CONTACTS: Thea M. Page,
Lisa Blackburn, 626-405-2140, email@example.com
HISTORY OF TRANSCONTINENTAL RAILROAD EXAMINED IN MAJOR EXHIBITION
Press Preview: Fri., April 20, 10 a.m.–noon
“Visions of Empire: The Quest for a Railroad Across America, 1840–1880” highlights original Huntington materials never before on public display
On view in the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery April 21–July 23, 2012
Updated March 28, 2012
|Alfred A. Hart, “Locomotive ‘Gov. Stanford,’” ca. 1865 (detail). |
Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
SAN MARINO, Calif.—Drawing on the unparalleled manuscripts collection on the topic held by The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, a major exhibition will illuminate the remarkable changes wrought in the United States by the planning, construction, and completion of the transcontinental railroad. “Visions of Empire: The Quest for a Railroad Across America, 1840–1880,” on view April 21 through July 23 in the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery, coincides with the 150th anniversary of the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act, which led to the rail connection between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean. The exhibition features some 200 items, the vast majority from The Huntington—including maps, photographs, illustrations, newspapers, magazines, letters, and diaries, most of which have never before been on public display.
“‘Visions of Empire’ is our first large-scale effort to share with the public The Huntington’s trove of materials relating to the history of the American railroad,” said David Zeidberg, Avery Director of the Library. “With his purchase of a few major collections early in the 20th century, Henry Huntington brought together hundreds upon hundreds of the most significant books and pamphlets on the trans-Mississippi West. Those materials, combined with the scores of invaluable manuscript, photographic, and ephemera collections on the West acquired over the succeeding decades, form a massive foundation for what we hope will be an extraordinary exhibition.”
Peter Blodgett, H. Russell Smith Foundation Curator of Western Historical Manuscripts at The Huntington and curator of the exhibition, has chosen to tell a couple of stories. “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,” says Blodgett.
Beginning with the handful of passionate and obstinate dreamers before the Civil War who first imagined a railroad stretching to the Pacific Ocean, “Visions of Empire” portrays the drive to move westward in the face of unrelenting geographic obstacles. Published engravings and original drawings from the 1830s and ’40s depict romanticized landscapes navigable only by foot or on horseback, by wagon or by boat. One such example is the exquisite hand-illustrated diary of British army officer William Fairholme, which captures the landscape of the southern Great Plains in the 1840s; others include several of the hundreds of drawings by gold seeker J. Goldsborough Bruff as he takes part in the harrowing overland migration to Gold Rush California. Karl Bodmer’s hand-colored engravings of steamboats on western rivers from Maximilian of Wied’s Travels in the Interior of North America
(ca. 1834) not only represent “one of the first great visual epics of Western American history,” according to Blodgett, but they portray the early appearance of the new technology of steam power beyond the Mississippi, a generation before the arrival of the train.
Such images, reflecting the increasing movement of people and goods west in the 1840s, helped to fuel widespread popular debate about railroad expansion across western plains and mountains to the Pacific Coast. In 1845, New York merchant Asa Whitney submitted a petition to the U. S. Congress proposing the construction of a railroad from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean, igniting a debate that would unfold over the ensuing decades.
The exhibition features letters, newspaper articles, railroad convention proceedings, and speeches in Congress that depict the points of view in play. These many perspectives echo the multitude of hopes and dreams that different individuals held for their futures, from profit-hungry railroad entrepreneurs and financiers pursuing federal largesse to Chinese and Irish laborers attracted by the promise of work involved in laying nearly 1,700 miles of track.
“Throughout the exhibition,” says Blodgett, “visitors will encounter the voices of many Americans celebrating, critiquing, commending, and condemning the new world being stitched together in those decades with iron rails.”
Structured chronologically, the exhibition consists of six sections, beginning with a prologue called “Early Visions and Visionaries.” From there, visitors will follow the narrative through four major sections: “Charting the Course, 1840–62”; “Launching the Enterprise, 1862–65”; “Spanning the Continent, 1865–69”; and “Creating a New Country, 1869–80.” An epilogue will take visitors to the cusp of the 20th century: “Iron Horse America.”
Rare items from The Huntington’s collections will be supplemented with several loans for the installation, including artifacts such as hands tools used by railroad laborers, a payroll sheet for Chinese employees of the Central Pacific Railroad, and advertising cards for clipper ships carrying goods and passengers to Gold Rush California.
Part of the exhibition takes a deeper look at the Pacific Railroad and Telegraph Act. Here visitors can engage in exploring physical evidence in a more immersive and interactive mode. Hundreds of the Huntington's Alfred A. Hart photographs will be on view for the first time in a striking wall-sized installation. Some of these will also be able to be seen close-up through a stereographic viewer, a 19th-century apparatus that brings a dramatic three-dimensionality to images of landscapes, laborers, campsites, and supplies of the 19th-century West. Other highlights of this area include a hands-on Morse code station, where visitors can try their hand at the new communications system sweeping the country at the time, and a "walkable" map of the United States tracing the route of the transcontinental railroad.
