From the Museum Archives: The Wallihans — The world’s first wildlife photographers
The history of Northwest Colorado has no shortage of fascinating characters. A.G. and Augusta Wallihan are no exception.
The Wallihans arrived in Northwest Colorado in the mid-1880s eventually settling near Lay — located between Craig and Maybell. Augusta and A.G. married in 1885; she was 22 years his senior. In fact, it is rumored that A.G.’s trademark long beard was to help mask the age difference.
Augusta was a strong woman who embraced the frontier life. A.G. described her as having no fear of “God, man or the devil.” She was also an expert marksman who even put on a shooting exhibition at Madison Square Garden!
Though the Wallihans stayed busy as the Lay postmasters and running a boarding house, in 1889 Augusta suggested that A.G. should try to photograph the abundant wildlife in the area. Surprisingly, wildlife photography hadn’t been seriously attempted due to the precarious size of cameras and the complicated developing processes of the day. The Wallihans were soon able to trade some travelers for a camera, and A.G. began learning how to shoot and produce photographs in the middle of nowhere.
A.G. Wallihan was soon capturing stunning images of wild animals, the first of their kind. George Shiras, another U.S. photographer, was shooting photos of animals at night with a “strobe trap” in the 1890s, but these weren’t the natural wildlife photographs Wallihan was producing.
Wallihan’s photographs caught the attention of an occasional hunter to the area: United States Civil Service Commissioner and eventual US President Theodore Roosevelt. They kept in touch, and by 1894 Wallihan had enough photographs to publish his first book. Roosevelt wrote the introduction for it as well as for their follow-up book in 1901. Not long after Roosevelt’s presidential inauguration in 1904, the Wallihans even visited the White House as his personal guests.
Wallihan’s photography books were a hit. Anything pertaining to the West was in big demand at the time, and these were the first photographs to extensively capture the West’s wildlife in their natural environment. A.G.’s photographs quickly grew in popularity until he was invited to showcase his work at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. He was again invited to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis where his photos earned him the bronze medal.
Through their work, the Wallihans were vocal proponents of wild game preservation. They were witnessing firsthand and bringing to light the fast decline in wildlife populations due to unregulated sport and commercial hunting.
Augusta died in 1922 at the age of 86. A.G. died in 1935 at the age of 76 while still serving as Lay’s postmaster. He is one of the longest serving postmasters in US history. They are both buried on a hill above Lay overlooking the country they loved from both sides of the lens.
The museum has a permanent exhibit on the Wallihans including their original camera, Augusta’s hunting rifle, their marriage license and numerous photographs. Our collection also consists of dozens of their original photographs and glass plate negatives.
Paul Knowles is assistant director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado. To learn more, drop by the Museum of Northwest Colorado at 590 Yampa Ave., or visit the museum’s Facebook page, facebook.com/MuseumNorthwestColorado.