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Historic railroad photos document changes in West’s landscape

February 17th, 2012 Posted in Arts and Life

By Chris Lee

LOGAN – Members of the Cache Valley Historical Society, railroad enthusiasts, and students gathered Wednesday to learn about the photographs of Andrew J. Russell and the Union Pacific Railroad.

Daniel Davis, photo curator at the USU Merrill-Cazier Library’s Special Collections and Archives, showed examples of Russell’s photographs during the Friends of Merrill-Cazier Library lecture. Russell’s photographs can also be seen in “The Forgotten Photographs of the Union Pacific Railroad” on display in the library lobby.

A lot of Russell’s photographs showed how man conquered the land, Davis said. The photographs showed more than just people working, but also Native Americans who had never seen a photograph and tourists posing on top of rock formations.

Russell created 13 view series and 613 numbered stereoviews, which were very popular in the 1860s and 1870s, Davis said. He said stereoviews were small photos that created a 3D image when placed in a device similar to a Viewmaster toy.

Russell also created a series of large format images that were published in two books that cost $75 each so few people saw them, Davis said. Russell’s most famous photograph is of the Golden Spike ceremony at Promontory Point, Utah.

Davis said Russell’s work with the stereo views focused more on people compared to the large format images.

Davis said he went on sabbatical to recreate some of the photographs. He said he drove to locations across the West trying to take pictures in the same spot, or fairly close, as Russell had.

The photographs shown side by side showed the audience how much or how little things had changed. Davis said many of the rocks showed slight weathering while other rock formations were gone, highways in their place.

“Everything has changed,” Davis said about a particular image. “All the wooden buildings, all the camps, everything’s gone.”

Davis closed his presentation with a message for the audience.

“This year marks the 150th anniversary of the passing of the Pacific Railway Act,” Davis said. “As we get closer to the 150th anniversary, in 2019, of the completion of the transcontinental railroad we do need to remember the triumph of the accomplishment. And it was an amazing accomplishment.”

Davis said people in 1865 thought it would take at least ten years, but probably closer to 20 years, to build the railroad. He said there were only a few small forts for 1,000 miles between Omaha and Ogden at the time.

“The benefits to the nation, and to Utah, were undeniable,” Davis said. “By one historian’s estimate, the freight cost was 1/17 the cost to ship by railroad versus wagon.”

If we would ship by wagon today, Davis said, an iPhone would be $3,400 if it was shipped by wagon verses $200 by train.

Davis said the railroad helped people travel quickly to see friends, family, and exotic places like Utah. A trip that once took three months could then be completed in three days.

“Instead of focusing on five or six large format images that mythologize the building of the railroad, and writing about the same subject over and over again, maybe, leading us up to the 150th anniversary we could also focus on the people; the engineers, the surveyors, the graters, the spikers who lived and died to get this thing done,” Davis said.

By focusing in the stereoview images of the people who made the railroad we can create a more complete and well rounded view on the transcontinental railroad, Davis said.

After the presentation Blythe and Anne Ahlstrom said they thought it was fascinating.

“I thought it was fantastic,” Anne Ahlstrom said. “It’s interesting the way they’ve changed.”

Blythe Ahlstrom said he thinks the railroad always has kind of an enchantment for people. Ahlstrom is a member of the Friends of Merrill-Cazier Library, which chose Davis for their lecture series.

“We looked at number of presentations and we knew he was preparing to have an exhibit that was going to be in the library to,” Blythe Ahlstrom said. “He had a presentation that the people thought sounded interesting.”


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