The Kolb Brothers

Photo Credit: Northern Arizona University, Cline Library, Emery Kolb Collection

From East to West

Known best for their photography and filming of the Grand Canyon in the early-to-mid 1900s, the Kolb Brothers have become important characters in documenting the canyon’s history.

Ellsworth Kolb was born in 1876. His younger brother, Emery, was born five years later in 1881. They were from Pennsylvania. Ellsworth worked as a steel mill laborer after his pharmacist business didn’t find success, and Emery was an electrician.

In 1900, following an injury at work, Ellsworth headed west to Colorado. He worked many odds jobs including a lineman at a telephone company, snow plow operator for Yosemite and Yellowstone, and then a carpenter’s assistant. Eventually he worked as a porter at the Bright Angel Hotel near the Grand Canyon.

He sent a letter to his brother, Emery, in 1902, entreating him to come see the beauty of the west for himself. While Ellsworth had been away, Emery had taken up photography. He joined his brother shortly after receiving the letter with only a guitar, his camera, and the clothes on his back.

Making Their Mark

The first few years were difficult, but they persevered. Though they first had dwelled in a tent on the edge of the canyon, eventually the pair erected a studio (called Kolb Studio) on the South Rim, near Bright Angel Trail. You can still visit it today! This studio was a home, creative space, and dark room for developing their photographs. The brothers sold their photographs in a leather binder for $3 a piece.

In 1911, the brothers took a three-month long river journey to capture the river rapids on film. Three years later, the brothers found notoriety from the National Geographic Society for their contribution. When the Grand Canyon was officially named a National Park, Emery was given a contract to continue operation of the photography studio there. The contract was renewed every decade.

If you’d like to learn more about the Kolb Brothers, check out the book The Amazing Kolb Brothers of Grand Canyon on the console below the television.

Photo Credit: Northern Arizona University, Cline Library, Emery Kolb Collection
Photo Credit: U.S. Geological Survey