Historic Colorado photos: Harry Mellon Rhoads, the king of Denver photojournalism

From presidential visits to fires to bears in trees, Harry Mellon Rhoads captured Denver for the Rocky Mountain News for seven decades.

Two boys fight with boxing gloves, a man with a pocket watch acts as referee, probably in Denver, Colorado. Between 1910 and 1920. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-5870)historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Two boys fight with boxing gloves, a man with a pocket watch acts as referee, probably in Denver, Colorado. Between 1910 and 1920. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-5870) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Two boys fight with boxing gloves and a man with a pocket watch acts as referee, probably in Denver, Colorado. Between 1910 and 1920. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-5870)

This is Day 5 of this series of historic Colorado photographers and I’ve thrown around the word “prolific” probably more than I should have. But in the case of Harry Mellon Rhoads, the word is not only appropriate but perhaps an understatement to describe his enormous body of work.

Mrs. Charles (Hazel LaDora Rhoads) Gates and her newborn baby in Denver, Colorado. Circa 1910. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-5831) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Mrs. Charles (Hazel LaDora Rhoads) Gates and her newborn baby in Denver, Colorado. Circa 1910. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-5831)

A Rocky Mountain News photographer with a career stretching across seven decades, Rhoads was a consummate man-about-town. His camera captured everything from presidential visits to breaking news to mundane city moments. His work demonstrates a mastery of daily life documentation. Many of the moments ingrained in his often glass-plated negatives seem too picturesque to be candid.

PREVIOUSLY IN THE HISTORIC COLORADO PHOTO SERIES: Donald Kemp | Sandra Dallas | Burnis McCloud | Charles Lillybridge
A large crowd watches a ski jumper at a ski resort in Colorado, possibly Steamboat Springs. Between 1930 and 1939. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-1249) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
A large crowd watches a ski jumper at a ski resort in Colorado, possibly Steamboat Springs. Between 1930 and 1939. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-1249)

But candid they were, and according to Denver Public Library researcher Randel Metz, Rhoads was able to gain such complete access in his subjects because he was an active and known member of Denver civic life.

“As his fame grew,” says Metz in a short biography, “Rhoads became close with the Denver Police Department — they all knew him — and this no doubt enabled him to get some of his close-in shots of dramatic events.”

People watch men open cases of liquor from the Blue Valley Distillery Company during a Prohibition arrest in Colorado. The men use crowbars to open the wooden cases. Circa 1920. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-1158) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
People watch men open cases of liquor from the Blue Valley Distillery Company during a Prohibition arrest in Colorado. The men use crowbars to open the wooden cases. Circa 1920. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-1158)

In Rhoads’ work we observe a true sense of what life in Denver looked and felt like in the early 1900s. The introduction of the automobile and airplane is a recurring theme in his work and is presented with a kind of miraculous viewpoint that must reflect of how these inventions were seen as they were introduced.

Charles A. Lindbergh inspects the engine of probably a Ryan B-1, manufactured by the B.F. Mahoney Aircraft Corporation, in Denver, Colorado. Between 1920 and 1930. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-79) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Charles A. Lindbergh inspects the engine of probably a Ryan B-1, manufactured by the B.F. Mahoney Aircraft Corporation, in Denver, Colorado. Between 1920 and 1930. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-79)

Rhoads’ eye did not shy away from harsh realities. Many images in the collection are omitted here because they document murders and suicides; one such image shows a man sliced in two on a railway.

View of a burning cross on Ruby Hill, in Denver, Colorado; a man in Ku Klux Klan uniform and hood is to the side. Between 1920 and 1930. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-595) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
View of a burning cross on Ruby Hill, in Denver, Colorado; a man in Ku Klux Klan uniform and hood is to the side. Between 1920 and 1930. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-595)

In other cases, social issues are evident in what is not present. A portrait of Woodrow Wilson in the Denver Press Club depicts the president surrounded exclusively by white men. Whether or not Rhoads meant to depict this kind of homogeny is irrelevant. His photographs demonstrate it nonetheless.

President Woodrow Wilson sits surrounded by a group of men at the Denver Press Club, Denver, Colorado. Between 1910 and 1930. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-651) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
President Woodrow Wilson sits surrounded by a group of men at the Denver Press Club, Denver, Colorado. Between 1910 and 1930. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-651)

The Denver Public Library possesses more than 5,800 of Rhoads’ negatives, easily one of their densest collections of photographs. His biography is included in Randel Metz’ full collection of Acclaimed Western Photographers.

