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April 22, 2019

Curating Overland to California: Commemorating the Transcontinental Railroad

Overland to California: Commemorating the Transcontinental Railroad, , , ,

Curating Overland to California: Commemorating the Transcontinental Railroad

When I set out to curate a visual history of the railroads in California, the majority of the materials I found had been produced by the railroad companies themselves. From brochures and guidebooks to stereographs and playing cards, it would seem that the visuals of the railroad infiltrated every corner of American life in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. As it happens, the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific—the two largest railroad companies in California at this time—were expert self-promoters, relying on images to publicize their companies and promote their growing lines.


California for the Tourist, Southern Pacific Company, 1910
But if using images for marketing seems like an obvious move today, it was a novel one in the nineteenth century. In 1865, the Central Pacific Railroad Company became the first US corporation to hire a full time staff photographer, purchase negatives, and build a corporate photographic archive—practices that are ubiquitous today. In Overland to California, I wanted to show how companies like the Central Pacific used images to obscure their corporate corruption and use of violent labor practices, instead projecting a vision of their company as ethical, stable, and modern. In so doing, they set a precedent for corporate marketing that continues in the present.

Poetry and Prose, Scene at Monument Point, North end of Salt Lake, Alfred Hart, 1869
At the same time, I didn’t want to give these companies the last word. As such, I made sure to include images made by the people who worked on or lived alongside the railroad, at a time when photography was becoming newly accessible and affordable for the average American. What follows is a sampling of works from the exhibition Overland to California, currently on view at the California Historical Society. Together, these images and objects tell a story of corporate corruption and promotion at the turn of the twentieth century, while also providing a visual history of those who resisted their hegemony.

Building the Loma Prieta Railroad, Photographer unknown, 1882
Railroad Bridge near Gold Run from The Central Pacific Railroad: A Trip Across the North American Continent from Ogden to San Francisco, Nelson’s Pictorial Guide-Books, 1870
Indian Viewing R.R. from top of Palisades, 435 miles from Sacramento, Alfred Hart, c. 1869
Great trans-continental tourist’s guide, George A. Crofutt and Company Publishers, 1871
Loading Boxes of Sylmar Brand Olive Oil onto Freight Cars at the Olive Growers Association, Putnam & Valentine, c. 1905
Central Pacific Rail Company Stock Certificate, Central Pacific Rail Road Company, 1861
Men at Site of Rail Car Accident, Photographer unknown, c. 1900

Man and Dog Sitting in Front of Railroad Stop Crossing Sign, Photographer unknown, c. 1900
Overland to California: Commemorating the Transcontinental Railroad and Mark Ruwedel: Westward the Course of Empire will be on view through September 8, 2019.

Written by Natalie Pellolio, Assistant Curator at California Historical Society