American History American West

Transcontinental Railroad Art and Photography

Learn more about the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike with Scott Lothes, president and executive director of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art.

The transcontinental railroad is inseparable from the history of the American West. It may not be a person like mountain man Jim Bridger, but the railroad figures just as prominently. Scott Lothes takes readers behind the scenes and describes a stunning new collection of railroad photographs.

Who is Scott Lothes?

I started with the Center in 2008 doing part-time website work, and I became the full-time executive director in 2011. In 2013, I was named president as well as editor of our quarterly journal, Railroad Heritage. My undergraduate degree is in mechanical engineering from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

Once upon a time I thought I wanted to design and build locomotives, but I followed an interest in writing to my first job as the assistant editor of an engineering magazine, and through many twists and turns that led me to the Center. I also took up photography while I was in college, building on a childhood interest in drawing.

As a freelancer, I’ve had more than 500 photographs and 50 articles in print.

As president and executive director, I work with our exemplary 13-member board to set and carry out the Center’s organizational priorities—and help do the fundraising work to ensure we can deliver on those priorities. I lead our talented staff and passionate members and volunteers on all of our programs and projects.

How did you first fall in love with trains?

I grew up in West Virginia, a state with especially deep ties to railroading (its funny-looking eastern panhandle was created to keep the entirety of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in Union territory during the Civil War). The main line of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway (now part of CSX Transportation) runs right through the middle of my hometown of St. Albans, and I learned to count waiting for hundred-car coal trains to pass. Every October, a steam locomotive came through pulling fall foliage excursion trains.

As a young boy, these big machines fascinated me. As I got older, I found that the railroad has touched nearly every facet of American history, culture, and life. It’s an endlessly compelling institution that can be studied in so many ways and from so many angles.

Scott Lothes shaking hands at the Golden Spike.
CRPA board chair Bon French and executive director Scott Lothes shake hands at the Golden Spike National Historic Site. Credit: Eric Baumgartner.

What is the mission of CRPA?

Our mission is to preserve and present significant images of railroading. We do so through five main initiatives: collections, exhibitions, publications, events, and awards.

Our collections number more than 250,000 photographs plus a few original paintings. Our goal is to build up a representative archive of the visual history of railroading, and to make these images accessible to the public. Rather than maintaining our own gallery space, we prepare traveling exhibitions that visit museums and galleries all over the country.

Our journal, Railroad Heritage, offers broad and diverse coverage of an array of topics in railroad photography and art. We also partner with other publishers to produce books, and occasionally we even publish books on our own.

Events create opportunities for face-to-face interaction—of ever greater importance in our increasingly virtual world. We typically host two conferences annually, a national conference at Lake Forest College just north of Chicago, and a regional conference at a different location each year.

Finally, we sponsor the annual John E. Gruber Creative Photography Awards Program, named for our founder, to recognize recent work. We’ll be announcing the 2019 winners on June 14.

What are one or two photographs from your collection you are especially drawn to?

There are so many to choose from! In the spirit of the original transcontinental railroad, here are three from along its route that come to mind.

From our Wallace W. Abbey Collection, two Union Pacific steam locomotives pull a freight train over the continental divide in Wyoming in 1957. The Hermosa Tunnels are just behind the photographer. Abbey also took a shot of the train approaching, which is generally the preferred aesthetic for railroad photography, but this “going-away” view is even more dramatic to me. I love the light and the shadows, and big, soft-looking plume of smoke in contrast to the hard lines of the train and rails.

Abbey, Wallace W.; Abbey-04-031-10; Cheyenne, Wyoming, An eastbound Union Pacific freight train has just exited one of the Hermosa tunnels on Wyoming’s Sherman Hill on August 17, 1957. Road power is 4-8-8-4 “Big Boy” no. 4019, assisted by 4-8-4 no. 829 as a headend helper for the climb over the Continental Divide. ; 1957-08-17; Still Image; B&W Negative; Center for Railroad Photography and Art; Abbey-04-031-10; © 2015, Center for Railroad Photography and Art.

Another view by another photographer from the same line and the same era, this is a Jim Shaughnessy shot also showing the Union Pacific line over the continental divide in Wyoming in the 1950s.

The locomotive was a type nicknamed “Big Boy” since they were some of the largest steam locomotives ever built. Yet rather than emphasizing its immensity, Shaughnessy pulled back to let the landscape dominate. The photograph has beautiful tonality, from the deep shadows of the rocks to the bright highlights in the sky, with the train in perfect silhouette. The train includes several livestock cars, and I like how their slatted sides against the bright sky make them appear translucent.

This photograph by Jim Shaughnessy shows the Union Pacific line over the continental divide in Wyoming in the 1950s. Photo provided by Center for Railroad Photography and Art .

We don’t yet have any steam-era views of Donner Pass, but this diesel-era photograph by Victor Hand still vividly portrays the appeal of big-time mountain railroading. Four Southern Pacific diesels pull a westbound freight train along the Truckee River, approaching Truckee, California, on New Year’s Eve, 1970.

A diesel-era photograph of four Southern Pacific diesels pulling a westbound freight train along the Truckee River on New Year’s Eve, 1970, by Victor Hand. Photo provided by Center for Railroad Photography and Art.

What happened on May 10, 1869? What was the Golden Spike and where is it currently located?

The Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads met at Promontory Summit, Utah, to complete the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. Workers and managers from both railroads posed with two locomotives, one from each railroad, positioned nose to nose.

Three photographers, A.J. Russell, Alfred Hart, and C.R. Savage, recorded the scene.

One of Russell’s photographs, which includes the construction bosses shaking hands and workers on the locomotives passing champagne bottles, has become an iconic image of American history.