A Widespread Impact
While the development of California and the West provided the allure for a transcontinental railroad, “Visions of Empire” tells an even broader, national story—one tied to the railroad’s place in American aspirations to dominate international trade and commerce with Asia, in the evolving role of the federal government in the life of the nation, and in the efforts to preserve the Union during the American Civil War.
A ballot from the presidential election of 1856, showing the last name of Republican John C. Frémont emblazoned across an image of a steaming locomotive, advertises the first national candidate to associate himself with the idea of a transcontinental railroad. Abraham Lincoln, the successful Republican candidate in 1860, signed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, mindful of the importance of the West to the preservation of the Union. The launching of the first American transcontinental railroad during the 1860s represented a new and dynamic phase in the enduring struggle among Americans over what role they imagined government should play in building a nation and shaping a social order.
“Visions of Empire” depicts the monumental challenges faced by this great enterprise, as captured in survey reports, engineering sketches, treaties with Indians, photographs and engravings of toiling construction crews, and correspondence highlighting the triumphs and travails of the so-called Big Four—Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, and Collis P. Huntington (uncle to Henry E. Huntington, founder of The Huntington).
Elsewhere in the exhibition, maps, photographs, and political cartoons trace the progress of this great endeavor and evolving popular attitudes toward it. Early maps offer glimpses of the young American republic pushing its web of market places and depots westward, while later versions depict the routes and towns that proliferated from Missouri to California in the wake of the meeting of the Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Pacific in 1869. Similarly, during the 1850s and early ’60s, publications such as Harper’s Weekly, Leslie’s Illustrated News
, and the London Illustrated News
portrayed these events in human terms through detailed engravings based on the burgeoning practice of photography.
By the late 1860s, as photographic technology advanced, book publishers began issuing volumes filled with massive plate photographs, such as Andrew J. Russell’s The Great West Illustrated
(1869). While many of those photographs echoed images from the 1840s with their romanticized views of the open landscape, many also captured the human toll of the brutal labor required to span the continent. Cartoonists, such as the celebrated Thomas Nast, added yet another layer of interpretation for readers as they mocked wealthy businessmen, lampooned corrupt politicians, or demonized Chinese immigrants.
The Transformation of American Society
Long before the last spike was hammered in place, when the east- and westbound tracks finally met at Utah’s Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869, the first locomotives traveling west unleashed irrevocable social, political, and economic changes. Completion of this initial enterprise only accelerated the pace of such changes, including the inauguration of other transcontinental lines.
To illuminate the decade following completion of the transcontinental railroad, “Visions of Empire” incorporates the letters and diaries of engineers, travelers, and investors who experienced first-hand the triumphs and the failures that characterized this massive undertaking. Outlining the rise of new railroads, communities, and industries across the West, it emphasizes the rapid pace of change in the 1870s spurred by this crossing of the continent. The era of exploration and discovery had quickly given way to a new age of tourism, as travelers could now see captivating landscape from their railroad car windows rather than simply in books or newspapers. Transportation became associated with luxury, as railroad lines used gloriously colorful lithographic posters to advertise the comforts of traveling east to west—and west to east—in elegant compartments and dining cars.
John Gast’s famous painting American Progress
(1872), as reproduced in the 1874 edition of Crofutt’s Trans-continental Tourist
, demonstrates that notions of empire had become as expansive as the views captured by photographers such as Alfred A. Hart and as wondrous as the poetry of Walt Whitman, whose poem “A Passage to India,” in printed broadside form, is displayed. “Singing my days,” wrote the beloved poet, “Singing the great achievements of the present, Singing the strong, light works of engineers . . . . I see over my own continent the Pacific Railroad, surmounting every barrier; I see continual trains of cars winding along the Platte, carrying freight and passengers.”
Contrasting with Whitman’s exuberant and celebratory prose, however, are other texts that remind the viewer of the inextricable link between the expansive march of railroads across the West and the conquest of native peoples such as the Sioux and the Cheyenne, the corruption of politicians and corporate officials, and the havoc wrought by the unceasing exploitation of the land and its resources. The Presenting Sponsor of this exhibition is the Union Pacific Railroad. Major support is provided by the Henry Mayo Newhall Foundation. Additional support is provided by Judi and Bry Danner, the Ahmanson Foundation Exhibition and Education Endowment, and Robert London Moore Jr.
Lectures and Tours
The Iron Horse in the Garden: Railroads and the Western Environment, the Southern Pacific Story
May 7 (Monday) 7:30 p.m.
Historian Richard Orsi, author of Sunset Limited: The Southern Pacific Railroad and the Development of the American West, 1850–1930, will discuss his continuing research into the ambiguous environmental legacy of western railroads. Although the source of great havoc in wilderness landscapes, farmlands and cities, these enterprises also encouraged more modern and balanced environmental practices and more “sustainable” human relationships with nature. A book signing follows the talk. Free; no reservations required. Friends’ Hall.Lecture Series
May 10, 17, and 24 (Thursdays) 10–11:30 a.m.
