The daughter of Ansel Adams is helping to shed some new light on Nevada with the help of photographs shot long before her father’s renowned images of the American West.
Anne Adams Helms has donated about two dozen photos to the Nevada Historical Society in Reno.
The images were taken as early as the 1860s by photographers who predated her father.
The collection includes fading carte-de-visite photos — which were small albumen prints mounted on cards — of Mark Twain acquaintance Robert Howland, Nevada Territorial Gov. James Nye, the old Wells Fargo office in Virginia City and the former U.S. Mint in Carson City.
Helms, 74, of Salinas, Calif., said the photos were handed down by Olive Bray, who was Ansel Adams’ mother.
Bray, who was raised in Carson City, married Charles Adams there in 1896 before the couple settled in San Francisco.
While the collection and most of its photos are small in size, historians are hailing them as historically significant.
“We’re lucky. These kinds of photos don’t surface that much anymore,” said Guy Rocha, retired Nevada state archivist. “It gives us a better idea of what people and places looked like back then.”
The collection includes original photographs and copies of originals.
Images capture famous Nevadans as well as scenes from the massive, underground pocket of silver and gold known as the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, southeast of Reno.
Among other things, Helms’ donation gives the Historical Society its lone original photo of the Wells Fargo office in Virginia City and its only photo of Howland as a young man, said Lee Brumbaugh, the society’s photo curator.
It also provides the museum with its only photograph of early Carson City photographer Frank Ludlow and a copy of Timothy O’Sullivan’s famous 1863 photo of the Gould and Curry Mill in Virginia City.
“It’s one of those times when photography clearly allows insight into history and becomes a subject of unlimited research,” Brumbaugh said.
He considers the Howland photo one of the most significant of the collection.
As a young man, Howland shared a cabin with Twain in Aurora in 1862.
Unlike Twain, Howland succeeded in mining and became superintendent at several mines and then a co-owner in at least two enterprises.
Howland also was the first warden of the territorial prison in Carson City.
Robert Stewart, author of “Aurora: Nevada’s Ghost City of the Dawn,” said he is aware of at least two other early photos of Howland. But the one donated by Helms shows Howland posing while dressed in Western attire and holding a hat.
“I think it reveals something about his personality,” Stewart said. “It shows a man who came West (from New York) and became a Westerner. He’s comfortable in his Western attire and looks like a man who would be uncomfortable in an eastern suit.”
Twain, in a letter at the time, wrote that Howland “has such a jolly long tongue and keeps it wagging so comfortably” that it was difficult to ask him a question.
Twain went on to become a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City during a nearly three-year stay in Nevada that ended in 1864.
The Historical Society plans to put enlargements of the photos, along with the story of their ties to the Adams family, on public display beginning in August.
The fading originals cannot be safely displayed because of their age, Brumbaugh said.
Helms also donated about three dozen bills, receipts and other items dating to the 1890s from the Charles E. Bray Co., a Carson City livery stable owned by Ansel Adams’ maternal grandfather.
Helms thinks Ansel Adams’ parents might have met while his father worked in the 1890s on a mine near Wellington, about 65 miles south of Reno.
Adams’ mother, Olive Bray, was born in Iowa and was 2 years old when her family moved to Carson City in 1864. Olive Bray graduated from high school there.
While Helms is “very interested” in her own family history, she said she didn’t find a need for the Nevada photos.
“I wanted to get them in the hands of an organization that would care about them,” Helms said. “I’m delighted that the historical society has them and can use them.”
She and Dr. Michael Adams of Fresno, Calif., are the only children of Ansel Adams, one of the nation’s most famous photographers.
Adams is best known for his black-and-white photographs of the American West, mainly images of the landscape, especially in Yosemite National Park. Adams died in 1984 at 82.