Eaglets on a Jolly Jamboree

Dee Bowers

The Grand Canton Tour title page
Title page from The Grand Canyon dedication tour by Edwin B. Wilson, 1920. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.

In summer 1919, Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane invited the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper to conduct a tour of parks of the northwest for the purposes of "stimulating American travel to American resorts," which also "successfully inaugurated the new motor transport service between some of these parks." In 1920, he again invited the Eagle to arrange a tour, this time to assist in the dedication ceremonies for Grand Canyon National Park, which had recently been created by Congress. The Eagle agreed to "organize a special train party for a spring tour of the southwest," and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Grand Canyon National Park Dedication Tour was born. The tour was memorialized in a published volume written by Edwin B. Wilson, the tour's "recorder" (all quotes in this blog post, unless otherwise noted, come from that volume).

The tour also had an official "librarian and geologist," Miss Isabel Bassett, who was traveling with her parents. Of course I had to know more about this tour librarian, so I looked her up in Brooklyn Newsstand. I found that she was married shortly after the tour returned. To my delight, her wedding announcement in the Brooklyn Times Union noted that she was to be "the first woman ranger appointed in the National Park service." Apparently, she was hired after Horace Albright, Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, heard her lecturing on geology during the 1919 Eagle tour, and in fact, she was the first interpretive ranger of any gender to be hired for the service. Isabel Bassett Wasson went on to become one of the first female petroleum geologists in the United States, and is credited by some with starting the American environmental education movement. And it was all thanks to the Brooklyn Eagle.

Title page of photo album of the Brooklyn Eagle Grand Canyon National Park Dedication Tour
"Photographic History of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Grand Canyon National Park Dedication Tour, April 8-May 8, 1920, Dr. Walter H. Kerby, photographer." Title page of photo album. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History. 

But what this blog post is really about is a photo album documenting the Grand Canyon tour, with photographs and text by Dr. Walter H. Kerby, one of the tour's two official physicians, which is now in the collection of the Center for Brooklyn History. It is a fascinating document of 120 Brooklynites exploring the rest of the country. Coupled with the official record of the tour, as well as concurrent newspaper coverage, this album provides detailed insight into how travel and tourism functioned in America over 100 years ago--but from a particularly Brooklyn perspective, of course.

The Eagle tour train
Walter H. Kerby, "Guarding the B.D.E.G.C.D.T. Special," 1920. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.
Black and white image of train interior
Walter H. Kerby, "Southern Pacific Service," 1920. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.

The Eagle party traveled by train, and often slept and ate on their train as well. Periodically, they would disembark for excursions by car. The party was often testing out newly built roads—at one point in Colorado, the road had apparently been finished only the night before they drove on it! As such, the car trips seem to have been a sometimes harrowing experience. With vehicles like the one pictured below climbing steep mountainsides, it's not at all hard to understand why Wilson more than once described the party's relief at returning to their train, which became a home-away-from-home for the so-called "Eaglets."

Black and white image of a large, open topped vehicle with about 15 people seated inside
Walter H. Kerby, "Eaglettes on Missionary Ridge, Chattanooga," 1920. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.

When the party reached Texas, the real culture shock began. As Wilson described it, their arrival in Marfa was when "the traveling tenderfeet from the East met the real West for the first time." The Brooklynites got to see an "old-fashioned wild west "Rodeo'," including the little cowboy pictured below.

Black and white photo of young boy in cowboy gear beside a train
Walter H. Kerby, "A Cow-boy 'Bud'," 1920. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.

From there, they went on to El Paso, where they also took a daytrip over the border to Juarez, Mexico. When they arrived there, "the tourists moved about as in another world." Upon returning stateside, they were served a dinner of Mexican food. Apparently, they found the food so spicy that they felt moved to compose a song about it to the tune of "Ja Da": Waiter, waiter, waiter, turn the hose on me/Water, Water I'm as hot as can be/We want a tank of water with some ice in it, too... The group agreed that "Yankee cooking is good enough for me," so we can gather that the Eaglets were not as adventurous eaters as today's Brooklynites tend to be!

Black and white photo of man standing next to very tall cactus
Walter H. Kerby, "'Jack' meets a friend," 1920. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.

At last the party arrived in Arizona, but they still had quite a few stops before making it to the Grand Canyon. In Florence, Arizona, they attended a barbecue with locals and shared the tour cheer. The third line is oddly unenthusiastic, but the final line makes up for it:

Eaglets, Eaglets, Eaglets, we!