Join curator Peter Blodgett for a three-part lecture series that will include topics such as the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, the influence of railroads on America’s visual culture, and the promotion by railroads of tourism in the 19th-century American West. Each illustrated talk will be followed by a discussion in the gallery. Members: $55. Non-Members: $65. Registration: 626-405-2128.
June 7 (Thursday) 4:30–5:30 p.m.
Join curator Peter Blodgett for a private tour of the exhibition and gain insights into The Huntington’s unparalleled resources of letters, diaries, tourist guidebooks, travel narratives, railroad posters, and stereographic photographs. This exceptional collection of materials illuminates the remarkable changes wrought in the United States by the transcontinental railroad. Members: $15. Non-Members: $20. Registration: 626-405-2128.Classes
Preschool Series: Ticket to Travel
May 9, 16, 23, and 30 (Wednesdays) 10 a.m.–noon
Pack your bags for an adventure into the world of railroads as we embark on an exploration inspired by the exhibition. With instructor Laura Moede, each class includes a visit to the garden or gallery, art projects, stories, and more. Fee includes one accompanying adult. Ages 3–4. Members: $85. Non-Members: $95. Registration: 626-405-2128.After-School Adventures: All Aboard!
May 23 (Wednesday) 3:30–4:30 p.m.
Travel back to the days of steam engines and railroads. Using stories and art activities and a visit to the exhibition, young engineers will journey into the world of travel in this class led by instructor Laura Moede. Ages 5–6. Fee includes one accompanying adult. Members: $15. Non-Members: $20. Registration: 626-405-2128.Teen Workshop: A Taste of Art—American Culinary Tour
May 26 (Saturday) 10 a.m.–1 p.m.
Explore the role the railroad played in American dining habits while viewing the exhibition. After a visit to the gallery with chef and art educator Maite Gomez-Rejón of ArtBites, teens can learn some basics in the kitchen while preparing comforting American cuisine inspired by 19th-century cookbooks. Ages 14–17. Members: $60. Non-Members: $70. Registration: 626-405-2128.A Taste of Art: Nineteenth-Century America
June 16 (Saturday) 9 a.m.–12:30 p.m.
Join Maite Gomez-Rejón of ArtBites and explore the role the railroad played in the development of eating and dining habits in America. After the gallery conversation, prepare American comfort food inspired by 19th-century cookbooks. Members: $80. Non-Members: $90. Registration: 626-405-2128.
# # #
About The Huntington
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens is a collections-based research and educational institution serving scholars and the general public. More information about The Huntington can be found at huntington.org.
The Huntington is located at 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, Calif., 12 miles from downtown Los Angeles. It is open to the public Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday from noon to 4:30 p.m.; and Saturday, Sunday, and Monday holidays from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Summer hours (Memorial Day through Labor Day) are 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Closed Tuesdays and major holidays. Admission on weekdays: $15 adults, $12 seniors (65+), $10 students (ages 12–18 or with fulltime student I.D.), $6 youth (ages 5–11), free for children under 5. Group rate $11 per person for groups of 15 or more. Members are admitted free. Admission on weekends and Monday holidays: $20 adults, $15 seniors, $10 students, $6 youth, free for children under 5. Group rate $14 per person for groups of 15 or more. Members are admitted free. Admission is free to all visitors on the first Thursday of each month with advance tickets. Information: 6264052100 or huntington.org.
|American Railway Guide for 1852. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.||Robert Mills, “Memorial Respecting a New Route to the Pacific Ocean,” 1848, Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. |
|Alfred A. Hart, “Locomotive ‘Gov. Stanford,’” ca. 1865. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. |
|Theodore R. Davis, “Group of Workmen on the Union Pacific Railroad,” 1867, from Harper’s Illustrated Weekly Magazine. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.||Alfred A. Hart, “Rounding Cape Horn,” stereograph, ca. 1868. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.|
|Andrew J. Russell, “Citadel Rock,” 1868, from Sun pictures of Rocky Mountain Scenery by F. V. Hayden. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.||Andrew J. Russell, “Wind Mill at Laramie,” 1868, from The Great West Illustrated. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.|
|Andrew J. Russell, “Castle Rock, Green River Valley,” from The Great West Illustrated, 1869. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.||Andrew J. Russell, “Malloy’s Cut,” from The Great West Illustrated, 1869. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.|
|Currier & Ives, “The Express Train,” hand colored lithograph, 1870. From the private collection of James Brust.||“The East and the West—The Last Spike,” from George Crofutt, Great Trans-Continental Tourist Guide (New York, 1870). Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. |
“The Union Pacific Railway through Kansas
and Nebraska,” unknown artist, date unknown. Huntington Library, Art
Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
|Pullman Hotel Dining Cars Are Run by the
Chicago & North-Western Railway,” unknown artist, ca. 1887.
Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.|