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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By 1868, the Union Pacific construction crew reached an altitude of 8,200 feet in the Rocky Mountains. The location, called Sherman Summit, would be the highest point of both the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads.
On April 28, 1869, crews working on the Central Pacific railroad laid a record 10 miles of track in one day. On May 10, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads joined together at Promontory Summit, Utah, establishing the first transcontinental railroad.
In a well-publicized ceremonial event, Leland Stanford, the governor of California and founder of Stanford University, drove the last spike, aka the Golden Spike, which joined the railroads together. The news was broadcast via telegraph in one of America's earliest mass-media events. Americans celebrated the reduction of transcontinental travel time from six months to just one week.
Nathaniel Currier (1813-1888) and James Merritt Ives (1824-1895) operated a printmaking firm in New York City. Currier & Ives made fine-art and advertising lithographs between 1834 and 1907, including a hand-colored image of an early locomotive blasting full steam ahead.
After spending an uncomfortable night on a train, inventor and industrialist George Pullman came up with the idea that all trains traveling long distances should include a sleeper car and a dining car. The dining cars dished out hot food onto place settings that featured expensive china, silverware and fine linens. Once the diner cars were retired from service, many turned into the diners of today.
Use of these railway cars, as well as passenger railroad travel itself, continued until Congress established Amtrak in the '70s and deregulated train service in 1980.