The following article was selected by the editors from Volume 22 #3
of the Wisconsin Magazine of History (March 1939) pp. 268-279.
Copyright © 2000 by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
Henry Hamilton Bennett (1843-1908) is well known for his beautiful and evocative photographs of the Wisconsin Dells area. His name has been much in the news of late because of the reopening in the Dells of his photographic studio---as a museum and historic site operated by the State Historical Society.
Bennett was born in Canada and grew up in Vermont, coming to Kilbourn City (now Wisconsin Dells) in 1857. A Yankee entrepreneur in his bones, Bennett was not only a gifted and hard-working photographer but also a tinkerer, an inventor, and by far the single most important promoter of the Dells as a tourist destination.
A Wisconsin Pioneer in Photography
By A. C. Bennett
Henry Hamilton Bennett, eldest son of George H. and Harriet A. Bennett, was born at Farnham, lower Canada, January 15, 1843. The following year they moved to Brattleboro, Vermont. In 1857 he with his father and an uncle came to Kilbourn City, now Wisconsin Dells. At that time this was the end of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad. The three did carpenter work or anything that they could get to do; a year later George Bennett brought the remainder of his family from Brattleboro to Kilbourn, where they made their home.
On the eighth day of September, 1861, Henry H. Bennett enlisted at Delton, Wisconsin, in Captain Vanderpool's company, later commanded by Captain Gillispie of the Twelfth Wisconsin volunteer infantry. He served three years and two months as a private, being mustered out of the service at the Harvey hospital, Madison, Wisconsin, November 8, 1864. He participated in several minor battles, also the siege of Vicksburg. At Paducah, Kentucky, in 1864, he was wounded in the right hand by the accidental discharge of his own gun.
In the spring of 1865 he bought the photography business of Leroy Gates at Kilbourn, and he and his brother became partners in the work. The brother returned to Brattleboro, Vermont, the following spring.
During the early part of his photographic career, 1866 to 1876, he followed this work with the exception of short intervals when he worked at anything that he could get in order to enable him to carry on his photography, which he followed up to the time of his death. His specialty was the reproduction of landscapes, principally of the Wisconsin dells.
He was married to Frances Irene Douty, January 22, 1866. She was born July 3, 1848, at Elmira, New York. To their union were born three children: Harriet M., Ashley C., and Nellie I.
Mr. Bennett became interested in landscape photography due to the weird rock formations along the Wisconsin river, with its dark, swiftly flowing waters. He began photographing this bit of wild scenery under much difficulty.
His first landscape camera he constructed out of cigar boxes; as he had only one lens, it was placed on a board which operated from one side to the other for making stereoscopic pictures, which were then becoming popular. It necessitated carrying a dark-tent or, as we would call it, a complete photographic equipment. This was very bulky, and oftentimes it was carried on a cart or in his boat to almost inaccessible places. It was necessary to carry this equipment since a wet plate had to be finished promptly after its exposure, usually in five or six minutes.
At this time the studio which he purchased from Leroy Gates was located on Broadway, on the corner now occupied by a gasoline filling station.
Mr. Bennett's explanation for specializing in landscape photography was that you didn't have to pose nature, and it was less trouble to please; the portrait photography was left to his wife, who so ably assisted him.
During these early days the country about the dells was infested with Winnebago Indians, who were none too friend ly. At times as many as a thousand or more camped along the river and on the flats below the town, where they held their yearly gatherings. Coupled with this was lumbering and the running of rafts and logs down the river to the sawmills and markets below.
In his early contact with the Indians, when he went to make photographs of them, he was told 'Indians no want you,' and they began to set up a terrible whooping and made all kinds of hostile demonstrations. Mr. Bennett naturally began to suspect that they were none too pleased to see him and he inquired the reason. It appeared that some time before an Indian had been photographed and shortly afterwards had died. It took a great deal of talking to convince them that the mystery of picture taking was not responsible for this Indian's death.
As time went on, he became better acquainted with the Indians and succeeded in getting many photographs of them, including one of the chief of the Winnebago tribe, Yellow Thunder, who was said to be 120 years old at the time he was photographed.
Mr. Bennett, in later years, told stories to many of the summer visitors, who inquired of his early experiences. Among them what great prevaricators the western people were, what healthful climate the western country had, what great ages the people lived to; and that when he went to make a picture of Chief Yellow Thunder, who was 120 years old, he found the old fellow crying. Being curious to know the reason, he asked one of the braves, who informed him that his father had just whipped him for throwing stones at his grandfather. (This might be considered, as some of his pictures were, somewhat of a fable.)
As civilization began to creep into the western country, Chief Yellow Thunder at times wanted to live like the white man. He had a small log cabin on what is known as the 'lower road' from Kilbourn to Baraboo. When the old chief wanted to imitate the white man, he would live in this cabin and sleep on the ground between the rails of an old cord bedstead. At the site of his cabin there is now a marker in honor of him. 1
During these days Mr. Bennett had many experiences with the rafting and lumber running at the dells. Lumber and logs were brought down from the pinery and mills above. Since the dells were considered a very dangerous place for lumber to pass through, it was necessary to tie up the fleet of lumber rafts at the head of the dells. A fleet usually consisted of twelve to fourteen rafts, each raft consisting of three strings or rapids pieces. Owing to the narrowness of the dells, these rafts were separated and run through one string, or rapids piece, at a time. After running the narrows, they were tied up at the Dell house, which was a supply store for rivermen, built in about 1859 by a man named Allen. When the lumber had passed through the dells, it was again coupled up and was run down the river to the market.
Mr. Bennett made many pictures of rafting and lumber running through the dells. Frequently men were swept overboard from a raft when it broke to pieces, and a number of them were drowned. There were also some murders committed during these times though Mr. Allen told Mr. Bennett none occurred near his place.
Near the head of the dells, where lumber usually tied up before running the dells, was an old log house occupied by a woman. Nearby was a spring where lumbermen usually went to get water. It seems that they were not very welcome, for they were told that the water in the spring was poisoned. The story is also told that this woman killed her husband, and, according to the raftsmen, she did this by pouring hot lead into his ears while he was asleep. The log house in which this woman lived was carried down the river by the flood waters, and it is said she may have met the fate of many lumbermen.
In these earlier days Mr. Bennett encountered many interesting characters. Allen, the builder of the Dell house, became a hermit; he did not care to have anything to do with the summer people who began coming there, so he would immediately go in and close up the place. This building which he owned and occupied stood for a number of years, but was finally destroyed by fire.
After Mr. Bennett's first year of landscape photography with the bulky apparatus which he had to carry, he built himself the following winter a small, compact, wet-plate dark-tent. This contained all of his chemicals, plates, plate holders, and water bag. This dark-tent had a headpiece and handholds, and was set up on a tripod. He packed the dark-tent on his back with pack-straps, carrying the camera in his hand, which completed his outfit.
The second camera which he built had a tilting back which, as far as we know, was new to photography. He succeeded in obtaining another lens for stereoscopic work so that he could make the exposures without having to move the one lens, as he did on his previous camera.
For a few years he used this equipment, making pictures in Cold Water canyon and other dark places where long exposures were necessary due to the black rock, green foliage, and lack of light. In some instances exposures of one hour and a half were made. As wet plates had to be developed within a few minutes after sensitizing, it was impossible to get pictures with such long exposures, so Mr. Bennett surmounted this obstacle by placing wet sponges in the camera to keep the plate wet during exposure. This enabled him to get many pictures in dark places where there was little light; and in such places as caves, he whitewashed to get more light.
Mr. Bennett was always in search of new places to photograph along the river and in the surrounding country. Many times in order to get the best picture, it was necessary for him to go repeatedly to this one favored spot. Perhaps, at one time the wind might disturb the foliage slightly, or a cloud obscure the sun. This would necessitate returning again to get. the light and everything as he wanted it, at just the right time. Sometimes it became necessary to trim out underbrush or dead limbs from trees, perhaps to throw a few old logs into position for a foreground, or to use people in some of the pictures, and many times to build a platform or place to set his camera out on a point so as to get the best angle at which to make the picture.
During the years of his early work, a few people hearing of this beautiful bit of scenery, began coming to see it. Since there was no way to get through the dells except by rowboat, Mr. Bennett spent many days taking people through, showing them the grandeur and beauties of the dells. In his early search for new places to picture, he followed an opening back quite a distance from the river. Then he came to another opening which he could not follow in the boat. Back in this rock gorge he thought he could hear a waterfall and decided to explore the opening farther. By wading and swimming he succeeded in reaching the waterfall but was unable to get over it. The following winter when things were well frozen, he skated up the river back into where the ice had frozen over the waterfall. By cutting into the ice, he succeeded in getting up over the fall and through to the head of this gorge. On account of its weird rock formation, he named this gorge 'Witch's gulch.' He was probably the first white man who ever traversed its entire length.