Mary Coyle Chase and Harry Rhoads at a Denver Press Club event, in Denver, Colorado. Mr. Rhoads has lipstick marks on his face. Between 1940 and 1950. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-5941) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Mary Coyle Chase and Harry Rhoads at a Denver Press Club event, in Denver, Colorado. Mr. Rhoads has lipstick marks on his face. Between 1940 and 1950. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-5941)
View of several Colorado Air National Guard biplanes in flight, possibly at Camp George West, Colorado. Between 1930 and 1935. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-356) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
View of several Colorado Air National Guard biplanes in flight, possibly at Camp George West, Colorado. Between 1930 and 1935. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-356)
Two men pose next to their automobile with the carcasses of two bucks and a bear tied on the front of the car. Circa 1939. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-1229) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Two men pose next to their automobile with the carcasses of two bucks and a bear tied on the front of the car. Circa 1939. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-1229)
Firemen aim a jet of water at a collapsing chimney amid the ruins of the 23rd Avenue Presbyterian Church after the fire that destroyed the 1892 building in 1906. A crowd of spectators look at the remains of the stone building. April 16, 1906. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-5862) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Firemen aim a jet of water at a collapsing chimney amid the ruins of the 23rd Avenue Presbyterian Church after the fire that destroyed the 1892 building in 1906. A crowd of spectators look at the remains of the stone building. April 16, 1906. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-5862)
H. H. Zietz, originator and operator of the Buckhorn Exchange restaurant, poses near taxidermied deer heads, guns, and pictures, Denver, Colorado. Zietz was also known as "Shorty Scout." Between 1930 and 1940. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-1038) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
H. H. Zietz, originator and operator of the Buckhorn Exchange restaurant, poses near taxidermied deer heads, guns and pictures, Denver, Colorado. Zietz was also known as “Shorty Scout.” Between 1930 and 1940. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-1038)
Aerial view of the city of Denver, Colorado. Between 1940 and 1960. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-1287) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Aerial view of the city of Denver, Colorado. Between 1940 and 1960. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-1287)
J. Bradley Williams, left, shakes hands with Willie E. Anthony. J. Bradley Williams was the former candidate for Colorado House of Representative for District 15 until he withdrew in favor of Willie E. Anthony on the right. Williams acted as the campaign manager for Anthony. Between 1960 and 1970. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-5953) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
J. Bradley Williams, left, shakes hands with Willie E. Anthony. J. Bradley Williams was the former candidate for Colorado House of Representative for District 15 until he withdrew in favor of Willie E. Anthony on the right. Williams acted as the campaign manager for Anthony. Between 1960 and 1970. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-5953)
President William Howard Taft seated in the back of a convertible automobile on a visit to Denver, Colorado. October 3, 1911. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-5817) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
President William Howard Taft seated in the back of a convertible automobile on a visit to Denver, Colorado. October 3, 1911. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-5817)
View of a bear in the crux of a tree, Colorado. Between 1910 and 1930. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-4486) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
View of a bear in the crux of a tree, Colorado. Between 1910 and 1930. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-4486)
A zookeeper feeds a bear cub at the Denver Zoo in City Park, Denver, Colorado. Between 1910 and 1920. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-737) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
A zookeeper feeds a bear cub at the Denver Zoo in City Park, Denver, Colorado. Between 1910 and 1920. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-737)
Men or teenaged boys in swimming suits dive from a tower by a lake; men in row boats look on. Between 1910 and 1930. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-2022) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Men or teenaged boys in swimming suits dive from a tower by a lake; men in row boats look on. Between 1910 and 1930. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-2022)
View of a fire and firemen in Denver, Colorado. May 23, 1935. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-1319) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
View of a fire and firemen in Denver, Colorado. May 23, 1935. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-1319)
"A relatively harmless cabbage accident some years back." A crowd of people are gathered around a spilled truckload of cabbage and a derailed railroad train car in Denver, Colorado. Between 1920 and 1930. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-5916) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
“A relatively harmless cabbage accident some years back.” A crowd of people are gathered around a spilled truckload of cabbage and a derailed railroad train car in Denver, Colorado. Between 1920 and 1930. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-5916)
Denver Mayor Robert W. Speer, smiles for the camera. He wears a dark pin striped suit and bowler hat. Between 1904 and 1918. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-862) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Denver Mayor Robert W. Speer, smiles for the camera. He wears a dark pin striped suit and bowler hat. Between 1904 and 1918. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-862)
A woman wearing a flowered cloche hat poses with a French bulldog. Between 1920 and 1930. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-1540) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
A woman wearing a flowered cloche hat poses with a French bulldog. Between 1920 and 1930. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-1540)
Spectators watch as former President Theodore Roosevelt rides in an open automobile, with Secret Service Agents, in a motorcade down 17th (Seventeenth) Street in Denver, Colorado. Circa 1910. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-87) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Spectators watch as former President Theodore Roosevelt rides in an open automobile, with Secret Service Agents, in a motorcade down 17th Street in Denver, Colorado. Circa 1910. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-87)
Men in shorts and athletic supporters form a tableau. Between 1920 and 1930. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-1564) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Men in shorts and athletic supporters form a tableau. Between 1920 and 1930. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-1564)
Portrait (sitting) of a Rocky Mountain News employee. Between 1910 and 1930. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-1663) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Portrait of a Rocky Mountain News employee. Between 1910 and 1930. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-1663)
Harry M. Rhoads, behind the steering wheel, poses in a convertible with passenger in front of Westminster University or College, at 3455 West 83rd Avenue in Westminster (Adams County), Colorado. Circa 1895. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-967) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite
Harry M. Rhoads, behind the steering wheel, poses in a convertible with passenger in front of Westminster University or College, at 3455 West 83rd Avenue in Westminster (Adams County), Colorado. Circa 1895. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-967)
PREVIOUSLY IN THE HISTORIC COLORADO PHOTO SERIES: Donald Kemp | Sandra Dallas | Burnis McCloud | Charles Lillybridge

CORRECTION: This story originally included an incorrect first name for Harry Mellon Rhoads.

Kevin Beaty

Author: Kevin Beaty

Kevin Beaty is a media producer with experience in a variety of settings spanning Hollywood film sets to international backpack journalism expeditions. He is on a never-ending quest to meld artful imagery, functional design and intimate storytelling. His biggest struggle in any given moment is whether to shoot stills or video.