1940s life in Ouray preserved through photographs

By Tori Sheets

The Library of Congress has an impressive online collection of Ouray County historical photos.
Some were taken by photographer Russell Lee during a visit to Ouray in September 1940 at the end of the Great Depression. Mining kept the county afloat during those times, and Lee captured the spirit of Ouray’s determination in more than 100 photos.
The photos depict everyday life in Ouray during that period. Lee photographed farmers stacking hay, sheep herders riding mules packed high with supplies and iconic buildings in Ouray that still stand today.
According to Don Paulson, curator of Ouray County Historical Museum, Lee gained his photography job through the Works Progress Administration.
"It was a program that (President) Roosevelt put in during the Depression to pay artists to take pictures, write stories, make paintings, and Lee was a professional photographer so they sent him all over the country taking pictures," Paulson said.
The WPA employed millions of Americans to carry out public works projects, helping to pull the country out of the Depression. The project was put in place as a part of Roosevelt's "New Deal."
The reason for Lee's visit to Ouray is unclear, but he traveled the entire country taking photographs along the way. Some of the most iconic are of the eviction of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast, of coal miners and mining conditions in Kentucky and of aircraft during World War II.
Lee was born in 1903 in Ottawa, Illinois and earned his degree in chemical engineering from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He left behind his skills as a chemist to become a painter, and he used photography as a starting point for his paintings. Soon photography became his passion, and his earliest subjects were of bootleg mining and a cult in Pennsylvania.
Lee began his tour across the country in 1936. In 1947 Lee moved to Austin, Texas and became the very first instructor of photography at the University of Texas.
To find the photos go to www.loc.gov and search for "Russell Lee Ouray."