Out on a jolly jamboree!

Are we happy? Well, I guess.

Brooklyn, Brooklyn, Yes, Yes, Yes!

In Casa Grande, the townspeople gifted them a gila monster and a rattlesnake which accompanied the group all the way back to Brooklyn, where they were housed at the Prospect Park Zoo. They then passed on to California, where some of the party took a day trip to "Tia Juana," about which Wilson declared, "As a pleasure ground, it is probably more individual than Coney Island." The party also stayed in some very grand hotels in California, including the still-operating Hotel Coronado in San Diego, and the below-pictured Palmar Hotel in Santa Barbara.

Black and white photo of a large and opulent hotel
Walter H. Kerby, "The Palmar Hotel," 1920. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.

The group also visited Montecito, Monterey, Carmel, San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and more, including a stop at a movie studio in Los Angeles, seeing the natural wonders of Yosemite, summiting Mount Tamalpais, and a visit to the giant redwood trees in Muir Woods.

Black and white photo of a person riding a horse on a beach
Walter H. Kerby, [Horse rider on California beach], 1920. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.
Black and white photo of people standing in front of a giant redwood tree
Walter H. Kerby, [Tourists in front of fallen redwood tree], 1920. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.

Finally, after many other stops, the party arrived at the Grand Canyon for the dedication ceremony, where they stayed at the El Tovar hotel directly on the rim (now a National Historic Landmark). By all accounts, the Eaglets were floored by the canyon: "As we looked across the Kaibab Plateau on the opposite side, it was hard to realize it was eight miles away, as far as from City Hall, Manhattan, to Coney Island." Yes—what an unfathomable distance for a Brooklynite!

Black and white photo of the Grand Canyon
Walter H. Kerby, [Grand Canyon], 1920. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.
Black and white photo of tourists sitting by the Colorado River
Walter H. Kerby, [Eaglets on the banks of the Colorado], 1920. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.

The party spent several days exploring the canyon, and also unanimously voted to fund a monument to the Eagle tour, collectively pledging $1800 for the purpose. The park service gently suggested that the funds might be better put to use with a memorial information booth instead. Finally, the party participated in the formal dedication ceremonies, including what seems to have been much merrymaking: "The formal ‘launching’ of the Canyon as a National Park was engineered by Meier Steinbrink when he figuratively hurled a bottle of grape juice over the rim" (Steinbrink was a distinguished lawmaker in Brooklyn who would go on to be elected to the Brooklyn Supreme Court in 1932).

Afterwards, the party headed back east, with stops in New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and more along the way. Though the main event was over, the tourists still had much to occupy them on the return journey. Wilson wrote of one stop in New Mexico, "The whole canyon breathed romance, with these remnants on every side of the centuries-old civilization of the cliff-dwellers."

Black and white photo of figures on horseback in American Western landscape
Walter H. Kerby, [Horseback riders], 1920. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.

The official story of the Eagle's Grand Canyon Tour is quirky and interesting, a snapshot of a bygone era of American domestic tourism and an account of Brooklynites experiencing new places and people, probably in many cases for the first time. Kerby's photo album brings additional layers to that story: it is a painstakingly created personal artifact, which further humanizes this moment in history.

Black and white double exposed photo of a horse in motion
Walter H. Kerby, "One of my mistakes. Two exposures," 1920. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.

This humanization is enhanced by Kerby's addition, at the end, of a double-exposed print captioned "one of my mistakes." This image underlines the relative newness of tourist photography as a medium. Photographically documenting one's travels is ubiquitous today, but in 1920, it was still considered a niche hobby, and only some of the 120 Eaglets indulged in it.

Black and white photo of a smiling woman holding a camera
Walter H. Kerby, "Another camer 'bug'," 1920. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.

While we don't know exactly what equipment Dr. Kerby used, this image from the album, captioned "Another camera 'bug'" and depicting a fellow photographer on the tour, might give us a clue. It shows a relatively small, handheld camera, but it's possible that Dr. Kerby had a more elaborate setup. Many of the images in the album display what seems to be an impressive level of technical expertise for an amateur hobbyist, but then again, we don't know how many "mistakes" might have been left out!

Regardless of how they were taken, this collection of images, so carefully assembled and labeled, is a minor treasure. Through the eyes of a group of intrepid Brooklynites, we are able to see a vision of America that has since been lost to time.


This blog post reflects the opinions of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of Brooklyn Public Library.


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