By Wheel, Burro, and Rail: Young Fred Payne Clatworthy’s Adventures in the West

A studio portrait of Fred Payne Clatworthy with a bicycle, 1897; Accession number: 99.164.2211.

Travel was integral to Estes Park photographer Fred Payne Clatworthy’s life and work. During the early 20th century, transit companies sponsored Clatworthy’s travel to locations near and far. Railroads like the Great Northern and Southern Pacific sent Clatworthy to shoot promotional images in Glacier National Park and the western coast of Mexico in the 1920s, while later in the decade Clatworthy ventured further afield when the Matson Navigation and Union Steamship Companies sent him to Hawaii, New Zealand and Tahiti. Many of these trips yielded his most well-known images: full color autochromes that appeared in National Geographic magazine between 1923 and 1934.

But Clatworthy had the travel bug long before his famous autochrome work. As a young man, he studied a variety of disciplines including medicine and law, and relocated frequently (he spent time at Denison University in Ohio, Stetson University in Florida, and the University of Chicago Law School). Yet no career (except photography) nor location seemed to appeal to him for very long. At the age of 23, Clatworthy conceived of a plan to seek his fortune in the West. While the idea of “Going West” was not unique at the time, Clatworthy’s intended method of travel was uncommon. He planned to make the journey from the family home near Chicago to the western states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and California via bicycle.

Fred Payne Clatworthy and a member of the Jackson family have breakfast near Pikes Peak on way to Cripple Creek, July, 1898. Accession number: 99.164.240.

The Clatworthy family’s thoughts regarding this plan are unknown. Yet they must have been at least somewhat supportive — Clatworthy corresponded regularly with his mother, father, and sister throughout his travels, and the family often sent him requested supplies and belongings. Family approval notwithstanding, Clatworthy set out on his bicycle from Illinois on June 20, 1898, with 20 pounds of camping gear, salt, and oatmeal, and 125 dollars’ worth of gold coins. Over the next month, he rode 1,000 miles on dirt and clay roads through Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming. To avoid getting lost, he often followed railroad track beds. During this leg of the journey, Clatworthy spent his nights at YMCAs in major towns along the route. When he got to Denver on July 17, his 5 x 7” view camera, shipped from Illinois courtesy of his father, was waiting for him.

Sidney Foote and Walter Johnson on Hance Trail, Grand Canyon, November, 1889; Accession number: 99.164.109.

While in Colorado, Clatworthy spent time in Denver as well as cycling around the Front Range and Pikes Peak region. On the road he met a family of fellow cyclists — the Jacksons — and together they toured Colorado Springs, visited the Garden of the Gods, camped near Cripple Creek, and scaled Pikes Peak. Clatworthy’s first impressions of Colorado weren’t always positive; in his correspondence home, he complained about the lack of shade in Denver and said the mountains around Manitou Springs gave him a tired feeling. But despite his early misgivings, the state’s natural beauty eventually won him over. In one of his longest and most eloquent letters home, Clatworthy wrote on July 19, 1898:

“Then the mountain flowers, even Florida might well hang her head in shame. Flowers such as I had never seen before. Beautiful columbine with white centers, lilies, daisies of several kinds, the delicate bluebells of Scotland, all on a separate stem, then clusters of bluebells, brilliant yellow, purple and scarlet flowers, wild forget-me-nots and roses. Many of our eastern flowers were there but with the added brilliance of the mountain flower. The ground for miles was the most brilliant colored carpet I had ever seen.”–Fred Payne Clatworthy, July 19, 1898.
Walter Johnson stands next to ruins of the Grand Hotel in Magdalena, New Mexico. A rack of photographs is visible beside him. September, 1898. Accession number: 99.164.108.

From Denver, he traveled south. At Magdalena, New Mexico, he met up with Walter Johnson, a friend from Illinois. Clatworthy also traded in his bicycle for a burro, and the two friends set out on donkey-back toward Flagstaff, Arizona. Along the way, Johnson and Clatworthy camped and foraged for food. One night, they stayed at a ranch near San Marcial, New Mexico, and unknowingly lodged with three bandits who’d held up a stagecoach station near the town of Grants earlier that same day.

Arriving in Flagstaff, Clatworthy and Johnson were joined by a third companion: Sidney Foote. The three mostly stayed around the Flagstaff area from late October to early December of 1898. They started a small photography business, selling prints that Clatworthy had shot over the previous few months. In early November, Clatworthy and his companions left town to explore the Grand Canyon. There, they met early canyon resident and tour guide John Hance, who led the three down the canyon’s south rim. After the Grand Canyon trip, Clatworthy spent January at various locations in Arizona, including Camp Verde, Phoenix, and Yuma. In late January, he and Foote sold their burros and caught a train to Los Angeles.

Breakfast on Catalina Island, California. Clatworthy is visible on far left, March 1889; Accession number: 99.164.166.

In California, Clatworthy bought a new bicycle and continued his journey by wheel. He spent several days on Catalina Island, hunting goats with a group of young men from Chicago. He then wheeled his way down the coast, traveling as far south as San Diego. At this point, he turned around and cycled north to San Francisco. In April, Clatworthy caught a steamship to Portland. He stayed six weeks in Oregon, spending time in Walla Walla and The Dalles before catching a Chicago-bound train in June. Clatworthy arrived home on June 16, 1898, just four days shy of of his departure date the year before. In one of his final letters home, he wrote of his 6,000-mile journey: “It has been a fine trip well worth the action.”

Interested in learning more about Clatworthy’s adventures? A selection of his letters and photographs from the trip were published in the book Adventure with a Camera: The Photographs and Letters of Fred Payne Clatworthy. In addition, you can find several of Clatworthy’s original letters in the Fred Payne Clatworthy collection at History Colorado. The collection will open to researchers at the end of June.

— Adrienne Evans, Colorado 20th Century Photo Collections Project Archivist

Originally published at on May 2, 2017.

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