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Amtrak's Ancestors: The Huntington's Exhibit on the History of the Transcontinental Railroad

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Tue, Apr 24, 2012 at 12:39 PM

click to enlarge Alfred A. Hart's photo entitled Locomotive "Gov. Stanford," circa 1865 - HUNTINGTON LIBRARY, ART COLLECTIONS AND BOTANICAL GARDENS
  • Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
  • Alfred A. Hart's photo entitled Locomotive "Gov. Stanford," circa 1865
Long before studios, hippies, method actors and reality-show wannabes headed out west, the Pacific Coast was a destination for farmers, miners, prospectors and other wagon-wheeling homesteaders who were looking for a new way of life. Two years after California struck gold in 1848, it became a part of the United States in 1850, and along with the Gold Rush, there was another rush to build a railroad linking the country's growing network of cities together.

"Visions of Empire: The Quest for a Railroad Across America, 1840-1880," on view through July 23, chronicles the construction of America's transcontinental railroad through original paintings, lithographs, magazines and other prints and ephemera from the permanent collection at the Huntington Library in San Marino.

Curator of the exhibition and the Huntington's H. Russell Smith Foundation Curator of Western Historical Manuscripts Peter Blodgett explains: "As much as the exhibition will cover the technological marvels, engineering feats and entrepreneurial audacity of the railroad age, it also tells the story of how the vision of American continental expansion evolved through a range of historical contexts -- from the age of Andrew Jackson through the Gold Rush, Civil War and Gilded Age of the late 19th century."

Here is a selection of images from the exhibition, with a few nuggets of valuable historical info sprinkled throughout.

click to enlarge American Railway Guide for 1852 - HUNTINGTON LIBRARY, ART COLLECTIONS AND BOTANICAL GARDENS
  • Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
  • American Railway Guide for 1852

The American Railway Guide for 1852 is one of the publications that charted the course of the transcontinental railroad. Following the Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act and soon afterward, the Central Pacific railroad established lines between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, the Union Pacific railroad began working its way from east to west.

click to enlarge Alfred A. Hart's photo entitled Locomotive "Gov. Stanford," circa 1865 - HUNTINGTON LIBRARY, ART COLLECTIONS AND BOTANICAL GARDENS
  • Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
  • Alfred A. Hart's photo entitled Locomotive "Gov. Stanford," circa 1865

Photographer Alfred A. Hart (1816-1908) documented the construction of the Central Pacific railroad with hundreds of 3-D stereoscopic slides. As part of its new exhibition, the Huntington has installed more than 300 of the 3-D slides and is enabling visitors to view them on iPads while still using an old-fashioned stereoscope.

click to enlarge Theodore R. Davis's Group of Workmen on the Union Pacific Railroad, 1867, from Harper's Illustrated Weekly Magazine - HUNTINGTON LIBRARY, ART COLLECTIONS AND BOTANICAL GARDENS
  • Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
  • Theodore R. Davis's Group of Workmen on the Union Pacific Railroad, 1867, from Harper's Illustrated Weekly Magazine

Unfortunately, the rapid progress of the railroad meant the exploitation of Chinese workers, who helped build most of the transcontinental railroad and its tunnels. Unlike their Caucasian counterparts, Chinese railroad workers had to buy uniforms with their own paychecks, leaving them with less take-home pay. Then, once the railroads finished construction, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which banned the immigration of any new Chinese laborers into the United States.

click to enlarge Andrew J. Russell's Citadel Rock, 1868, from Sun Pictures of Rocky Mountain Scenery by F.V. Hayden - HUNTINGTON LIBRARY, ART COLLECTIONS AND BOTANICAL GARDENS
  • Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
  • Andrew J. Russell's Citadel Rock, 1868, from Sun Pictures of Rocky Mountain Scenery by F.V. Hayden

Andrew J. Russell (1830-1902) was a photographer who chronicled the construction of the Union Pacific railroad, in addition to capturing early images of the Civil War. His book, The Great West Illustrated (1869) includes large plate photographs of a bucolic American landscape juxtaposed against images of the grueling aspects of railroad construction.

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