The ceremony for the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869; completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. At center left, Samuel S. Montague, Central Pacific Railroad, shakes hands with Grenville M. Dodge, Union Pacific Railroad (center right). This work is in the public domain in the United States and other areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

Dignitaries drove four ceremonial spikes: two gold, one silver, and one made of gold, silver, and iron.

The most valuable and famous of the four spikes, the one that was driven last by the Central Pacific’s Leland Stanford, resides permanently at the Cantor Art Center of Stanford University. It is on loan in Utah for displays during the sesquicentennial celebrations this spring, along with the silver spike and the blended spike.

The fourth spike is missing.

Introduce After Promontory: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Transcontinental Railroading.

The sesquicentennial of the Golden Spike is, for us, nothing short of a golden opportunity. For this one moment in time, the nation will cast its eyes to railroad history.

Many organizations are planning events and celebrations. We wanted to do something to commemorate the occasion and take advantage of the national spotlight while complementing, rather than competing with, all of the other activities. We also saw an opportunity to expand the narrative.

Most of the other events will focus on the first transcontinental railroad.

Yet we’ve come to see its completion not as the end of something, but rather, a beginning.

For us, the events of May 10, 1869, marked the start of an entire era of “transcontinentalism.” Dozens of railroad companies proposed additional transcontinental routes, and six more distinct lines were ultimately completed across the western United States. Together, they transformed the nation.

After Promontory considers their collective histories and legacies, drawing on historic photography from our own collections and from several repositories throughout the West, while also showcasing recent work by several contemporary photographers. The book includes essays by four noted railroad historians, one rail executive, and one photographer.

The exhibition employs thematic groupings of photographs and multiple stagings tailored to different regions of the country.

Both the book and the exhibitions examine the tremendous changes railroads have wrought on the landscape of the western United States, and how photographers have portrayed those changes.

Did early railroad companies ever sponsor photographs? For what purposes?

Yes, absolutely. Railroad companies frequently sponsored photographs, generally to promote investment in their firms, settlement along their routes, and patronage of their passenger trains.

Who was Thomas Durant and how does he figure into the history of the railroad?

Durant was Vice President of the Union Pacific Railroad in the 1860s. More famously, he was the financial mastermind behind the Crédit Mobilier Scandal, which took place during the construction of the Union Pacific.

Durant setup a separate company, Crédit Mobilier of America, to build the railroad. That company then charged the railroad exorbitant rates for construction while also bribing politicians. Durant was eventually ousted, and he lost much of his wealth in the Panic of 1873.

What were some of the obstacles that had to be overcome for the transcontinental railroad to be completed?

The Crédit Mobilier scandal is a great example of the challenges. Beyond corruption, which was a major obstacle, there was the very real challenge of simply financing the railroad.

It was incredibly expensive to build and initially it had very little potential for business, so investors weren’t interested. That opened the door for scoundrels like Durant and scandals like Crédit Mobilier.

Then the construction itself was incredibly difficult. We brought in thousands of workers from China to build the Central Pacific over Donner Pass in California, where they famously dangled from ropes while hewing the right-of-way out of solid granite cliffs. Irish immigrants, freed slaves, even some convicted criminals, and many others built the Union Pacific across the prairies and the Rocky Mountains.

Nothing on the scale of the Pacific Railroad had ever been built in the entire history of humanity. Rail historians panned Stephen E. Ambrose’s book about it, Nothing Like It in the World, for a number of inaccuracies, yet that title is absolutely perfect. Building and then operating the transcontinental railroad required new ways of thinking for obstacles that no one had ever faced before, because nothing like it had ever been attempted before.

What is the legacy of the transcontinental railroad?

Railroads completely reoriented the United States. Because of them, we went from a north-south agricultural nation powered by water and animals, to an east-west industrial nation driven by steam. Our great cities of the West grew and thrived because of railroads. Our native peoples and bison herds were obliterated because of railroads. Our overseas military forces during both world wars got the supplies they needed from the homefront because of railroads.

Today our rail network is busier than ever, carrying forty percent of our nation’s freight. Your smartphone and the shirt on your back likely made part of their journey to you by train.

The original transcontinental railroad is greatly changed since 1869. Across Nebraska, much of it is now a state-of-the-art, triple-track corridor with modern signalling and remote controlled switches. Prior to recent declines in the U.S. coal industry, that line was considered the busiest freight railroad in the world on the basis of tonnage moved, and it’s still one of the busiest.

Elsewhere, including much of Utah, the original route has been bypassed and is no longer in use, and the old right-of-way is now an empty path through the high desert. Yet all of it stands as an incredible testament to the human spirit and the American experience, and speaks to the widely varying fates that inevitably await our works.

If you could go back in time and witness any event from the history of the railroad, what would you most like to see?

My fascination with railroads stems more from everyday drama than from major events. If I had a time machine I’d simply want to witness (and photograph) a typical day on Donner Pass during the steam era—-preferably a crisp autumn day just before the winter snows started.

That climb from sea level at the Pacific Ocean to Donner’s 7,000-foot summit is one of the most remarkable in all of railroading. Central Pacific successor Southern Pacific threw massive locomotives at it, and during the steam era they required legions of workers to keep them moving.

It was an incredible feat.

Some of the largest locomotives in the world pulled and pushed eighty-car trains of California produce heading east, while crack passenger trains had to get around the plodding freights.

It’s an impressive show even today, but I would love to have seen it during the steam era, before Interstate 80 was constructed.

For me, that’s the ongoing intrigue of the transcontinental railroad–this incredible force of industrial technology juxtaposed against the stunning landscapes of the American West.

Subscribe to From the Desk’s free email list.

Recommended resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

Leave a Reply

Discover more from From the Desk

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading