by Glenn Willumson, author of Iron Muse: Photographing the Transcontinental Railroad

The photographs of the transcontinental railroad first came to my attention over thirty years ago, when I was a graduate student in art history at the University of California, Davis. The California State Railroad Museum had opened a year earlier and had been given a warehouse of artifacts about the Central Pacific Railroad, one of the two corporations that constructed North America’s first transcontinental railroad. Among those objects was a set of invoices from the earliest days of the railroad, and among those invoices were payments for photographs by Alfred A. Hart.

Alfred Hart, Locomotive on Trestle, near American River (no. 135), 1865. Albumen stereograph, 3 1/2 x 7 inches. Cover image for Iron Muse, courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento.

Little was known about Hart. There was no biography of the man, and what little had been published was misleading or incorrect. Hart had received scant attention, in part, because he worked in an under-studied genre of photographic expression—stereography. When viewed through a stereoscope the twinned images on the stereographic card produce a scene of dramatic intensity. But the material qualities of the stereograph—two photographs only 3 x 3.5 inches each meant that they were not ideal exhibition material. Hart and stereography, however, were ideal for me. A year earlier, I had resigned my position as a high school English teacher in order to return to the university to study the history of photography. I soon found my interests were not so much questions about photography as fine art as they were about the surrounding social structures within which the photograph was created, sold, used, and collected.

Long after the completion of my critical biography of Hart, my interest in these early photographs of the vastness and sculptural beauty of the North American West continued to preoccupy me, even while my research embraced other aspects of the photograph’s social and material history. In the late 1990s, I became interested in the work of Union Pacific photographer, Andrew J. Russell, and six years later began my manuscript about the photographs of the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. The result, Iron Muse, outlines the early social, political, commercial, and aesthetic history of North America’s first transcontinental railroad as seen through those photographs.

With the 150th anniversary of the joining of the rails on May 10, 2019, new scholarly attention is being directed to the transcontinental railroad. Exhibitions at the Joslyn Museum (Omaha), Utah Museum of Fine Arts (Salt Lake City), California Historical Society (San Francisco), Oakland Museum (Oakland), and the Crocker Museum of Art (Sacramento), will engage both stereographs and large format photographs of the transcontinental railroad, highlighting the aesthetic quality of the images and their historic importance. Iron Muse provides context for these exhibitions, as it will for future considerations of photographs of the transcontinental railroad and the depiction of the landscape in the mid-nineteenth century American West.

Glenn Willumson will be participating in an event on Monday, June 17 at the Oakland Museum around their upcoming exhibition, Pushing West: The Photography of Andrew J. Russell.

He will also be presenting a guest lecture at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento on Saturday, September 7 in connection with their exhibition, The Race to Promontory: The Transcontinental Railroad and the American West.