One hundred and fifty years ago, the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in North America signaled the closing of the American frontier and the ability to travel from coast to coast quickly and with more ease than ever before. In recognition of this anniversary, the California Historical Society (CHS) presents two simultaneous exhibitions that examine the history of the railroad in California and beyond: Mark Ruwedel: Westward the Course of Empire and Overland to California: Commemorating the Transcontinental Railroad. Last week all of us at CHS had the pleasure of celebrating the opening of these two exhibitions with our members, VIP guests, and staff!
In his series Westward the Course of Empire (1994–2008), photographer Mark Ruwedel documents the physical traces of abandoned or never completed railroads throughout the American and Canadian West. Built in the name of progress as early as one hundred and fifty years ago, these now defunct rail lines are marked by visible alterations to the landscape. Ruwedel catalogues eroding cuts, disconnected wooden trestles, decaying tunnels, and lonely water towers in quietly powerful images that point to the contest between technology and the natural world. Using a large-format view camera, Ruwedel treads the same territory as nineteenth century survey photographers, but his contemporary perspective brings a sense of loss to landscapes once viewed as exploitable resources.
Last Thursday night’s opening included remarks by Managing Curator, Erin Garcia, as well as CHS’s Director of Library, Collections, Exhibitions, and Programs, Susan Anderson. Food was provided by Straw Carnival Fare, with refreshments from Fort Point. Guests also enjoyed jazz by Francis Wong and Karl Evangelista.
Images courtesy of Shannon Foreman photography