In the 1970s a Bozeman family discovered a trove of about 1,000 original photographic negatives stored in the house they had purchased on the eastern edge of the Montana State University campus.
The archives were donated to the Museum of the Rockies because of their possible historical significance. For decades, they sat in storage, unopened. Recently, museum photographic curator Steve Jackson dusted off the boxes and began wading through the images, about 100 of which are now posted online. The photographs were taken by James Campbell Whitham, a career Forest Service official who served mainly in Montana in the early 1900s.
The scenes include Forest Service survey explorations high into the Beartooth Mountains in 1911 and camps of saluting Boy Scouts at “Camp Custer” in 1915, street scenes in downtown Billings, Absarokee and Missoula and horse-packing trips into the Spanish Peaks south of Bozeman in 1936.
The selection of photos that Jackson has made available online starts with a 1909 photograph of an automobile in Absarokee and ends with a 1936 image with Highway 191 in the foreground, the Gallatin River in the middle and Storm Castle Mountain in the distance.
“I think he carried a camera as a way to document his backcountry trips,” Jackson said. “It seems that he chose to not just be a scenic photographer, but documented what he did. And he liked to fish.”
Who was this guy?
J.C. Whitham was born on May 11, 1888, in Fairfield, Iowa, according to a history compiled by the Museum of the Rockies. He was the youngest of three children and only son born to Joseph Mount Whitham and Anna Crawford Campbell.
His youth must have been unsettled. His father died when he was 6 and his mother died the following year.
"We know almost nothing about his family history," said granddaughter Joan Veach, including who it was that raised Whitham.
Still, Whitham graduated from Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm in Ames, Iowa, with a degree in forestry in 1911. The college later was renamed Iowa State University. Whitham probably got the itch to live in Montana after spending part of his college years working in Dillon, helping to survey and map the Continental Divide along the Montana-Idaho border.
With a freshly minted college degree, he landed a job as assistant supervisor of the Beartooth National Forest, working in the rugged peaks from 1911-1913. The forest had only been created three years earlier. The newly designated forest and the young man were well suited to each other, the one providing a wealth of country for the other to explore and photograph.
A 1912 self-portrait shows a slender young man wearing a cap and dressed in a button-down collared shirt with his trousers tucked into knee-high lace-up boots. His 5-foot-8 frame looks small next to the saddle horse whose reins he is holding. Whitham’s eyes are about even with the top of the saddle. In the background of the photo is what appears to be a burned lodgepole pine forest.
Jackson said Whitham’s photos weren’t all properly dated, and the quality wasn’t always good, as some were overexposed. But what he lacked in technical skills he seems to have made up for in variety.
Of the Whitham photos posted online, many seem to have been taken during his first Forest Service job. While working in the Beartooths he snapped shots of an old Cooke City miner, a logger, elk hunters in a tent camp high atop a plateau and prominent mountain lakes like Goose and Deep and their fishermen who showed off plentiful catches of trout.
In 1916, Whitham moved away from the high peaks of the Beartooths to the prairie of Miles City to take over as supervisor of the Sioux National Forest — a collection of five forests and grazing lands in southeastern Montana and northwestern South Dakota. A year later, Whitham married (Dora) Lillian Kirby, the daughter of a Texas cattleman who had settled south of Busby along Rosebud Creek, between the Crow and Cheyenne reservations.
Despite her rural upbringing and comfort in the saddle, Kirby was educated at the Hollins Institute, a Virginia women's school. Photographs show she held onto her interest in riding. One Whitham snapshot in the archives includes her among the horse riders milling around the hitching post at the old Big Park Guard Station along the Stillwater River. Another shows her atop 12,469-foot high Mount Tempest, the seventh-highest peak in the state. In the background looms Granite Peak, the highest in the state.
Grandson Jim Whitham, of Boise, Idaho, said he always thought it was interesting that the two ever married.
“She was prim and proper,” he said. “When we went on a picnic she had to have a tablecloth, even if we threw it on the ground. And we always had a full meal and cloth napkins.”
His grandfather’s first year of marriage must have been exciting from a work standpoint. There was a rash of 30 fires on the Sioux forest in 1917 that many believed had been set by enemy agents — World War I was still raging in Europe. Armed patrols were created to find and punish any firebugs, but no one was ever caught, according to accounts at the time.
