Lots of context and no climbing in Sacramento. Also much less for me to photograph both because of the low light and how there’s so much less rolling stock to see. Still, the boys are finally old enough to pause a bit in museums and learn about what they’re actually seeing. And getting all their “TRAIN TRAIN TRAIN” excitement out in Portola meant that they were also ready to ask questions and listen to the responses.
The two museums really work well together as I’ve not previously been able to actually talk to the boys about how the tracks were built, how the trains actually work, and how the world changed when trains made everything connected.
The 8-year-old made a connection in Portola that the town reminded him of Radiator Springs. I informed him that that connection was pretty insightful in terms of both the boom and bust nature of the town and then reinforced that connection through the exhibits in Sacramento.
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.
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.
Hitting the train museum on the way home from Packer Lake. Just like last year. Still very much a family trip rather than a real museum exhibition. As a father to two little boys though, this place comes pretty close to heaven for them. The cashiers at the gift shop have some hilarious stories about how parents have to drag their kids out kicking and screaming.
On the way back from the sierras, we drove through Sacramento. So I took the opportunity to take my son to the California State Railroad Museum. I remember going there as a kid but it’s been two dozen years since I last visited. I don’t think it’s changed much.
First, it’s not like they can change their artifacts (train engines and rolling stock) easily. They’re pretty much stuck with what they have. So it’s a question of what stories to tell.
In this case, it’s all about the mythology of railroads. Great fun for kids and enthusiasts but a little disappointing for people wanting a nuanced view. Lots of information about manifest destiny, westward expansion, and taming the west. Much much less about robber barons, cheap immigrant labor, and the way the land changed because of railroads.
And lots of information about the golden age of railroad travel between 1920 and 1960 when it was the only way to get between cities. As I wandered through the sleeping and dining cars, I found myself wondering why, since the main appeal of long train trips now is this nostalgia kick, modern trains don’t try and really play up the romance of it all.
There is no 21st Century Limited with fancy streamlined engines. Diesel engines now all look the same. Train cars are also mostly utilitarian too. It’s a shame that you have to go to a museum in order to take part in the nostagia.*
There was one new area to me in the museum. Upstairs is a model train section consisting of a massive bequest of model trains. It’s awesome.* Every male still has a little boy inside who wanted a massive train layout. So seeing the layouts and all the different trains and train cars is great fun. As is seeing all the little boys’ eyes light up when they reach the top of the stairs.
*Though, again, model train kits seem to push the same mythology of trains.