Sir: I have the honor to present for publication the Annual Report of the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, embracing a preliminary account of its operations in portions of Colorado during the season of 1874.
Annual Report for 1874 (Hayden 1876, 1)
At the end of this publication, a good, one-word description of what it was about might be change—changes big and small in Colorado’s landscapes from the mid-1800s to the present. With a few exceptions, however, this publication and especially The United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories Embracing Colorado and Parts of Adjacent Territories (the official name of Hayden’s Survey) are not about the obvious and startling changes in Colorado’s cities or most populated areas. The survey’s purview was to study, map, and report on the physical character of the territory of Colorado (it became a state in 1876) and the potential of its physical environment to provide resources and knowledge for the residents, present and future. There were no drawings of the Denver area and few of places where towns and cities would grow along the Front Range/Great Plains boundary.
The emphasis of the survey was on the geologic, geographic, and natural resource base the land offered up. There was an intentional bias by the survey to study the mountains and plateaus of the western half of the territory with little thought or effort given to the potential of the eastern plains. Because of this myopic view, the areas along the now human-dominated corridor from Fort Collins to Trinidad were not well documented. There were changes that have come to the mountains and western lands, albeit at a slower and less dramatic pace than along the Front Range.
The changes that can be seen and are emphasized in the juxtaposition of the nineteenth-century sketches and the twenty-first-century photographs have at least three broad timescales. The first and by far the longest is the geologic. We almost flippantly talk of hundreds of millions of years any time we talk geologic time. There were 150 years between when the drawings were done and the photos were shot; these 150 years are not even a blink of the geologic eye. There has been geologic change—there always is—but it has been infinitesimal. Certainly some of the mountains are moving up and eroding down, certainly new sedimentary beds are in their embryonic evolution toward lithified rock as they sit at the bottom of some large lakes, and certainly the granites are decomposing and releasing their constituent minerals for the rock cycle to move inextricably forward. But these are all very, very slow in the human time frame. Few of these changes are big enough to be seen in the expansive views and panoramas provided by the sketches of the Hayden Survey.
A second timescale is the ecological one. This is the scale at which vegetation communities and ecosystems wax and wane. This is a time frame humans can understand and one that fits our 150-year window. We get these ecological changes when wildfire destroys a forest and the trees are replaced by new growth, or when an avalanche clears out the vegetation in its track only to be supplanted by other species. This is a scale we see time and time again in the sketches and the photos. Many, if not most, of the 1870s drawings show little to no vegetation cover. Some of this was artistic license to better show the lay of the land, but much of it was that the forests of Colorado during this era were greatly reduced by uncontrolled fire, and massive logging for mines, towns, and agriculture. A large segment of these forests grew back and cover much of the state. Fire suppression, lands designated as wilderness or national or park areas, and watershed management areas have protected against a renewed removal of large tracts of trees in the recent past.
The third timescale is the human, especially in the last few decades where we can change landscapes almost at will and seemingly instantaneously. The Hayden Survey tended to avoid the most impacted areas of the state for this time frame, though we do see them in section 1, Colorado Springs/Pikes Peak, and section 15, Book Cliffs, in particular. A lot of Colorado is still much like the survey saw it. Of course there are now ski resorts and vacation homes aplenty. And Colorado is far from the pristine place William Henry Holmes and his fellow artists drew with its gas wells popping up like mushrooms and thirty-five-acre ranchettes spreading like kudzu. But if you take the effort to get to the remote places the Hayden Survey went to, more than likely you will see just about the same landscape they saw.
It would be disingenuous to finish this project without comparing our experiences in getting to the photo sites with those of the men of the survey. We had roads (most of which were at least drivable) that got us to within at least a few miles of our goal, we had good maps (a legacy of the survey), and we had modern equipment including digital cameras and fast-drying clothes. Hayden’s men had few to no roads, wool-everything clothing, and mules to help carry their heavy equipment; moreover, they stayed in the field for three to four months at a time. We kept reminding ourselves that it took from a few hours to a day or two to get to the places we needed to see, often with some rigorous hiking and climbing. We also often had good trails and mountain guidebooks to the areas. Hayden’s crews had no maps, and it could take many days to weeks to get to the same destinations. In nearly all cases we were in awe of their perseverance and skill in getting to the sites. When searching for the more difficult places, we kept telling ourselves that if the survey crews could get there with their limitations, we surely could make it. In the end, we felt like we could almost read their minds about routes, viewpoints, and the reasons they chose the places they did. We enjoyed this connection with the survey and especially the artists.
Not only were the men of the survey expected to be physically capable of the pronounced rigors of fieldwork in remote and rugged mountain terrain, but they were expected to be akin to renaissance intellectuals—either as individuals or as a group. Hayden collected the best scientists, cartographers, artists, photographers, and surveyors of this era. Keep in mind there were few of these experts, as the system of higher education at the time produced almost exclusively preachers and physicians, and not many of these. Most of Hayden’s men were self-taught, had been apprentices, or were protégés of other scientists. A look at the table of contents of a single Annual Report would highlight the breadth of the intellectual work. The topics would range from an esoteric discussion of sedimentary deposits and their origins to mineralogy, mining, zoology, archaeology, geography, paleontology, topography, and soil science. Nineteenth-century writing could often be overly florid and oblique, but most of the writings of the survey were insightful, descriptive, and precise, as well as often personal. These men were accomplished, intelligent, and tough. They pushed the limits of human physical endurance at the same time as pushing the boundaries of science.
Finally, this project makes no pretense of covering the vast scope of the publications or illustrations that were produced by the Hayden Survey. At most it is a summary or prospectus of the enormous amount of information presented in the Annual Reports and the Atlas. Treat this volume as a preparatory view for a more detailed experience that is waiting for those who wish to delve deeper into Hayden’s gold mine of science and history of Colorado.