Looking through the collection of photos he has amassed over the last few decades, Ed Gilliland lights up each time another one pops up on the screen.
“Wow, look at that!” he says, pointing toward the screen as another monochrome image appears.
The images come from all corners of Northwest Montana. There are photos of the Going-to-the-Sun Road in the 1930s when it was just a dirt path to Logan Pass; images of skiers coasting down the slopes of Big Mountain in vivid Kodachrome color; and black-and-white pictures that capture the construction of the Hungry Horse Dam.
Gilliland, a retired railroader from Whitefish, has been a photographer nearly his entire life and in recent years has turned to collecting historic negatives and prints. To date he has purchased at least 10 large photo collections, some dating back more than a century and many focusing on life in the Flathead Valley during the early to mid-1900s.
Gilliland first began purchasing photos when he found a collection of unwanted images at an auction house. He said the man who had taken all the photos had died and the family was uninterested in keeping the collection themselves. Gilliland thought it was a shame that the photos someone worked so hard to capture were being sold off piece by piece, so he stepped in to preserve it as one body of work. Since then he has worked with Adele Scholl of Gravity Shots to scan the images and make them available online.
“I started buying these collections to save them from the garbage pile,” he said. “These photos don’t do any good sitting in a closet.”
Among Gilliland’s collection is a group of images taken by Canadian-born Ferde Greene, who first lived in British Columbia before moving to the Flathead Valley in 1915. Like Gilliland, Greene worked for the railroad and took photos on his days off. Greene’s images include photos of local businesses, families and the railroad. One unique series of photos shows how the Great Northern Railway loaded up the Columbia Falls depot and moved it down the tracks, the building precariously hanging off the side of the car.
Other photos show workers harvesting ice off of Whitefish Lake so that it could be stored until summer when it was used to keep refrigerated freight cars cool.
Gilliland purchased the photos more than a decade ago and until recently would make weekly trips to visit Greene’s late son, Howard Greene, to talk about the photos. Gilliland would then record the names and stories that corresponded with each image.
“Ferde was a really good guy,” Gilliland said. “I only know him through his photos, but I can tell he was a good guy.”
While Gilliland continues to collect images he is also starting to ponder what he will do with his own photos after he is gone. For now though, he’ll keep looking through the collection and sharing the highlights with friends and family.
“The only way to preserve history is to share with people,” he said.
To see more photos from Gilliland’s collection, visit www.glacierphotography.smugmug.com.