About this time, in the early seventies, a few more people began coming to see the dells from the surrounding country. About 1873, Captain A. Wood brought a flatboat or scow down the river from Quincy, built it into more or less of a sight-seeing craft, and named it the Modocawanda.
The following year John Bell, who was originally a lumberman, and A. J. Bergstresser purchased a boat at Madison, Wisconsin, and had it shipped on a flat-car to Kilbourn. This boat was christened the Dell Queen. In taking people through the dells, it landed at Cold Water canyon, which was a deep gorge extending back from the river about a mile in length. Mr. Bennett named it 'Cold Water canyon' owing to the cold water which he had to wade through in many places to get pictures. The other landing was near the head of the dells at a place called 'Arch cove,' which was renamed 'Paradise.'
During the first season that Captain Bell operated the Dell Queen on the river, Mr. Bennett induced him to go back into the gorge that he had named 'Witch's gulch.' After going back in as far as they could, Captain Bell decided that this was a better place to land than Paradise. Therefore, the following spring when the water was high, Mr. Bennett with a number of his brothers, Captain. Bell, and others went up to this gorge and made a walk of logs and boards, which they floated into the gorge. This was in the spring of 1875. Since that time this has been a regular sight-seeing spot in the dells.
Each year brought more people to see the dells. In 1876 Mr. Bennett established himself in a new photographic studio, so that he would be better equipped to make pictures of this wonderful country. This studio and its equipment which he developed would require too much space to describe, as it was said to be the most up-to-date photographic studio in the world.
Mr. Bennett was always working out new means for manufacturing stereoscopic pictures more rapidly and at less expense. He built all of his own cameras. Those constructed by him in the late eighties were as modern as the most modern cameras of today. He worked out a method of multiple photographic printing; he built a washing machine for washing pictures, which is much the same as is used at present; he made the machines used in trimming and mounting stereoscopic pictures; a machine for lubricating pictures before being burnished, run by a small oil engine; a printing press to print the titles on the pictures; a printing room where the multiple printing was done. This printing room was a small house which could be turned by hand on a circular track so as to face the sun from early morning until late in the day.
Not only did he have time to work out all of these devices, he still had time to entertain many of the summer visitors in his studio by means of pictures of the dells and the surrounding country projected onto the screen, so that they might see many of the inaccessible places. These projectors, or stereopticons, which he used were arranged with a dissolving effect so that two lanterns could be used and one picture would gradually dissolve from one to another. These pictures and the many stories that he told of his earlier experiences brought many people to spend the evenings in his studio.
As the studio became better known, so did Mr. Bennett become more widely known and was frequently called upon to photograph other places. He made many pictures of the scenery along the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad, also the photographs of paintings in the Layton art galleries, and other pictures of Milwaukee.
His wife, Frances Irene, died on August 28, 1884. She was of great assistance to him in his work and encouraged him in all of his struggles up to the time of her death.
As the dry plates came into use, it lessened some of the photographic work. In 1885 while Mr. Bennett was making some pictures in Milwaukee, a terrific electrical storm broke over the city and as dry plates were much faster than wet plates, he set a camera in the window and opened the shutter, getting a flash of lightning. He then closed the camera, developed this plate, and found this streak of lightning on his plate.
The following year, 1886, he photographed the Ice palace at St. Paul and the storming of the Ice palace by fireworks. He probably conceived this idea of photographing the fireworks after making this picture of. lightning. The way in which he accomplished, this was by exposing the plate eight minutes when the palace was lighted up by electric lights. The shutter was then closed, leaving the camera in the same position until the fireworks were on in full. Then a very slow exposure was made giving ample time for the rocket to carry out its full length. This is the first photographing of fireworks of which there is any record.
