Una Wheeler, Camera Club Member to Professional


Portrait of Una Wheeler Whinnerah, 1895, Ouray County Historical Society

Earlier this month I took a road trip to the Ouray County Historical Society’s Research Center to continue my study of  19th century Colorado photographers. Seeing examples of Una Wheeler’s photographs was the highlight of the trip.

Una Wheeler was born in Wisconsin on Valentine’s Day 1875 to Charles Augustus Wheeler and Abbie Eastman Wheeler.  She was the niece of  George M. Wheeler, superintending engineer of the Geographical Survey of the Territory of the U. S. West of the 100th Meridian.

In 1877, the family settled in Ouray, Colorado far from the amenities that the adult Wheeler’s enjoyed growing up on the East Coast.  Charles Wheeler, a surveyor and prominent citizen of Ouray, died unexpectedly from pneumonia on January 5, 1888 at the age of 38.  That left Abbie to take care of his wide-ranging business interests and their two children, Una (14) and Edward (11).  Charles’s nephew, Walter Wheeler, seven years younger than Abbie, stepped in to help with Charles’ businesses and ultimately married his aunt, Abbie.

Abbie and Walter performed in Ouray’s theater community.  They provided their children with a wide range of educational opportunities.  Una learned photography and classical dance.  Edward attended college in Denver.

Bachelor Trestle
Una Wheeler Whinnerah, photographer. Bachelor Trestle, circa 1900. Modern silver gelatin print from glass plate negative. Ouray Historical Society and The Huntington Library.

Around 1898, Una joined Ouray’s camera club.  While initially an amateur, Una eventually operated a photography studio out of the family’s home.  She photographed local landmarks, scenic views and mining interests with 5 x 7″ glass plate negatives.  Her friends  often posed whimsically  inside mines and with mining equipment.  

She displayed her photographs in the lobby of Ouray’s Beaumont Hotel and she sold her views at the San Juan Drug Company, alongside the work of other photographers.  Una offered both black and white and hand-colored photographs.  Later, when postcards gained favor, her work was printed in Germany–the place for  high quality and affordable postcards.

ore cart
Una Wheeler Whinnerah, photographer. Three woman and an ore car, circa 1900. Modern silver gelatin print from glass plate negative. Ouray Historical Society and The Huntington Library.

Wheeler married engineer, Richard Whinnerah, in 1902.  A few days before the wedding, seventy-five women attended  Ouray’s first bridal shower, gifting a total of 117 kitchen gadgets to Una.  The church, decorated with evergreen and apple blossoms, was filled to capacity for the wedding.  The couple traveled by train to California, enjoying a six-week honeymoon before returning to Ouray.  Their union would produce four children. 

After her marriage, Una continued to use her 5×7 camera and glass plate negatives, realizing that the quality of the glass plate negatives exceeded anything made with a simpler Kodak camera.  She mainly documented her children and their activities.  The Whinnerah’s lived in Ouray until 1930 when they moved to California for a few years.  They returned to Colorado when Richard was offered a job with the highway department.  In 1942 they retired to Rosemead, California.  Una Whinnerah died on June 22, 1957, in Los Angeles, CA.

In 1993, The Huntington Library in Pasadena, California acquired 347 5×7” glass plate negatives from the family of amateur historian, John B. Marshall, of Colorado.  The negatives were housed in a wooden box labelled: Rick Whinnerah, Rosemead, Calif.  The collection, attributed to Una Wheeler Whinnerah,  includes views of Ouray, as well as photographs of the Whinnerah children dating from 1898 to approximately 1912.  

Thank you to Gail Zanett Saunders, volunteer photo archivist, OCHS, for providing access to the work of several Ouray photographers during my visit. This research trip was possible due to the generosity of the The Peter E. Palmquist Memorial Fund for Historical Photographic Research.  

Author: 19thcenturycoloradophotographers_d5uooh

I am a former curator of photography at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, now living in Colorado. I created this blog to share my research on 19th century Colorado photographers.

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