William Cronyn’s Talented and Tragic Life

woman with guitar
Cronyn & Hibbs, Railway Photographers. Unidentified woman with a guitar, circa 1899.  Collection of the author.

Last fall I attended the annual Daguerreian Society meeting in Boston, Massachusetts.  I was on the lookout for photographs by Colorado photographers at the trade fair.  An image made by Cronyn & Hibbs of a woman with a guitar caught my attention.  I thought the name Cronyn was in my database, so  I hustled up to my hotel room to check.   (Note to self:  Always ask the dealer to hold the photograph, rather than assume the photo will still be available when you return.)

My database included a William Cronyn, but no one named Hibbs.  I liked the image and it provided information about Cronyn’s career trajectory, so I decided it would be a good purchase.  I returned to the dealer’s table and the Cronyn photograph was in another collector’s hands.   What should I do?  I hung around as the woman contemplated her purchases, and exhaled a sigh of relief when she placed the Cronyn & Hibbs photograph in her reject pile.  I immediately picked it up and asked the collector if she was sure she was willing to let this one go.  We had a good chuckle about my predicament.

Cronyn’s biography is confusing.  Canadian census data suggests that William Cronyn was born around 1850 in Ontario, Canada to David Cronyn and Anna Hawthorne Cronyn, but other records state his birthplace as New York.  His personal life was messy.  He married at least four times.  Perhaps because of this, he moved frequently and his professional life showed plenty of challenges.

By 1879, William Cronyn lived in New York City.   The 1880 census lists his occupation as a photographer and his wife’s name as Josephine.   A year later, in March 1881, Cronyn married Etta Wright, in Omaha, Nebraska.  They would remain married until the early 1890s.  In the mid-1880s Cronyn was employed in the Pittsburgh area as an artist.  Later in the decade, he opened a studio in Omaha, but ownership of the gallery ended up in court.  Cronyn moved out of the gallery, taking all the apparatus and furniture, leaving broken negatives on the gallery floor.

Cronyn cabinet portrait
Cronyn, photographer. Charles O. Unfug, mayor of Walsenburg, CO in 1887 and 1891. History Colorado, Accession #92.94.13

In November 1887, Cronyn arrived in Pueblo, Colorado. The Colorado Daily Chieftain reported that Cronyn had “spent thirteen years…in the operating rooms of [Napoleon] Sarony’s famous photograph gallery in New York City.”  Likely this is an exaggeration, as there is no record that Cronyn spent that length of time in New York.  

He seemed to hit his stride in Pueblo.  His wife assisted with studio sittings and ran the business when Cronyn traveled.   She was also a talented artist, producing “point crayon”  portraits.  The point crayon portrait was executed by hand using only the point of the crayon, rather than the standard crayon portrait where shadows were created by rubbing the medium into the paper.  

child by Cronyn
Cronyn, photographer. Portrait of Helen Virginia Gibson, between 1887 and 1891.  Poughkeepsie Public Library District, I-G07.

Cronyn claimed his studio had the largest skylight in Colorado, enabling him to make portraits even on cloudy days.  The skylight aided him with his specialty for fancy lighting.  He won first premium and a diploma for best photographic collection at the 1888 Colorado State Fair, held in Pueblo. Locally, his work could be seen in the windows of Pueblo’s Wick’s Shoe store.

Early on the morning of August 1, 1890, a newspaper carrier noticed a fire in Cronyn’s studio.  An electric light left burning all night had ignited studio scenery.  The firefighters saved the building but losses included the skylight, valuable backgrounds and studio apparatus valued at almost $2,500.  The losses were fully covered by insurance and the studio was repaired quickly.

Less than a year later, another fire broke out in the back of the Cronyn studio, probably caused by the explosion of an oil stove.  The studio suffered smoke damage and a few panes of the skylight broke.  A week later Cronyn put the studio up for sale, including his cameras, chemicals, furniture, books and other supplies.  Lydia McCloskey purchased the studio.  Cronyn remained in Pueblo, working for photographer, Wesley S. Howard.

By late May 1891, E. E. Powers took over Cronyn’s former studio from McCloskey, with the operating room under the direction of Cronyn.  The press referred to the business as the “Cronyn gallery.”  Meanwhile, Mrs. Cronyn moved to Denver with their baby for her health.  Cronyn joined his wife briefly in Denver, but news reports cited his interest in moving to Los Angeles, California or Missouri.

In June 1892, Cronyn secured a position with W. H. Caman in Wellington, Kansas, leaving his wife in Denver.  A year later, Cronyn was on the road again.  In 1896, he acquired a photo railroad car which he operated in North Dakota with someone named McGlachlin.

Cronyn’s third marriage took place in September 1898 in Minneapolis, Minnesota to Helen Gould, a young woman thirty years his junior.   They divorced less than two years later due to Cronyn’s affection for another woman.

