George Mellen, born in 1854, launched his career in photography in the Gunnison area. He wandered for three years, photographing throughout the western slope area of Colorado, to mining camps and new towns from Monarch Pass to the Elk Mountains.
He developed images using the wet collodion process. This method involved the use of glass plate negatives, nitric acid, silver nitrate and other chemicals. The developing process required the photographic material to be coated, sensitized, exposed and developed within a span of thirty minutes, all done in the dark. In the field, Mellen used a four-wheeled covered wagon as a portable darkroom, which also carried three hundred pounds of his equipment from place to place.
George Mellen ran his own photography studio on Main Street, in Gunnison in the early 1880’s. He photographed the mining camps and towns in the Crested Butte area. His work included photographs of “Ruby Camp at Irwin,” “The Board of Trustees and Officers of the Town of Irwin,” A Gathering Outside Ruby Post Office and Market,” “Mining Camps, The Shaft of The Forest Queen,” “Snowslide Ruins, Ruby Camp,” “The Lake, Ruby Camp (Lake Irwin),” “Colorado Coal & Iron Company Mine (Jokerville),” “The Town of Gothic” and “A Mountain Home in Winter, Crested Butte.” He traveled to photograph Woodstock, a town along the route of the Alpine Tunnel, completely destroyed by an avalanche that buried eighteen people. This was once the highest railroad tunnel in the world, at an altitude of 11,523 feet.
Mellen created a stereo view, a thin paper photograph pasted onto a card, of R.M. Grieg’s drugstore on Elk Avenue in 1882. The building, now The Crested Butte Heritage Museum, was owned by Howard Smith, one of the founders of Crested Butte and business partner with Grieg. Another stereo view shows Grieg sitting in the drugstore, writing his memoirs and another is of the town of Crested Butte with the base of Lone Mountain, presently known as Crested Butte Mountain, in the background.
Mellen’s finest photographs were published in a wonderful edition entitled, “Colorado Views” in 1885.
In 1888, he opened a studio in Colorado Springs that closed within a year. This failure sent him to work at William Henry Jackson’s studio. In 1889, the two photographers joined the Detroit Publishing Company in Denver. This arrangement lasted until the 1890’s when Mellen turned over his stockpile of negatives to Jackson, who then published them under his own name.
Records of George Mellen’s professional and personal life seem to have disappeared after this. The latter part of his life remains a mystery.
Mellen’s important images chronicling Colorado life during the 1880’s are an invaluable pictorial record of the settlement of the Crested Butte/Gunnison area and the West.