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Mary Marks: Pioneer, Adventurer, Photographer

A vast collection of previously unknown historic images of Breckenridge is now available at the Mather Archives site. Adding interest to the story, the photographer is a woman, a rare professional in the late-Victorian era. Mary Marks accompanied her engineer husband to Summit County at the turn of the century. In the early 1900’s she carried her bulky photography equipment atop giant rock piles, descended to the bottom of mining pits, and scaled observation decks to get her images of mining equipment and men at work. She also captured daily life in town. The Breckenridge Heritage Alliance is pleased to make these images available to the public for general interest and research purposes.

Mary’s husband John was a mining engineer hired to come to Breckenridge and Dillon to enhance the water flows to the placer operations of the Gold Pan and Oro Grande Mining Companies, led by the charismatic British mining innovator, George Evans. Mary pursued her passion for photography with enthusiasm, mastering the difficult technical requirements of capturing images on glass plate negatives.

She was a rare woman photographer at a time when women didn’t take on such demanding work. “She is the only woman in the entire pipeline of early photographers in our area,” according to local historian Maureen Nicholls, who used several of Mary's photos in her book: Gold Pan Mining Company and Shops (also available for sale at the Breckenridge Welcome Center). “Many years ago, an old collector brought me some local historic photos and I had a hard time accepting that a woman took these images. This is not what a woman would do in those days. Imagine her out there in rough country, wearing skirts and petticoats to get to her shots. Carrying her equipment around the mine sites. I was very surprised.”

Though Mary Marks’ photos were not unknown in Breckenridge, the full extent of the Mary Marks Collection was lost to history until researcher and historian Bill Fountain discovered a photograph of mine workings and traced the ownership of the print. “That was my A-Ha moment,” Fountain said. “I realized there were over 300 photos taken in the late 1890s and early 1900s and most had never been seen before.” Fountain traced the current ownership to Utah State University Special Collections and Archives, Merrill-Cazier Library (USU-SCA) where they had been obtained in 2007. The donor wanted to ensure that the images were available for public use and research. However, the collection languished there for many years as the subject matter was outside of their research scope. After Fountain’s discovery, the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance partnered with USU-SCA to digitize the entire collection.

In July 2019, the Dr. Sandra F. Pritchard Mather Archives of the BHA acquired a non-exclusive digital license to describe the collection and make the digital images accessible to the public. The physical collection of glass plate negatives remains preserved in storage at USU-SCA.

Of value to the people of Breckenridge and Summit County are the many images of mining and town life. According to Kris Ann Knish, Collections Manager at the Mather Archives, “She is taking photos of placer mining, but also turning the camera around and capturing personal moments of her husband, pets, houses, local children. She took photos of dredge boats but also of friends hanging out in a tree or her husband napping on a pile of rocks. It is a rare look into a Victorian woman’s perspective.”

The bulk of the images in the collection are of dredge boats and placer mine workings around Dillon and Breckenridge. Mary captured the technical details of placer mining and the inventions of George Evans, such as the Evans Hydraulic Elevator. She brought her artistic eye to her commissioned imagery, including landscape details and often other women, to lend a female’s aesthetic to the photographs.

Many of the images in the collection are of Mary herself, which begs the question: Who took the photo? John Marks was also a photographer, as he is seen with his camera in several of Mary’s images. It is likely that he snapped many of the pictures of her. Mary also associated with Dr. Clinton Scott, another Breckenridge-area hobby photographer, and they may have swapped images or clicked each other’s cameras.

From the standpoint of social history, her personal images are even more interesting. In her collection, we see Mary posing with her bicycle on Lincoln Avenue in Breckenridge, children sitting on a burro in front of a now-historic home, John relaxing in their living room, John and Mary crossing a log bridge while holding hands. In the background of many of Mary’s town photos are images of homes that no longer exist, and many that still do, giving us a historical perspective on Breckenridge’s physical appearance at the turn of the 20th Century. In one image of the building we know today as the restaurant Doma 1898, historically known as the Gaymon House, we see next door a fantastic Queen Anne-style home covered in decorative shingles. The black and white photo’s gradations of gray indicate a brightly colored paint job. But this structure is lost, burned in a fire many years ago. It lives on only in Mary’s photography.

Photography provides an artifact that can’t be matched by the written word. Through captured images, we can learn so much more about the early history of Breckenridge and Summit County, not just how we mined, but how we lived. You can view the Mary Marks Collection on the Mather Archives website or request an appointment to conduct research. To learn more about Breckenridge’s history, visit one of our free museums or take a historic walking tour with the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance.

written by Leigh Girvin

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