on a list of people qualified to own two lots in Denver if they erected a 16’x16’ cabin by March 1859. Cable’s surviving photograph, called “Larimer St. Denver City looking north east,” depicts false-front, wood-frame buildings along dusty Larimer Street, teams of oxen and two wagons, and piles of lumber in the street. This early image and the news article indicate that Cable was an early active photographer in the Colorado Territory at a time when photography was just starting to take hold as a way to document places.


The article says that Mr. Cable also took photographs at Colorado City, which at that time was a spanking new settlement on the north bank of Fountain Creek in the afternoon shadow of Pikes Peak. Now, the name Rufus C. Cable got me excited because the naming legend of the Garden of the Gods includes that very name, but it calls him a surveyor rather than a photographer ( I think, based on the evidence, he was a photographer).


The naming myth says that two young surveyors from Denver—Melancthon Beach and Rufus Cable—stopped by the Garden while platting out the townsite of nearby Colorado City. The two men stood gaping at the soaring red rocks until Beach, undoubtedly feeling a mighty thirst, said, “This would be a capital place for a beer garden!”


Cable, probably waving his arms in the air, snorted, “Beer Garden! Schmear Garden! Melancthon, use your imagination. This is a fit place for the gods to assemble. We’ll call it the Garden of the Gods!” And the name stuck.


So, I’ve been researching and looking for old photographs that Rufus Cable might have taken of Colorado City, Pikes Peak, and the Garden of the Gods back in those wild days of 1859 but have come up empty. The Denver Public Library says that the Larimer Street photograph, taken in either 1858 or 1859, is probably the oldest surviving photograph of Denver and that the rest of Cable’s photographs are either long gone to the scrap heap or are stuck in some attic box. Either way, if Mr. Cable shot photographs at the Garden of the Gods and Colorado City in 1859, they too have vanished.


This led me to wonder, well, what then is the oldest surviving photograph of the Garden of the Gods?

Again, I went back to the research stacks and files and lists and digital imagery scattered in libraries and archives around the country. I’ve looked at a lot of early photographs of the Garden and I think I’ve found the oldest verifiable photo of our beloved Garden of the Gods.


The photograph, entitled “Garden of the Gods,” resides in the collection of the Getty Museum. The photo, dating to 1864, was made by G.D. Wakely, a Denver photographer. Wakely entered a copyright notice with the “Clerk’s Office of the District Court, Denver City, C.T,” which was Colorado Territory. He also copyrighted several other Colorado scenes at that time, including Colorado City, Central City, and Empire City.


George D. Wakely’s story is absolutely fascinating but far too long to tell here, but suffice it to say that Mr. Wakely, an Englishman born in 1823, had a photo studio on Larimer Street beginning in 1859 and in 1862 had a brick studio built that he called “the most showy and pleasant picture gallery West of the Missouri River.” His specialties were “those exquisite little cartes de visite photographs which are so much in fashion in the beau monde of the states” and “the faces of most of our celebrities, both white and aboriginal.” By 1870 he had left Denver and opened a stock photo agency in Kansas City, Missouri.


The 1864 photograph by Mr. Wakely of the Garden of the Gods shows a classic scene with Gray Rock, also called Cathedral Rock, Montezuma Tower, and The Three Graces, with a man walking through tall grass and wildflowers. Within a few years of the photo, a carriage road ran through the meadow to the south side of tall Montezuma Tower.


The original photograph, part of the Getty Museum collection, is faded and obscured by a heavy sepia tone. I cleaned up this image in Photoshop, while still maintaining the old ambiance.

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