Remembering Emil, the forgotten Britt: his life was spent in the shadow of his father’s fame
August 24, 2008
Even when Emil died in 1950, the headline reminded everyone that he was the “son of pioneer photographer Peter Britt.”
Emil was born and died in the house that Peter built, and though he lived for nearly 45 years after Peter’s death, Emil was always serving his father’s memory.
He and sister Mollie turned the Britt-house photo studio into a museum, preserving his father’s cameras and photographs. Though friends said he was quiet and shy, tour guide Emil was always eager to talk about his father, the “best known photographer in the Pacific Northwest.”
|If you go…|
|The three most prominent markers of Emil Britt’s life are the sequoia tree planted the day he was born, his photograph taken at Crater Lake, and the bridge over Jackson Creek dedicated to his memory. The 147-year old tree is up the stairs in Jacksonville’s Britt Gardens, near the Sarah Zigler trailhead. Park in the lot behind the Jacksonville Library, at California and North Oregon streets. Emil’s Crater Lake photograph (#724) can be seen on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons at the Southern Oregon Historical Society Research Library, 106 N. Central Ave., Medford. The Emil Britt Bridge is on North Oregon Street between C and D streets in Jacksonville.|
On the day Emil was born in 1862, Peter celebrated by planting a memorial sequoia tree near his hillside Jacksonville home.
Now more than 200 feet tall, the tree is one of the few reminders of a man once called “a good-natured fellow, a little eccentric at times, but one of Southern Oregon’s best-known personalities.”
Emil was a loving son, apparently content to follow in Peter’s footsteps.
His mother died when he was 9-years-old and from then on, whenever Peter took off on a photographic expedition, Emil was riding alongside.
In 1874, when Peter took the first surviving photographs of Crater Lake, a coughing and shivering Emil posed on the chilly rim while his father counted off a 20-second glass-plate exposure.
Six years later, when President Rutherford B. Hayes came to Jacksonville, he shook Emil’s 18-year-old hand, declaring he was glad to meet a “new Republican.”
The timid Emil was speechless for a moment, and then blurted out his one-word reply. “Keen-O.”
By then, Emil was learning photography from his father. In 1882, he went to San Francisco for formal training, and although he studied for nearly a year, he never was able to achieve his father’s artistic touch.
Only as a volunteer observer for the U. S. Weather Bureau was he able to surpass his father’s accomplishments.
Peter Britt was an official weather observer from the 1870s, but in 1891 he turned the work over to Emil. For the next 58 years, Emil compiled a daily report of Jacksonville’s meteorology, never missing a day.
The Weather Bureau posthumously honored Emil as “one of the deans of the cooperative observer service.” They sent a medal to his sister and praised his “unselfish and devoted service to the Bureau.”
Emil was buried beside his father in Jacksonville Cemetery.
In 1957, Jacksonville officials remembered their former mayor and good friend, Emil Britt, by dedicating the new bridge over Jackson Creek on Oregon Street to his memory. When they dug the pilings, they even found a little bit of gold.
There weren’t many bright spots in Emil’s life. He never married and he never escaped the shadow of his father’s reputation. Even today, he lives in that shadow. Others might have complained, but for Emil, that shadow was a comfortable place to be.
Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at email@example.com.