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Utah State Historical Society
Trolley lines are installed around a statue of Brigham Young in Salt Lake City in early 1900s.

SALT LAKE CITY — It's the next best thing to a time machine, as history comes sharply alive and into focus with Shipler photographs.

The history of the Salt Lake area, in the early 1900s, was chronicled extensively by the Shipler family.

"Back then — in the early 1900s — you didn't open a business without a photographer to record the event," Deseret News reporter Susan Lyman reported in 1988. "If you lived in Salt Lake City, the photographer you hired was undoubtedly named Shipler. Either James W. Shipler or his son Harry; or, later, one of Harry's sons, Bill or Bud; or Bill's son, Bill Jr., or … well, you get the picture.

"For nearly 100 years the men of the Shipler family have chronicled the commercial life of the Salt Lake Valley. They took 100,000 photos," Lyman wrote.

She continued: "The images of city life are crisp: Businessmen in derby hats hustle up and down the sidewalk. Police patrol the streets on foot. Parked near the white marble buildings, a row of black Model Ts stands out in clear contrast. In the interior shots of banks and office buildings, brass railings shine like new."

James W. Shipler started his first studio in Mckeesport, Pennsylvania; in the 1880's he opened studios in Denver and Great Falls, Montana before opening Shipler Photographers in Salt Lake City in 1890.

The Shipler family sold or donated their pictures to the Utah State Historical Society. Today, many are digitized and online, spanning from 1903-80, though most are from the early 20th century.

Dave Gagon, another Deseret News reporter, wrote of a 2001 book about the Shipler collection:

"Some of the interesting images readers will encounter are: a photograph of South Temple from West Temple taken in 1903, a dirt road with telegraph poles running down the center; a 1904 picture of the construction of St. Mary's Cathedral, which later was renamed Cathedral of the Madeleine; a 1909 interior photograph of the Mormon Tabernacle, draped in flags for a celebration of Civil War veterans; the beginnings of the University of Utah; the Union Pacific Building and the original Deseret Gymnasium, both taken in 1910 ... and the list goes on and on."

It was reported in another 2001 Deseret News story, this one by Twila Van Leer, that the Shiplers's work had documented Salt Lake's change from "a backwater outpost to an urban, industrial center," as well as the social changes that accompanied progress.

"Non-LDS in a town where such distinctions made a difference, the Shiplers nevertheless developed a healthy clientele among both Latter-day Saints and those who were not," Van Leer wrote. "A 'modern' thinker, James kept up with photographic trends, ultimately abandoning glass negatives for bromide papers, an innovation of Eastman Kodak Co. He and Harry continued to take up each new photographic wrinkle as the evolution continued."

In 1914, James turned the business over to Harry and in 1937, at age 88, the father died. He was eulogized as "the dean of Salt Lake photographers."

"Harry, meanwhile, had found another outlet for his photographic skills," Van Leer wrote. "Newspapers were beginning to illustrate stories, and he became one of the first news photographers in the West. He took photos from which newspaper artists made line drawings — the nearest thing then known to "immediate" news. At one time, he was supplying five newspapers with photographs.

"His motto to go anywhere to photograph anything was put to the test in 1898 when a disastrous fire destroyed much of Park City," Van Leer wrote. "Strapping his camera equipment to a bicycle, he pedaled to the mining camp — eight hours, mostly uphill, on dirt roads — to record the fire and its aftermath."

The Shiplers took the photographs they were paid to take, but they also recorded what they personally enjoyed — early sports, outdoor life and family — making for a rich eclectic collection.

"Because they often revisited people or places they had photographed earlier, their work creates an accurate pictorial historic record. Their pictures almost always included people, generating a history of fashion trends over at least 85 years," Van Leer concluded.

Only about 10,000 of the current 100,000 Shipler photo collections is currently available online. Notwithstanding, many long-time Salt Lake families, or those in older homes, may still find their past touched on in the current collection.

Photo researcher Ron Fox has assembled more than four dozen examples of Shipler's photos from past issues of the newspaper, which can be seen at deseretnews.com. They range from the original Salt Palace to the trolley line installation in Salt Lake to University of Utah baseball to the state Capitol building and more.

e-mail: lynn@desnews.com