New title, son
Whitham held his supervisor position of the Sioux until 1920, when the forest was absorbed by the Custer National Forest and he took over as supervisor of the combined regions until 1924. It was also in 1920 that Whitham’s only child, George Kirby Whitham, was born.
The West was still wild. One account from July of 1920 details a call for a Sunday wolf drive in the Long Pines region to rid the area of the “gray marauders,” adding, “It promises to be a day of real sport in the Long Pines.”
Sometime during his tenure as supervisor of the Custer, Whitham went on a drive with Glen Smith, who would become supervisor of Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest. An historical account by ranger Roy A. Phillips gives some insight into what the conditions were like on the Custer back then. Smith had told Phillips about “a trip he had made on the Custer with J.C. Whitham when they had spent all day lifting the front end of Whitham's Ford out of the road ruts, and he had the word FORD burned on his back at the end of the day.”
It was also at this time that Whitham’s name was indelibly etched into the history of the region and state. A year before leaving the Custer, Whitham and a group of other forest officials made the first successful ascent of Granite Peak on Aug. 29, 1923. Whitham, naturally, was the group’s official photographer. Jackson is researching an article on the climb and Whitham’s photography of the event that he plans to write for the Montana Historical Society’s publication.
Achieving new heights
Maybe it was Smith who lured Whitham north to Idaho, because in 1924, Whitham moved his family to the Kaniksu National Forest, taking up residence in Newport, Wash. While there, he apparently took his photography to new heights. One photo of the Kaniksu forest that is attributed to Whitham was snapped from an airplane; a portion of the tail and wing of the plane are clear in the foreground.
According to a story from his son, the panhandle region was having problems with forest fires at the time, and World War I planes were brought in to better monitor the spreading blazes. That may have been how Whitham hitched the airplane ride.
Back to Montana
It’s not clear when Whitham moved back to Montana, at first settling in Dillon. During his short stay there, he was directed in 1930 by the assistant regional forester to prepare a comprehensive recreational plan for the Big Hole Battlefield because of its popularity with campers who were visiting to learn about the fight between the U.S. Cavalry and Nez Perce Indians in 1877. Whitham created a draft plan the following year, with the help of the local ranger, proposing to develop 17 “campsites, each with stove and table … seven garbage pits and two new toilets.” None of the improvements were made, however, because the National Park Service took over management of the site in 1932.
The Dillon stay must have been short, because by 1932 he was moved to Bozeman as supervisor of the Gallatin National Forest. He built a home on South Sixth Street, next to the MSU campus. The Museum of the Rockies collection shows numerous snapshots of Whitham’s horse-packing trips into the high mountains and snow-fed lakes of the Spanish Peaks in 1936, when he would have been 48 years old. They seem to be less about work than his earlier photos and more about recreation, camping, fishing and exploring the range.
Whitham retired from the Forest Service in 1939, citing disability. But at the end of World War II, in 1945, he was reinstated and assigned to the Kootenai National Forest in northwestern Montana to survey timber. Had he grown restless during retirement with his hobbies of collecting pre-cancelled stamps, raising flowers and creating a herbarium? No doubt his timber surveys helped supply northern sawmills that cut the boards that fed the United States’ postwar building boom.
It’s unclear when Whitham, known throughout his career as soft-spoken and hard-working, retired again.
"He was a real fun guy, very unassuming," said Mary Ann Whitham, his daughter-in-law. "He was photographing things when I first knew him. I've got some fascinating old photos he took."
He died in 1963 at age 75 and was buried in Bozeman.
Jackson, of the Museum of the Rockies, said the Whitham collection of photographs is significant for its ties to early Forest Service history in the region. There are no plans to add to the images in the database, but he said the archive is available to the public although an appointment must be made to view the collection.
Walt Allen, who used to work as the Gallatin National Forest archaeologist, said he didn’t know much about Whitham until he found a bunch of old photographs in storage at the office in Bozeman years ago. They included shots of Civilian Conservation Corps work at Squaw Creek and copies of other photos from the 1920s and 30s. The forest donated the photographs to the museum.
“It was kind of a big smorgasbord of stuff,” Allen said.
That may be the most apt description of the breadth of Whitham’s photography during the early years of the Forest Service in Montana. Fortunately, the people who bought his old Bozeman home had the foresight to put the collection in the museum’s hands, and Jackson took the time to post some of them online so more people can savor a taste of Whitham’s photography.