Cronyn & Hibbs, photographers. Unidentified man and woman, circa 1899. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Donated by Don L. Durrah and D. Simone Durrah Logan in memory of Hattie J. Durr Whiddon Graham (1873-1950); Christopher Columbus Wayman Whiddon (1894-1973); Lina Irene Jordan Whiddon (1897-1983)

In 1899, Cronyn operated a rail car in Minnesota with a partner named Hibbs.  On July 5, 1900, misfortune struck Cronyn’s photo car.  His assistant, who lived in the car, came home from a dance and accidentally tipped over a lamp, quickly igniting the entire car.  The fire destroyed the car and all of its contents, valued at $6,000.  Cronyn held only $2,000 insurance.

The 1900 federal census adds confusion to Cronyn’s biography.  The census places Cronyn in Aiken, Minnesota, married to Margaret “Maggie” Whitney, also a photographer.  The census data states that they have been married for 10 years.  If anyone can document William Cronyn’s life after the railcar fire, please let me know!

Thanks to Beverly W. Brannan, former curator of photography at the Library of Congress for editing this post.  Jori Johnson, Collections Access Coordinator and  Keegan Martin, Digital Imaging Technician, History Colorado also provided assistance.  

Byron H. Gurnsey, Colorado Springs’ First Photographer

B. H. Gurnsey produced hundreds of stereoviews of Colorado during the 1870s.  His series, Gurnsey’s Rocky Mountain Views and Scenes on the Line of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway, include images of Canon City, Colorado Springs, Leadville, Manitou, Pike’s Peak, and the Grand Canon of the Arkansas.  Numerous prominent institutions, including the George Eastman Museum, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, The J. Paul Getty Museum and the New York Public Library, collect and preserve Gurnsey’s work.

Leadville, Colorado.
B. H. Gurnsey, photographer. Leadville, Colorado, 1879. Albumen silver stereo view. The New York Public Library.

Byron Hamilton Gurnsey was born on October 12, 1833, in Chautauqua County, New York, to John M. Gurnsey and Susan Nevins Gurnsey.   He married Delilah Ida Simpson on December 9, 1858, in Battle Creek, Michigan.  B. H. Gurnsey served four years and nine months in the Civil War, first with the 41st Iowa Infantry, Company C, stationed at Fort Randall, Dakota Territory, and later in the 7th Iowa Cavalry.

Spotted Tail
Gurnsey & Illingworth, photographers. Spotted Tail, The Rebel Chief and HIs Party, circa 1870, albumen silver print. Copyright, The Trustees of the British Museum.

After the war, Gurnsey operated a  photographic studio at the corner of Front and Pearl Streets on Sioux City, Iowa’s levee.  He offered “Photographs and Ambrotypes.”  His stock included stereoscopic views and stereoscopes from an eastern supplier.  In 1870 he partnered with William H. Illingworth, as Gurnsey & Illingworth.  On June 5, 1871 a fire completely destroyed his workplace.  Even though he opened new photographic rooms over the Imperial Bakery, Gurnsey decided to leave Iowa City.  In December 1871 he relocated to Colorado.

Gurnsey opened the first photographic studio in Colorado Springs, with a second studio in Pueblo, Colorado.  In Pueblo, he worked above the St. James restaurant, until he completed a new studio on Main Street, which he operated until 1875.  He partnered with Eugene Brandt at this location.  

Cottonwood tree
B. H. Gurnsey, photographer. The Largest Cottonwood Tree in Colorado, Fifth Street, South Pueblo, circa 1875, albumen silver stereo view,  Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. 

As his success grew, Gurnsey completed a new brick building in Colorado Springs on Pike’s Peak Avenue in May 1874. The following year he sold an impressive $4,000 worth of stereoviews.  In addition, his photographs received national attention when they were published in the July 4, 1874 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.   This weekly news magazine, with a subscriber base numbering in the tens of thousands, published four wood engravings from photographs by Gurnsey: three views of Monument Park and one of Balancing Rock. 

Colorado Springs
B. H. Gurnsey, photographer. Pike’s Peak from Colorado Springs, circa 1875, albumen silver print. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas.

Beginning in March 1877, Gurnsey advertised for a partner to take a one half interest in his stereoview business.  It is unlikely he found someone to fill that role, but in June 1877, Frank W. Grove did assist Gurnsey on a Denver and Rio Grande railroad excursion for Denver journalists.  The party traveled over the new track between Fort Garland and La Veta.  Gurnsey secured negatives for ten stereoscopic views and four large 11 by 14″ views, including photographs of Mule Shoe Bend.  He made prints for the railroad, as well as  Eastern customers, with one railroad customer ordering 7,200 views.  Gurnsey’s views were also sent as far away as Paris and China.

Mule Shoe
B. H. Gurnsey, photographer. The Mule Shoe, 1877, albumen silver print, The New York Public Library.

Gurnsey continued to operate in Colorado Springs until his death at the young age of forty-seven, on November 19, 1880.  He is buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs.  Gurnsey’s widow, Delilah Ida Simpson Gurnsey, operated the studio after her husband’s death.