We’ve been going to the train museum for a couple years now. Now that the kids are finally old enough to leave alone in the train table area,* I’ve finally been able to take a proper look at the exhibits. I also finally caught the movie** they show there so I can comment on that too.
*As in they don’t care if one parent disappears for a while now.
**They can sit through movies now too! Though the youngest still cries out “TRAIN!” whenever he sees one on-screen.
The movie is different that I remember as a kid. Makes sense since it’s from 1990 even though it looks at least 5 years older than that.* It’s much more multicultural than the museum and film I remembered. When I was a kid my mom always pointed out how the famous “Last Spike” photo had none of the Chinese workers in it. Only this spring has it been officially acknowledged by Congress. And it’s been fun to see Corky Lee’s restaging of the photo in celebration. Now, the Chinese contribution to the construction of the railroad is emphasized almost immediately and the museum displays include artifacts from the labor camps.
*Seriously. This screams early/mid-80s, not 1990 to me—which confused me a lot this time since it LOOKS like something I should have been able to watch as a child.
The movie also mentions that the industry employed a ton of black labor on the service side and latino labor on the trainyard side. Very multicultural. Kind of nice to see this degree of awareness in something so dated. And kind of scary since it’s evidence that we’re into three decades now and so many people still don’t see, or refuse to see, this side of things.
There was also a special photography exhibit this time. In this case, it was about early railroad photography and how it sold the industry to the public. There was lots of stuff about early cameras and stereoscopic prints* which I kind of glossed over. I was more interested in how the museum displayed original photos with the engraved versions printed in newspapers, noting the differences in composition and scale and suggesting that these were intentional changes made on behalf of the people who owned both the railroads and the newspapers.
*Though if that’s your bag, they had a lot of Alfred A. Hart on display. The Getty has a decent sample of the kind of thing which was on display. The University of Nevada Reno has a ton of his work. And Stanford has a decent collection too.
The highlight though was being able to look through a full-size reproduction of Andrew J. Russell’s Great West Illustrated. As someone whose favorite photobook may be Mark Ruwedel’s Westward the Course of Empire, looking through, in many ways, an identical project documenting the landscape around a railroad’s construction, rather than its ruins, was great and pointed out a lot of details that were lost by the time Ruwedel did his project.
Much of the geography of railroading involves cutting through the landscape in order to keep a track graded correctly. These scars are prominent in Ruwedel as they’re the most-permanent landscape modification from railroading. I was unaware that they had names and seeing each cut given a special name in Russell’s album, gives a a more personal sense of things.
It’s not just a scar on the landscape. The cuts reflect a lot of manpower and effort and each one is unique. We no longer see the uniqueness since we’re looking at the absence of the railroad rather than marveling at its presence.
Russell’s photos also include a number of references to coal beds and even a town called Coalville. This is something else that is easy to forget. Railroads are inherently tied to the natural resources they need to consume in order to run. Especially when building them in a place without any existing railroads for transport.
That the photos include a lot of the infrastructure required to support the railroads shows that it’s not just about the achievement of laying the track, this is about development and taming nature.
It’s this intersection of development and nature which really puts Russell’s photos into the tradition of people like Timothy O’Sullivan and Carleton Watkins who are credited with defining much of the way we view the American West. When Russell isn’t showing how the railroad infrastructure is conquering the landscape, he’s showing us photos of the incredible views and wide open spaces available for people to move into. This is a land of opportunity, a land of growth, a land of potential.
There’s also a completely different scale to the landscape in the West. Almost all of the photos include a human figure in the image. Some of this may be to hammer the “we’re here and can conquer this” point. But a lot of it is also just to provide scale. The landscape is huge.
But it’s settleable. Russell ends his journey in Salt Lake City with images that show a legitimate city nestled in the mountains. There’s also some curiosity about the Mormons, but it’s very clear that we can live in the West. And the railroads can take us there.
Besides the history side of things, I like a lot of the photos as photos even though all I had available to look at was a laminated digital print from a copy of the albumen print in the book. It’s not enough for him to just photograph the distinct landscape elements, I like his compositions and the way he’s able to situate so many of them in the landscape. I especially like the Hanging Rock photo and the way he’s used it to frame the settlement below it. Makes me wonder how much it would cost to buy a real print from the Oakland Museum.