Three decades of working at El Tovar have given Thomas Ratz time to assemble perhaps the world's most impressive collection of Grand Canyon correspondence.
Thomas Ratz is an aficionado of Grand Canyon history, and his favorite pastime is collecting correspondence written by park visitors. Letters, postcards, scribbled notes ... it's an impressive collection that offers an intimate glimpse of what people had to say about the park in the first half of the 20th century.
© Paul Markow
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By Annette McGivney
Long before Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, visitors to Grand Canyon National Park shared their experiences with people back home the only way possible — through handwritten messages. They sent postcards purchased at hotel gift shops or letters penned on hotel stationery. This aspect of Grand Canyon history could have been all but forgotten, gone the way of cursive, if not for Thomas Ratz.
A longtime resident of the South Rim, Ratz has worked as a server at El Tovar for 33 years, and he's obsessed with collecting correspondence. As a result, he's assembled an extensive archive of postcards and letters that provides a unique and intimate glimpse of what people in the first half of the 20th century had to say about their time in the park.
Ratz purchased his first vintage Grand Canyon postcard at an antiques store in 1983, and he says he's been "drawn to collecting" ever since. That's an understatement. His Grand Canyon postcard collection — perhaps the largest of its kind — numbers more than 1,600 cards, all sorted and meticulously filed in archive boxes. He's amassed the largest known collection of letters sent from the Grand Canyon, which are preserved in acetate sheets and sorted in binders. He also collects El Tovar menus, photos and brochures, as well as the hotel's signature china.
"I like to find out what life was like for guests staying at the hotel in the early days, and to see how things have changed," he says. "People were just as amazed by the Grand Canyon as they are today, but, in the early 1900s, women going down Bright Angel Trail wore special
Ratz learned about the bloomers from a 1911 letter. Like most of the letters in Ratz's collection, it's written in cursive with a fountain pen on El Tovar's hotel stationery. "I'm all rigged up with divided skirt and bloomers ready to go down the mule trail," a woman wrote.
Another letter was authored by a mule skinner to his family in 1909. "He mainly talks about how he's homesick," Ratz says. "And he's very focused on how much things cost." A letter from 1919 shares news about a drowning in the Colorado River. "Someone attempted to swim the rapids," it reports. "The Indians [watching] all shook their heads and said 'no use.' "
"Sometimes, I come across love letters, but people mostly wrote about their travels and what they did at the Grand Canyon," Ratz muses as he flips through the binders. "El Tovar was a good place to stop in the middle of the long journey by rail to California."
When El Tovar opened its doors in 1905 — 14 years before Grand Canyon National Park was officially designated — the hotel was owned by the Santa Fe Railway and billed as a luxury resort destination. The railroad company sought to attract visitors to the Canyon with the promise of opulent accommodations perched on the edge of the South Rim. Ratz's collections document not only what visitors did while staying at El Tovar, but also the ways the resort sought to please its guests, who apparently spent a lot of time sitting in the hotel writing letters and postcards.
"There was a solarium room for the ladies, and also a smoking lounge on the mezzanine level," Ratz says. "Fresh food was brought in daily on trains so that the restaurant could offer a different chef's special every day. The food was kept cool in troughs in the basement."
Because Ratz has been a server at El Tovar's restaurant for more than three decades, he knows the difficulty of providing fine dining at a remote place such as the Grand Canyon, and he's fascinated with the menu options from earlier times. A 1908 El Tovar dinner menu features lamb's tongue. For breakfast, the offerings included sirloin steak, veal cutlets and pork with fried apples. In 1909, dinner choices included prime rib and prune soufflé. During World War II, food rationing resulted in patrons being limited to one pat of butter each.
Of all the correspondence that he's amassed, Ratz's favorite is what he calls the Grace Watkins Collection. The set of letters, which he purchased online for $60, was written by Watkins between 1916 and 1932, when she worked as a clerk at El Tovar's art gallery and gift shop. "She was such a name-dropper," Ratz says. "The letters show all the famous people who came to the Grand Canyon during that period."
A 1919 letter from Watkins to her family reads, in part: "We have the Russian composer S. Rachmaninoff registered. Goodness! I hope someone will ask him to play." In a 1921 letter she writes: "Madame Curie was here. We saw very little of her. She was ill and looked very frail." Watkins also writes about a 1920 visit from the Prince of India and, in 1926, one from the Prince of Sweden.
As the unofficial historian of El Tovar, Ratz is the go-to guy for guests seeking information about the hotel's past. He also authored a book, Grand Canyon National Park, which was published in 2009 by Arcadia Publishing as part of its Postcard History Series. For Ratz, the collections of postcards and letters sent from Grand Canyon are his legacy and a significant contribution to the national park's history. But there's also a deeply personal connection to the past that drives his fascination.
"Some days, I'll just sit and read the letters," he says. "[They're] like messages in bottles from the people who wrote them. I can hear their voices."
For reservations at El Tovar, call 928-638-2631 or visit www.grandcanyonlodges.com/eltovar.
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