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171,000 photos of Utah history are now free to browse, from JFK to train disasters to naked football players

First Published      Last Updated Feb 19 2017 05:41 pm

The Utah History Division releases 171,000 vintage images to the public.

A young Hank Aaron swings for the fences during an exhibition game at Derks Field, where Smith's Ballpark now stands.

President John F. Kennedy's motorcade meanders around Salt Lake City, less than two months before his assassination.

Marching bands galore stomp through downtown during the city's now-discontinued Christmas parade.

These are a few of the literal snapshots from four decades' worth of The Salt Lake Tribune's photo archives that have just been digitized by the Utah Division of State History and released to the public — 171,000 images taken by Salt Lake Tribune photographers from the 1930s through the 1960s.

"We're really proud of this," said Heidi Tak, digital librarian for the Utah Division of State History. "It's the largest we've ever digitized, and it brought our photo collection to over 250,000."

Many of the images involve Tribune coverage of hard news stories, and some are grim enough to bring the work of famed New York City crime scene photographer Weegee to mind — car accident victims, weeks-old corpses, pavement soaked with blood after shooting incidents. There are funeral photos from the 1938 bus-train collision that killed 23 Jordan High School students.

Other images in the collection, had they been snapped today, would make news for entirely different reasons. Why, for example, is that 1945 Westminster College student in blackface at that Halloween party?

And if you ever wanted to see the naked behind of New York Giants offensive lineman Jack Stroud — the team was in Utah in 1959 to play the San Francisco 49ers in an exhibition game at what was then just Rice Stadium — well, now's your chance.

Previously, Tak said, much of the division's photos were staged or posed.

"But with these, it's breaking news — images like a train derailment in Bingham Canyon and people rummaging through the rubble," she said. "These are live action images you just wouldn't see in most historic collections."

The photos, available on the state history website at bit.ly/TribHistory, are searchable and free to the public as long as they're used noncommercially (fees are charged for high-resolution downloads).

The scanning process began in late 2015 and wrapped up just last week when it was released online, Tak said. Archivists at Backstage Library Works in Provo, the University of Utah's Marriott Library and Southern Utah University divided up 360 boxes of negatives. Staffers scanned the negatives by hand, one at a time, reviewing the quality of each and assigning them metadata and catalog numbers.

Tak said the collection has been in the state History Library's hands since the 1980s.

"They were in the Tribune photo morgue and they were going to be getting rid of them, but someone there asked if we wanted them," said Tak. "We said yes, and we put them in individual envelopes inside boxes and shelved them."

The time to chronicle them finally became right when digital preservation technology became available.

Jeremy Harmon, The Tribune's director of photography, has spent hours sifting through the vast array of images, marveling at the history that's now uncovered.

"This makes it easy for everybody to learn about the state and the people here," Harmon said. "It's been fascinating to see all the different faces. One of my favorite photos is of a family of coal miners in Price ... Also the hundreds of photos from the old Hotel Utah, the guests and bellhops and wait staff. It's really interesting to see how people worked and lived."

The collection isn't just a history of Utah life over the course of four decades, Tak said — it's also a history of photography.

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Browse the photos

Search the collection of 171,000 images at bit.ly/TribHistory