By Dave Lewis

Although he became a photographer almost by accident, John Karl “Jack” Hillers was one of the most prolific and influential photographers of the late 19th century.  It started with a chance meeting with John Wesley Powell in May 1871.

Two years earlier, Powell made his first trip down the Green and Colorado Rivers from Wyoming, through Utah and into Arizona and the Grand Canyon.  Powell lost his scientific instruments and half of his notes, the men nearly starved, and three men who left the river and hiked out of the Grand Canyon were murdered.

In the spring of 1871 Powell was making final preparations for a second trip -- to do it all over again and get it right.  This meant having ample supplies and equipment; obtaining accurate scientific data; mapping the rivers, canyons and plateaus; gaining information on indigenous people; and documenting the trip in words and pictures.

None of the men from the first trip were invited except Jack Sumner who had been a sort of First Sergeant to Powell’s Major.  Powell was in Salt Lake City when he learned that Sumner wasn’t coming.  In need of another reliable man, Powell luckily ran into Jack Hillers.  They had never met, but Powell took an instant liking to Hillers and asked him to join the expedition.

Hillers, tall and red-headed, was born in Germany and raised in an Irish neighborhood in the Bronx.  He served in the Navy in the Civil War, and in the Army after the war, quickly winning promotion to sergeant.  Hillers left the Army in 1870 and drifted west.  He was working as a teamster in Salt Lake City when he met Powell. Hillers accepted the Major’s offer.  On the expedition he was to be a boatman, a laborer; as a fellow crewman put it, Hillers “was hired to pull an oar.”

The men set out from Green River, Wyoming, in May 1871.  The crew included Powell’s brother-in-law Almon Thompson as chief scientist, photographer E. O. Beaman, Clem Powell as photography assistant, artist Frederick Dellenbaugh, and several others who served as boatmen-laborers-cooks.  Given the rigors of the trip, everyone — scientist, artist or photographer -- had to “pull an oar,” and to pull his own weight.

Hillers was well-liked and respected by the crew.  He had a decent singing voice, a slightly indecent sense of humor, and a quick wit -- all useful traits on such a voyage.  The mischievous look on his face in the portrait above is probably no accident.  More importantly, he was strong, smart, and resourceful.  Beaman, the photographer, was not so highly regarded.  At best, the crew tolerated him.

Being photographer on such an expedition was not just a matter of throwing a camera and some gear in a bag and hopping on the boat.  Beaman brought more than a thousand pounds of equipment -- heavy wooden box cameras, tripods, glass plates, chemicals, and, in effect, a portable darkroom and processing lab.  When a photograph was called for, the gear had to be carried to the right place — on the river bank or a cliff high above. Hillers carried the equipment.  But he also watched.  And learned.

Through spring and early summer of 1871, the expedition worked its way down 600 miles of river.  In July Powell decided to pull the party off the river, just above the beginning of the most difficult stretch -- 277 miles through the Grand Canyon.  For a full year they surveyed and studied the Canyon, plateau and native people, with Kanab, Utah, as their base.

 

During this time, Beaman resigned and headed east to sell his photographs.  Powell went to Salt Lake City and hired a new photographer -- James Fennemore.  Hillers became the photography assistant, replacing Clem Powell in this role.

Fennemore was a welcome addition to the team.  He was a fine photographer, but his greatest contribution was teaching an eager Jack Hillers the basics of photography.  This was very wise -- when Powell was finally ready in the summer of 1872 to resume the river trip through the Grand Canyon, Fennemore was forced by health concerns to resign.  For the most difficult and most important stretch of the entire expedition, Hillers had become the photographer.

In Part Two next week, we will trace the career of Jack Hillers, photographer.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlothallmuseum.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com for information.