William Abraham Bell

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Not to be confused with William Bell (photographer).

William Abraham Bell
BornApril 26, 1841
DiedJune 6, 1921
EducationUniversity of Cambridge
Occupationphysician, photographer
early businessman and developer in Colorado
William Abraham Bell's photograph of the body of Sergeant Frederick Wyllyams, Co. G 7th US Cavalry, killed by Native American Indians in Kansas on June 26, 1867

Dr. William Abraham Bell (April 26, 1841 – June 6, 1921) was an English physician who is best known as a photographer of the American West, and a founder and developer of several businesses and towns in Colorado, including Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs, and Durango.

Early life[edit]

Bell was born in Ireland in 1841, the son of an English physician named William Bell. He studied medicine at Cambridge University[1] and practiced at St George's Hospital in London after earning his medical degree.[2][3]

Kansas Pacific Railway survey[edit]

In 1867, Bell traveled to the United States to study the medical principles of homeopathy in St. Louis. In the United States, he joined an expedition undertaken by the Union Pacific Railroad Eastern Division (later Kansas Pacific Railway) to identify and map a southern route for a railroad connection between Kansas and California. Although Bell had no experience in photography, he was recommended for the post of expedition photographer by the expedition's geologist, John Lawrence LeConte. Accordingly, he undertook a two-week crash course in photography, purchased a camera and darkroom equipment, and joined the expedition in western Kansas, in a region near the Colorado state line that was the scene of active fighting between local Indians and United States military forces.[2]

Soon after his arrival in Kansas, Bell saw and photographed the mutilated body of Sergeant Frederick Wyllyams, a U.S. soldier who had been killed by Indians. The gruesome image was published in Harper's Weekly, which railroad officials considered to be bad publicity and which caused them to become concerned that Bell intended to make money from sale of expedition photos.[2] The railroad hired Alexander Gardner to be chief photographer for the survey expedition. However, the expedition split into two parties, and for a time Bell continued his photographic work as a member of the southern party that scouted a route through New Mexico and west along the 32nd parallel, while Gardner was part of the northern party that followed the 35th parallel.[2] As an expedition member, Bell formed a friendship with the expedition's leader, General William J. Palmer, who was later to become his partner in several business ventures.[2]

After about six months' work, Bell separated from the expedition at Camp Grant in southern Arizona, abandoning his equipment and negatives in order to travel on horseback to the coast of Mexico. From there, he traveled by ship to San Francisco and made an overland crossing of the United States to return to the east coast, where he obtained passage back to England.[2]

He described his experience in the survey expedition in an 1869 book, New Tracks in North America.[2][3] Published at a time when few Americans had seen the country west of the Mississippi River,[4] the book sold well in both Great Britain and the United States.[2] Meanwhile, the approximately 100 photographs that he left with the expedition were of little use to the railroad, whose officials found that they were carelessly finished and that many of them had insufficient lighting. Only two of his images were included in the compilation that Alexander Gardner produced after the conclusion of the expedition. Some of his photographic work survives in collections, including those of the Colorado Historical Society.[2]

Business activities in Colorado[edit]

Palmer and Bell shared a vision of building a corporate empire and formed a business partnership. Both were astute businessmen and complemented each other. Together they founded the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, and Bell and Palmer went on to found some 30 businesses.

After the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad built a spur into Manitou Springs, an aggressive marketing campaign was started to promote the health benefits of the resort, which was successful and came to be known as "Saratoga of the West", making an analogy to Saratoga Springs, New York.[5]

In early 1872 Bell visited England, where he married Cara Scovell. In the summer of that year, he returned to Colorado with his new wife and they started construction of a new Victorian home on the banks of Fountain Creek in Manitou Springs. Their home, known as Briarhurst Manor, was completed in 1876.[5]

Easterners and investors from England arrived in a steady stream, and an entire community sprang up around the fashionable health resort. The town was designed like a European spa with luxury hotels, parks and shops. The hotels provided entertainment, hiring the popular bands of the day for dances. Wealthy visitors often brought their families and household staff and stayed for months at a time.[5]

Final years[edit]

By 1890, Bell had liquidated many of his holdings in the United States, whereupon he retired to England, entrusting the Briarhurst Estate to a pair of long-term employees.[5]

In March 1909, Bell was called back to America when his partner, General Palmer, died following an extended struggle with spinal paralysis resulting from a riding accident. The Bells paid a last visit to Briarhurst and their Manitou resort in March 1920. Dr. Bell announced to newspaper reporters that this would be his last trip, saying he was no longer able to take the long sea voyage back and forth to England. On June 6, 1921, Bell died at the age of 81 of a heart condition. Cara lived until 1938, to the age of 85.[5]



  1. ^ "Bell, William Abraham (BL860WA)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Will Stapp (2007), John Hannavy, ed., "Bell, William Abraham (1841-1921)", Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. 1, Routledge, pp. 143–145
  3. ^ a b William A. Bell Papers, Tutt Library, Colorado College
  4. ^ Image Notes: Beyond the Image: Depicting Native Americans, George Eastman House, retrieved April 12, 2012
  5. ^ a b c d e The Briarhurst Manor, ColoradoEats.com, archived from the original on September 21, 2010[unreliable source?]

External links[edit]