Of time and the river
First there were only wild things. Springs bubbled up in the mountains, crystals on the crust of snow melting in the warmth of the sun to forge freshets streaming toward the river. The river coursed in braided channels across high alpine meadows. — Meliss
A Photographic Journey Down the Old Río Grande
Melissa Savage’s new photo book about the Río Grande is a natural fit for her, considering her past work in otter conservation and bosque restoration on the river and her long love of historic photographs. But the tipping point for the decision to immerse herself in the project was the discovery of some disheartening facts in a 2003 report about the river. “The McCune Foundation asked an organization called Harpoon Consulting to do a survey of how New Mexicans felt about the Río Grande,” Savage said during a recent meeting, “and the almost universal response was, ‘Well, we never think about the river. We never go there. It’s not an issue for us.’ That was shocking to me. As a geographer, I’m thinking, ‘How can you miss it?’ But so many people are missing it ... so many of these photographs show how much people used the river for all kinds of things.”
Her book, just out from University of New Mexico Press, is Río: A Photographic Journey Down the Old Río Grande. Its pages present 81 photographs of the big river, from its headwaters near Silverton, Colorado, to its ultimate destination, the Gulf of Mexico, as well as images of adjacent landscapes and of people in, on, and around the Río Grande.
Savage’s interest in historic photographs of the river began with those taken by Laura Gilpin. One of Gilpin’s better-known projects was published in 1949 as The Río Grande: River of Destiny. Savage’s Río is graced by a dozen photographs by Gilpin, who died in Santa Fe in 1979. The frontispiece is a lovely shot of a winding, sunlit river, Río Grande at Rinconada, from 1947. Others include a portrait of a gold-panning prospector at Creede, Colorado; a man tending an irrigation furrow in the San Luis Valley; a pensive youngster standing on the root of a cypress tree in Cerralvo, Mexico; and Gilpin’s marvelous and well-known image The Río Grande Yields Its Surplus to the Sea, 1947.
The new book also boasts 11 reproductions of sterling images by Wilfred Dudley Smithers, who shot cowboys and Hispanics in the Texas border area for decades. Among these are photos of a young boy filling a water bag on his burro alongside the river near Presidio, Texas, and two men in a shallow boat heading into an area of dangerous rapids on the Río Grande in Santa Elena Canyon. There are two images by the 19th-century photographer William Henry Jackson, one of them showing the infant river flowing through Wagon Wheel Gap high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. And Ansel Adams is represented with Boquillas, Mexico, Dust Storm From North Bank of the Río Grande, Big Bend National Park, 1942.
The parade of images through history continues with the Denver & Río Grande Western Railroad “Chili Line” train steaming through Embudo; Horace S. Poley’s wonderful Road to Taos, 1910; a moment in the construction of the Elephant Butte Dam, from about 1914; a cadre of (more or less) rough and ready Mexican Revolution-era bridge guards; and a trio of
continued from Page 32 fishermen with a big sawfish caught near the mouth of the Río Grande, photographed by Robert Runyon.
A truly multifaceted portrait of the river, deals with its 1,900-mile subject from end to end — “from snow to shrimp,” as writer William deBuys puts it in his introduction — and includes written odes to its primeval nature. “First there were only wild things,” Savage writes in the preface. “Springs bubbled up in the mountains, crystals on the crust of snow melting in the warmth of the sun to forge freshets streaming toward the river. The river coursed in braided channels across high alpine meadows.”
River use by Native peoples was typically low-impact. “Indo-Hispanic villages created a complex system of irrigation ditches, or acequias, that watered orchard rows of peaches and apricots and meticulously tilled rows of corn and chiles,” Savage writes. Beginning in the 16th century, European immigrants contrived more aggressive strategies.
offers an intriguing variety of pictures of the river and of people working, recreating, and crossing and attempting to cross the Río Grande — and getting busted. Witness the Underwood & Underwood photo of a U.S. Customs official removing contraband from a pair of Prohibition-era Mexican men: With Bottles Around Waists, 1923. “When I first put the book together, I had only photographs of the river,” Savage told “That was my baseline criterion, but the press wanted to add these others.”