Grand Fall Stereo Photo

Page 7 of 11

First Photo

Historic stereo photograph of the Grand Fall

By F. Jay Haynes, Haynes Foundation Collection, Montana Historical Society. H-327.

As far as we know, Frank Jay Haynes was the first photographer to capture the Great Falls of the Missouri. Haynes shot this view with his twin-lens stereographic camera. A special hand-held stereo viewer, called a stereoscope, is necessary to see the 3-D effect.


Viewing device for stereo photographs

Historical Museum at Fort Missoula

A stereoscope," explained Oliver Wendell Holmes, "is an instrument which makes surfaces look solid. All pictures in which perspective and light and shade are properly managed, have more or less of the effect of solidity; but by this instrument that effect is so heightened as to produce an appearance of reality which cheats the senses with its seeming truth."1 The instrument was invented in England in 1838.

F. Jay Haynes

F. Jay Haynes photographing the Great Falls

Montana Historical Society Archives

Photographer F. Jay Haynes stands beside his stereographic camera at the "handsom Fall" in 1880. The shutter was a hinged device in front of the twin lenses, operated by hand. His portable darkroom is probably on a nearby wagon.

Although the huge herds of bison were absent, the rattlesnakes were still numerous, so Haynes prudently carries a six-shooter under his belt for self-defense.

On 12 July 1860 Captain William F. Raynolds and a five-man detail from the Missouri River contingent, visited the falls of the Missouri, with Biddle's edition of Lewis and Clark's journals in hand. "Their description is remarkable for its vividness and accuracy," Raynolds found, "and as I passed down I compared it point by point with the scene before me, verifying it in every essential respect." Early the next morning, the expedition's topographer and assistant artist, J. D. Hutton, set out with two assistants to take a photograph of the Great Falls. He returned at nightfall, according to Raynolds, "having indifferently accomplished the object of his expedition."2 Since no such photograph has yet been found, we may assume it wasn't worth keeping.

Experiments that ultimately led to the invention of the camera as we know it began early in the 1700s and steadily gained momentum through the opening decades of the nineteenth century. In 1816 the first successful attempt to combine the camera obscura—the instrument Lewis wished he had brought along—with photo-sensitive paper. By 1839 the Daguerreotype camera, which captured images on chemically prepared copper plates, made photographic portraiture an important commercial enterprise.

Wet-plate technology, perfected in 1851, added impetus to the ever-widening popularity of photography as a documentary and artistic medium.3 A glass plate coated with light-sensitive collodion produced a negative image from which multiple paper positives could be made.

The plate had to be exposed immediately after the collodion was applied, and promptly fixed with chemicals, which required a light-proof darkroom. The technology was tedious, undependable by today's standards, and the heavy equipment it required made an indoor studio the most practical operating venue. That may have been the reason for J. D. Hutton's "indifferent" results. Only a skillful photographer with infinite patience, great physical endurance, a crew of dedicated helpers and a superior good luck, could venture far afield. Frank Jay Haynes was just such a person.

Meanwhile, in 1877, while wet-plate photography was still at the height of its development, and stereography (3D photography), which had originated in 1841, was increasing in popularity, Haynes set up a studio at Fargo, in Dakota Territory. Three years later, he and a crew of seven assistants set out on a 1,200-mile picture-taking excursion up the Missouri River, photographing key points along the route, all the way to the falls. Their supplies and equipment, including a light-proof tent for a darkroom, filled two horse-drawn wagons.4 "This trip," he wrote to his wife, Libby, "is going to be worth a fortune to me for it is going to open up a new field."5 Haynes returned to Fargo late that summer with historic photos of both the "beautiful cascade," otherwise known as "handsom fall," and that "sublimely grand object," the Great Falls of the Missouri. At long last the world could share Meriwether Lewis's "pleasure and astonishment"—in stereovision!


"Sublimely grand specticle"
Great Falls of the Missouri River, M.T. [Montana Territory]

F. Jay Haynes historical photograph of the Great Falls of the Missouri

Photographed by F. Jay Haynes, Summer, 1880
Montana Historical Society H-326, Haynes Foundation Collection

This is one of the earliest existing photographs of the Great Falls, taken from the point at the edge of the high prairie where Lewis may have made his difficult descent for his closeup study of the scene.

F. Jay Haynes (1853-1921) was an important early photographer of Western scenes and people. He shot this photo just a few months before a pioneer settler and entrepreneur named Paris Gibson rode his horse from Fort Benton, forty miles downriver, to see the sight he had read of in a reprint of Nicholas Biddle's edition (1814) of the Journals of Lewis and Clark. He was inspired by the potential for industrial development of the falls, and envisioned a day when "water power could be shipped across the land by means of electricity." Two years later Gibson founded the city of Great Falls, Montana, a few miles upstream near Black Eagle Falls, the last of the five cataracts Lewis discovered. Within another decade Great Falls gained the nickname "The Electric City."

  • 1. Oliver Wendell Holmes, "The Stereoscope and the Stereograph," The Atlantic Monthly, 3 (June 1859), 738 .48.
  • 2. W. F. Raynolds, Report of the Exploration of the Yellowstone River (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1868), 109.
  • 3. The George Eastman House Timeline of Photography, (Link expired)
  • 4. Untitled typescript page by Jack E. Haynes, son of F. Jay, in Vertical File "Frank Jay Haynes," Montana Historical Society, Helena.
  • 5. Edward W. Nolan, Northern Pacific Views: The Railroad Photography of F. Jay Haynes, 1876-1905 (Helena: Montana Historical Society, 1983), p. 38. In 1881 Haynes became the official photographer for the Northern Pacific Railroad, and soon became famous for his popular stereographs of scenes in Yellowstone National Park. In the mid-eighties he switched to George Eastman's revolutionary new dry-plate process.