Seeing California & Nevada in 3D
An Extraordinary Collection of Original Stereographs Donated by Mead B. and Nancy T. Kibbey
By Gary F. Kurutz
Gary Kurutz is the editor of the Bulletin, former executive director of the Foundation, and retired curator of special collections for the California State Library.
Through the generosity of the late Mead B. and his wife Nancy T. Kibbey of Sacramento, the Foundation has received an incredible gift of 684 original stereographs of California and Nevada dating from the 1860s and 1870s. Stereographs (stereos) are double-image photographs mounted on cards designed to be placed in a viewer so the pictures can be seen three-dimensionally (3D).(1) Mead Kibbey (1922–2018) was a prodigious and skilled collector of stereos for several decades. At the same time he was creating this collection, he developed a fascination with the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad over the Sierra Nevada during the 1860s. This passion led to a keen interest in the career of photographer Alfred A. Hart who was hired by the Central Pacific Railroad to photographically record the colossal task of laying railroad track from Sacramento to Promontory Point in Utah. Hart used a stereo camera and created an incredible visual record of 364 3D photographs covering the years 1864–1869.(2)
Over the years Mead began collecting every possible Hart stereograph and became keenly interested in the life of this intrepid photographer. In so doing, Mead became the first to acquire every Hart view commissioned by the Central Pacific Railroad. No other collector or institution had all 364 views. Because of this passion, he gave numerous illustrated lectures on Hart’s life and his illustrious career. This also led Mead to write a well-researched and respected book published by the California State Library Foundation in 1995, The Railroad Photographs of Alfred A. Hart, Artist.(3) In retracing Hart’s work for the railroad, he decided to retrace the photographer’s rugged path over the Sierra. Of course, being an expert and inventive photographer himself, Mead carried along his own homemade stereo camera. In writing the book on Hart, he was surprised to discover that when this heroic photographer died in 1908, his body was unceremoniously sold for medical purposes. To rectify this lack of a proper burial, Mead commissioned the creation of a granite monument in his memory that was installed at the historic Old City Cemetery in Sacramento. Through Mead’s direction the 2,000-pound memorial was carved in the shape of a stereo camera and he movingly dedicated the monument on the morning of August 21, 2017.(4)
Having written the book and created the memorial, Mead generously donated his complete set of Hart stereos to the Foundation to be placed in the permanent collection of the California History Section of the State Library in December 2013.(5) These have all been catalogued and digitized. In addition, it was his desire to give the remainder of his California stereo collection to the Foundation. This latest gift of 684 stereos superbly illustrates the transformation of California into an industrial and manufacturing economy supporting mushrooming cities and towns. Moreover, California, as documented by these stereos, created a transportation infrastructure that linked the state with the Orient and eastern United States. What adds further to the value of these 3D images is that many of California’s premier photographers from this time period are represented including C. E. Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, Thomas Houseworth, J. J. Reilly, J. Pitcher Spooner, I. W. Taber, C. L. Pond, and, of course, Alfred A. Hart. In addition, the donation includes several superb examples by Charles Russell Savage, the celebrated Salt Lake City photographer who captured with his stereo camera the Union Pacific Railroad’s effort in laying track from the Missouri River near the Iowa-Nebraska border westward to Promontory Point in Utah where it met the tracks of the Central Pacific.(6) Those with downtown San Francisco galleries like Watkins, Taber, and Lawrence & Houseworth sold quantities of views to tourists and at national and international fairs. Before the television and motion picture age, families entertained themselves by looking through a viewer at stereos of scenic wonders like Yosemite Valley, mining towns, Indian villages, and California missions.
All-in-all, this gift represents a terrific addition to the State Library’s already extensive collection of stereographs making it one of the largest holdings of California stereographs in existence. To be sure, there will be some duplication, but each donated stereo will be compared with existing images for condition and the photographer’s logotype on the verso or rear of the photograph. Photographers occasionally changed addresses or partnered with others which necessitated a new design and helped with dating and tracing a photographer’s career. Many of these stereos came out in an era when copyright laws were not strictly enforced. C. E. Watkins, for example, acquired Hart’s negatives and published them under his own imprint. A competitor of Watkins, I. W. Taber took over Watkins’ negative collection and printed and sold the photographs under the name of Taber without giving any credit to the original creator. Most importantly, stereo expert Mead was able to identify the actual photographer and carefully wrote the correct name on the back of the stereo card.
As mentioned above, these pioneer cameramen superbly documented the growth of northern cities and towns. The Kibbey gift, for example, includes 109 views of San Francisco, 75 of Oakland and Berkeley, and 68 of Sacramento. Given today’s dense canyons of glass and steel skyscrapers with their crowded and noisy streets, it is pleasing to see San Francisco of 150 years ago with comely three and four-story business blocks and spacious residential areas like South Park. Several of the Sacramento stereos were taken from the rotunda of the State Capitol building, and they also show the great building under construction in the 1860s. Two views show the stately “classical, temple-styled” court house with its ionic columns that served as the temporary State Capitol building from 1855 to 1869 until the present structure was completed. In addition, stereos of street scenes of developing cities like San Jose, Marysville, and Auburn give present-day historians and preservationists a fabulous step back in time.
