This May marks 150 years of one of the most pivotal events in U.S. history: the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. On May 10, 1869, the presidents of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific met in Promontory, Utah and drove a ceremonial last golden spike into a rail line that connected their railroads, linking the United States from shore to shore. As we commemorate the 150th anniversary, follow our #TranscontinentalRailroad blog series all week for untold stories of this iconic event.

As westward expansion was taking place on many fronts, the still-nascent technology of photography helped bring the West’s fabled landscapes, impossible-sounding stories, and regional discoveries to life for most Americans. Indeed, these early photographs influenced not just the politics and ideas of the day, but ultimately the business of development. The following excerpts from Carleton Watkins: Making the West American by Tyler Green, and Iron Muse: Photographing the Transcontinental Railroad by Glenn Willumson, both demonstrate the complex artistry and purpose behind creating these historic images.

By this point of Watkins’ career as a professional picture-maker, almost ten years in, Watkins had developed the ability to think about a landscape in three dimensions, to realize what changing his vantage point or elevation would earn him. He would have understood that by hiking up above the landscape through which he’d just moved via train that he would get a picture that showed the Columbia River cutting through basalt flows and over the The Dalles rapids, and that would show the Dalles and Celilo’s portage road around the falls. Any 19th-century railroad man who saw this picture would have read it this way: He would have seen the Columbia enter the picture at the middle right, flowing downriver toward the center-left. Familiar with seasonal flooding—that happened in the East too—he’d have noticed the high-water marks along the basalt flows through which the Columbia had cut over the many millions of years. That railroad man would have seen an enormous sand dune between the river and the OSNC’s slightly elevated track, and the way that the sand in the center of the picture, right in front of the white OSNC building at the middle of the frame, flowed from left to right, and understood that water came into the river through that spot during the spring. He’d have noticed that the OSNC’s portage road had been built as close to the basalt butte as a surveyor dared, and that it hadn’t mattered, that the tracks were covered with sand from recent flooding. Watkins’ picture would have communicated exactly what OSNC wanted it to communicate: if any railroad wanted access to national and international trade via Portland, to the entire Pacific Northwest, that railroad would have to deal with the OSNC because the OSNC owned the only places a railroad could transit the Columbia Gorge.

The other two pictures Watkins took along this section of railroad deliver the same message.…The third picture proves that despite all that sandy evidence of flooding, the seeming temporality of the railroad track in the other two pictures, that the OSNC routinely ran trains here. It shows a locomotive on the OSNC’s tracks with a huge basalt bluff rising about 1,000 feet behind it on the left, and the Columbia River alongside it on the right. The locomotive is on a trestle road that links two sand dunes. The train looks like a toy.…

What of the battle related to the transcontinental? As the Central Pacific was pushing for a side branch off of the transcontinental from Nevada’s Humboldt Valley toward the Willamette, the OSNC was almost certainly wholly aligned with the Union Pacific, which wanted to build a like from Salt Lake toward Portland. As it turned out, both the UP and CP exhausted themselves, financially and otherwise, in completing the transcontinental in 1869. That forced the OSNC to align with the next transcontinental that was being built, the Northern Pacific. Coincidentally—or not?—Watkins, Ralston and Ainsworth associate Frederick Billings was a director of the NP and would and later become its chief executive….It was at this time, probably as a thank you, that Ainsworth gifted Cooke a lavishly bound volume of Watkins’s pictures of the Columbia River Gorge, the clearest surviving suggestion of why the pictures were made. Learn more about Carleton Watkins: Making the West American.

The directors of the Central and Union Pacific Railroads did not gather photographs simply for historical or self-congratulatory purposes. They used their photographic archives to further the interests of their companies. In the hands of the railroads, particularly the Central Pacific’s, the representational force of the photographic archive was used to exercise a type of soft power. Less overt than lawsuits, threats, and bribes, the photographs persuaded rather than compelled. By mining their archives for images to reproduce int he popular press, the railroad companies hoped to influence the American and European public to support the project and to invest in their corporations. The problem the companies faced was how to control the press’s interpretation of the images. As individual images were freed from the restraints of sequence and title, the photographs were reinterpreted to meet the needs of a variety of audiences. This new outlet for conveying corporate messages offered possibilities and perils. In the case of the transcontinental railroad, not all press coverage was equal….

As the railroads struggled to raise capital, success depended as much on information and trust as it did on iron and equipment. Between 1866 and 1869, the Central Pacific used stereographs to characterize their successes—the completion of a bridge, the depth of an excavation, or the progress of the rails into the mountains—and to distract from their failings. The Union Pacific chose not to document its construction in photography until 1868, save for a handful of stereographs that were made during the excursion to the 100th Meridian. In 1867, however, both companies realized that broadcasting favorable images in the press increased public visibility, bolstered the railroads’ ability to sell securities, and allowed them to exert new political pressure. Although their efforts were the most intense during the years of construction, the images continued to be published in the illustrated press and travel guides after the completion of the railroad.

For this effort to serve the needs of the railroad effectively, however, the images and accompanying stories depended upon the patina of accuracy and objectivity. If the public knew that the information was coming from the Central Pacific or Union Pacific, it would be, at best, suspect. Consequently, one of the challenges the corporations faced was how to place the photographs and information where they could do the most good, but shield the company’s manipulation of image and text from the public. They were able to accomplish this in a number of ways. They could directly pay the papers or reporters to publish the information; they could expand their advertising in the papers or, conversely, threaten to withdraw it.  Alternatively, they could secretly hire free-lance reporters who submitted stories that were favorable to the railroad under their byline. When it came to imagery, though, the scientific basis of photography made it an ideal medium to convey the railroad’s message to the public. The veracity of the photographic image, even when translated into wood engraving, was widely accepted by the public; by choosing which images to submit for publication, the railroad hoped to affect the content of the accompanying story. These illustrations were particularly effective when paired with text from a favorable reporter. Even with all these controls, however, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific were not able to determine absolutely the meaning of the images when they left the archive and were published in the press. Removing the photographs from the archival confines and placing them in the hands of distant editors, opened the images up to a variety of interpretations, and the farther away those editors, the more difficult it was to contain interpretation. Learn more about Iron Muse: Photographing the Transcontinental Railroad.

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