The following year and during the height of the lumbering industry, Mr. Bennett made many photographs of lumber running in the dells. Many of these pictures were made of fleets of lumber rafts which were run down the river from the mills above. These were owned by Mr. Arpin of Grand Rapids, now Wisconsin Rapids, and by his courtesy Mr. Bennett succeeded in getting some very interesting pictures. As these were all moving objects, it became necessary for him to make much faster exposures and so made a fast shut ter to take these pictures. This shutter was a small board with two holes through it that was put over the openings of the lens. It had a slide with two openings in it. This slide was operated with rubber bands. The speed of the shutter varied with the number of rubber bands used. Mr. Bennett found that he was able to photograph objects moving quite rapidly and made one of a cable being thrown from a piece of lumber. This picture shows the cable suspended in the air. There was another of a man leaping the chasm at Stand rock. These pictures became very well known. However, owing to the fact that Mr. Bennett had made some early deceptive pictures, called 'fakes' (though never sold as such), naturally when these instantaneous pictures first appeared, they were considered more of Bennett's fakes. A number of famous panoramas such as the battle of Gettysburg, Shiloh, and Missionary ridge appeared at about the same time as these pictures.. These panoramas Mr. Bennett was successful in getting access to, and it is understood that he was the only photographer ever permitted to photograph them. These reproductions are still to be found in his collection.
In the late eighties' a specially prepared printing out paper came on the market which took the place of albumen paper. The advantage of this paper was that it would keep for quite a length of time. This again cut down some of the laborious work of photography.
In the middle eighties, Mr. Bennett built an 18 by 22 inch camera. This camera was even more modern than those of today. It would take too long to go into detail and describe it, but it had every convenience and more than the average camera of today. Just prior to the building of this large camera, Mr. Bennett conceived the idea of making panoramic pictures. Prior to this some attempts had been made to secure three single prints and to join them in mount ing. Mr. Bennett wasn't content with this kind of work, so he set about to find a way to do this without showing where these pictures were joined. Unable to get large pieces of paper at that time, he had to content himself with making small panoramic pictures from three 8 by 10 inch negatives and printing them on albumen paper. The printing of these panoramic pictures was done by a double printing where they were joined, so that each negative was used separately in printing, requiring about one day and a half to make a panoramic picture from three negatives. These were printed in diffused light. As soon as Mr. Bennett was able to get large printing out paper, he began making panoramic pictures with three 18 by 22 inch negatives. They were so perfect that it was difficult for the most critical observer to discover where they were joined in the printing. These photographs were the largest direct contact prints in the world, being 18 inches wide and 60 inches long.
It would require too much time and space to describe Mr. Bennett's large collection of photographs of the Wisconsin dells, Devils lake, Adams and Juneau counties, as each one of these pictures almost has a story of its own.
Many of his photographs necessitated his naming many of the places in the dells. Much of his 'success in his photographic work was due to the fact that he never was entirely satisfied with what he accomplished and was always striving to make something better. This determination helped him build up his photographic reputation. He was not only an artist, but a man of exemplary principles and ever ready to help a friend in need or to fight for a cause that he thought was right. His popularity with the tourists who visited the dells was an indication of his congenial and hospitable nature, and his studio was always filled with visitors looking over the photographs and Indian curios and listening to stories of his early adventures with the Indians. He often neglected his own work for popular causes and during the years he organized two military organizations known as the 'Dell rangers broom brigade,' all young women, and the 'High School cadets.' These two companies were the best drilled companies of the kind in the state.
During the early days there was much agitation about utilizing the Wisconsin river at Kilbourn for water power, and a dam was finally constructed of logs and trees. These were obtained by cutting many of the beautiful pine trees along the banks of the river, which destroyed part of its scenic beauty. Mr. Bennett's greatest ambition was to have this scenic spot remain as nature had made it and after his passing his son-in-law, George H. Crandall, and his wife undertook to restore the dells to their natural beauty, having reforested the banks of the river and made' many other valuable contributions.
As more people began visiting the dells each year, the Indians were gradually driven back from their favorite meeting places. Through the courtesies of the Crandall family and with the assistance of Phyllis Crandall Connor, the Indians again hold their yearly gathering at the place of their forefathers near Stand rock. Each year there are many summer visitors attending the Indian ceremonial gathering.
March 25, 1890, Henry Hamilton Bennett was united in marriage to Evaline Helen Marshall. To them were born Miriam Eva and Ruth Noel Bennett. Mr. Bennett passed away after about a year of failing health on January 1, 1908. His business is still being continued and has been in the same location for the past sixty years. Not only his pictures but the high standard of his work have brought many people to visit the scenic Wisconsin dells.
1. A pillar four feet high, dedicated In 1909 by the Sauk county historical society, stands by the roadside containing the bones of Yellow Thunder and his wife. The inscription reads: 'Yellow Thunder chief of the Winnebago born 1774-died 1874 and his squaw died 1868.' The descendants of these Indians still live at Wisconsin dells.---Editor.