Oliver Aultman’s Colorado River Adventure

The Undine on the Colorado River, Utah, 1901. Accession number: 2001.41

Oliver Aultman, head of Colorado’s longest running photography studio, was not known for his sense of adventure. In the various biographical profiles I’ve read about Aultman while processing the Aultman Studio collection at History Colorado, he is described as a mild-mannered man who stayed out of politics, rarely took a drink, and preferred shooting photographs in the controlled atmosphere of his studio to the raucous streets of turn-of-the-century Trinidad, Colorado.1 Even Aultman’s son, Glenn, stated that his father’s penchant for photography rarely extended beyond the studio.2 Yet to call Aultman strictly a studio photographer would be an oversimplification of Aultman’s life and work. A huge case in point is Aultman’s little-documented adventure on the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1901.

1901 appears to have been a good year for the Aultman Studio. Aultman had recently moved his business from the corner of Third and Animas streets in Trinidad, Colorado to a more prominent location on 112 East Main Street (the studio would remain in this location for the next ninety years or so). Also in 1901, Aultman was financially successful enough to hire extra help in the studio. He took on a young widow named Jennie Rowland Snodgrass, who would later become his wife.3

The Undine near its launch point at Green River, Utah, 1901. Accession number: 2001.41

Some time amid all of the changes of 1901, Aultman was approached by a man named Frank H. Summeril, who had an interesting proposition for the young photographer.4 An entrepreneur from Denver, Summeril had recently constructed a small, flat-bottomed sternwheeler that he named the Undine. Built in Rock Island, Illinois, the Undine was a coal burning steamboat with a 20 horsepower engine. The ship was small for its class — about 60 feet long with a 10 foot beam, but Summeril wanted to test the Undine against the powers of the Green and Colorado rivers. If the Undine successfully completed an 186 mile river journey between Green River and Moab, Utah, Summeril hoped to use the craft to create a route for tourism and shipping between the two cities.When Summeril approached Aultman in June of 1901, he was preparing to launch the Undine on its maiden voyage and he wanted a photographer to document the journey.5

Aultman agreed to photograph the trip for the price of equipment and provisions. On November 22, 1901, the Undine was launched from Green River, Utah. Aultman was one of seven passengers who included Summeril himself, a four man crew, and Summeril’s six year old son, Stanley. The Undine was to travel down the Green River to its confluence with the Colorado, and then up the Colorado to Moab in less than two weeks. However, the expedition hit a few snags.

Unidentified crew member on bank of Colorado River, Utah, 1901. Accession number: 2001.41

First, the Undine stuck a boulder on the Green River a short time after it launched. The crew patched the boat, but in ran aground frequently and often had to be pulled free of sand bars. However, the ship did eventually reach to the Green River’s confluence with the Colorado. Here, Aultman and the other passengers camped for a week while Summeril scouted potential locations for constructing a health resort. They then steamed up the Colorado toward Moab. A mile-and-a half into the journey, they came upon a landslide which had blocked three-fourths of the river. Luckily, the Colorado was low enough that the Undine was able to pass through the narrow channel without picking up too much speed.6

A final obstacle arose, according to Aultman, when a fire broke out near the ship’s boiler. The fire was contained in a small room that could only be reached through a crawl space. At 135 pounds, Aultman was among the smallest passengers on the Undine. He volunteered to douse the fire on the condition that the crew would pull him out of the crawl space by the ankles if he yelled. Aultman was able to put out the fire without sustaining any injuries.7 Having overcome boulders, a land slide, and a small fire, the Undine arrived at Moab, Utah on December 9, 1901.8

Rock formation on Colorado River, Utah, 1901. Accession number: 2001.41

Throughout the journey, Aultman documented the passing landscape with both film and glass plate negatives. Aultman’s film negatives appear to have been taken from the deck of the Undine while the glass plates were taken along the river banks. The images depict high sandstone walls and rock formations as well as the wild currents of the Colorado and Green Rivers. Summeril never formally compensated Aultman for his work. In 1902, Aultman had a number of the images copyrighted and submitted them to The Century Magazine.9 There is no evidence that the images ever saw publication. Aultman destroyed the majority of the glass plates that he produced while onboard the Undine.10 Yet when interviewed about the voyage 30 years later, Aultman described it as one of his most pleasant experiences with a camera.11 Approximately 80 surviving glass plate and film negatives from the trip survived are currently housed at the History Colorado Center.

As for Summeril and the Undine: Summeril received high praise from Moab newspapers for the 1901 trip. The Undine was only the second steamer to travel the through the canyonlands on the Colorado and Green Rivers and the first to complete the journey from Green River to Moab. Buoyed by the success, Summeril boasted that he could make the journey back to Green River from Moab in just 18 hours–he later recanted this claim.12 In May of 1902, Summeril tried to take the Undine up the Colorado River towards Cisco, Utah, but capsized the boat in the attempt.13 Summeril and his crew were forced to abandon ship. Summeril survived the sinking of the Undine by clinging to a mattress which eventually washed up downstream. After losing the Undine, Summeril was never able to raise funds to resurrect his shipping venture. 14

Adrienne Evans, Colorado 20th Century Photograph Collections Project Archivist.

Sources

  1. Benjamin Beshoar, “The Aultmans: They focused on Trinidad,”Empire Magazine–The Denver Post, May 6, 1972, 44–49.
  2. Glenn Aultman. Interview by Terry Magnan. November 24, 1972. Transcript, Aultman Studio collection, History Colorado Center. Denver, CO.
  3. Beshoar, “The Aultmans”, 45.
  4. Oliver Aultman. Letter to Jennie Rowland Snodgrass.June 8, 1901. Aultman Studio collection, 1889–2000. History Colorado Center, Denver, CO.
  5. Richard Lingenfelter, “Steamboats in the Canyon,” in Steamboats on the Colorado River: 1852–1916 (Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1978), 110–113.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Beshoar, “The Aultmans”, 45.
  8. Lingenfelter, Steamboats, 112.
  9. Oliver Aultman. Letter to The Century Magazine. February 16, 1902. Century Company records, 1870–1930.. New York Public Library, New York, NY.
  10. Beshoar, “The Aultmans”, 45.
  11. F.E. Winsor, “Oliver E. Aultman-40 Years with a Camera,” Chronicle News. October 26, 1930, 9–12.
  12. Lingenfelter, Steamboats, 112.
  13. Silbernagel, Bob. “Transportation Troublesome on Green, Colorado rivers“. The Daily Sentinel. The Grand Junction Sentinel. Retrieved 30 January 2017.
  14. Lingenfelter, Steamboats, 113.

Originally published at historycolorado.org on February 9, 2017.