The linking of California via ocean, river, and rail to world commerce is graphically told by these enterprising photographers. Stereographs showing ships being launched from a San Francisco or Oakland wharf, steamships chugging up the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers hauling passengers and supplies to the interior, and barges loaded with logs headed for sawmills illustrate how lively the waterways were in that era. Of particular note are two stereos documenting the launching of the ironclad monitor USS Camanche on November 14, 1864. Its purpose was to defend San Francisco Bay during the Civil War. Related to this is a photograph of the USS Aquila that transported from the east coast the prefabricated parts of the Camanche. Ironically, the Aquila sank at a San Francisco wharf exactly a year earlier on November 14, 1863, but fortunately, the contents of her hold survived, and the Camanche was assembled.
Not surprisingly, Mead collected many photographs of the Central Pacific Railroad taken or published by others than Hart. These provide a wonderful tour as they show the completed railroad from its terminus at the Oakland wharves up to Sacramento with its extensive railyards, to picturesque looking passenger and freight stations at Newcastle and Dutch Flat and then over the Sierra. They are breathtaking to look at in 3D as the tracks wound through Emigrant Gap, Cape Horn, and Bloomer Cut. Several depict such engineering feats of wonder as the trestle bridges at Newcastle, Long Ravine, and Truckee. Along the way, the hydraulic mining works caught the attention of these photographers as they recorded giant monitor hoses blasting away hillsides with torrents of water in search of gold.(7)
One rare stereo in particular bears notice and demonstrated how innovative Californians developed a variety of futuristic transportation schemes. The photographic firm of Lawrence and Houseworth took a photograph of a cigar-shaped 37-foot-long dirigible called the Avitor. Frederick Marriott, the publisher of the San Francisco Newsletter, invented this propeller-driven vehicle, and on July 2, 1869, the Avitor lifted off and made its maiden flight at San Mateo’s Shell Mound Park. Although unmanned, it astounded everyone, and the London Dispatch exclaimed: “The wonderful California flying machine, we are informed, will soon wing its way across the Rocky Mountains from San Francisco to New York, to the great loss of the now superfluous Pacific Railway.”(8) Of course, Marriott’s dream of displacing the recently completed Transcontinental Railroad never materialized, in part because of the economic panic of 1870, as well as design flaws. Nonetheless this dual-image stereo preserves a fascinating story in the Golden State’s innovative attempts to defy gravity.
This invaluable gift from Mead and Nancy Kibbey will be transferred from the Foundation to the permanent collection of the State Library’s California History Section for cataloging and digitization.* True to form, Mead placed each stereograph in an archival sleeve and laboriously created an inventory with full identification of each image. His devotion to accurate documentation will no doubt be of valuable assistance to library catalogers. The Foundation is particularly grateful to Mead and Nancy’s daughters, Elizabeth Kibbey Gosnell, Muffy Kibbey Tolmie, and Joanie Kibbey Capurso for implementing the wishes of their dear parents.
* The California History Room of the State Library does make available stereograph viewers so that researchers may see the images in 3D as the photographers originally intended.
This article came from Foundation Bulletin No. 127, pp. 16 to 21. See the foundation website (cslfdn.org) for more info.
1. “Stereograph” refers to pairs of nearly, but never exactly, identical photographs about 3 inches square mounted on a card 7 inches long and 3 to 4 inches wide. When viewed through two wedge-shaped lenses, these stereographs fill the observer’s field of vision with a three-dimensional image of the original scene. Mead B. Kibbey, The Railroad Photographs of Alfred A. Hart, Artist, Edited by Peter E. Palmquist (Sacramento: The California State Library Foundation, 1996), Note 5, p. 16.
2. The work of creating this pictorial record by Hart is astonishing considering the photographic technology of the 1860s. Keep in mind this was an era when the negatives were made of glass requiring the operator or assistant to carefully coat the plate with chemicals before removing the lens cap and recording the scene. Also, their cameras were mounted on non-folding tripods and there was no means of adjusting the angle except by moving the tripod. Following exposure and replacing the lens cap, the photographer removed the negative from the camera in a lightproof container to be taken to a portable darkroom and fixed. When the photographer and his horse-drawn wagon of equipment and chemicals returned to his business, it was there that the negatives were printed and mounted on stiff cardboard mounts.
3. See author’s preface and “Introduction and A Brief History of the Construction of the Central Pacific Railroad,” in Kibbey, The Railroad Photographs of Alfred A. Hart, Artist.
4. Kurutz, Gary F. “Alfred A. Hart Monument Dedicated by Mead B. Kibbey,” California State Library Foundation Bulletin, № 119 (2017): 32–33.
5. Kurutz, Gary F. “Mead B. Kibbey Donates the Only Complete Set of Alfred A. Hart’s Stereographs Documenting the Construction of the Central Pacific Railroad, 1864– 1869,” California State Library Foundation Bulletin, № 108 (2014): 20–27.
6. For short but excellent biographies of pioneer photographers see Peter E. Palmquist and Thomas R. Kailbourn, Pioneer Photographers of the Far West: A Biographical Dictionary, 1840–1865 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2000).
7. The following presents a superb overview of not only Lawrence & Houseworth but also stereo photography in California during that decade: Points of Interest, California Views 1860–1870: The Lawrence & Houseworth Albums. Foreword by Gary F. Kurutz; Introduction by Peter E. Palmquist (San Francisco: Published by the Berkeley Hills Press in Conjunction with the Society of California Pioneers), 2002.
8. Kurutz, Gary F. “Navigating the Upper Strata and the Quest for Dirigibility,” California History: The Magazine of the California Historical Society, Vol. LVIII, № 4 (Winter 1979/80): 334–347.