Published: April 24, 2012
Drawing on the manuscripts collection on the topic held by the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, an exhibition illuminates 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‱880,” on view 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.
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 covers 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 Nineteenth century,” said Blodgett.
Beginning with the handful of passionate and obstinate dreamers before the Civil War who first imagined a railroad stretching to the Pacific Ocean, the exhibition portrays the drive to move westward in the face of unrelenting geographic obstacles. Published engravings and original drawings from the 1830s and 1840s depict romanticized landscapes navigable only by foot or on horseback, by wagon or by boat.
One such example is the 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 (circa 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 US 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.
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