After Promontory

Union Pacific, east of North Platte, Neb., 2013, Union Pacific Railroad. Photograph by Drake Hokanson.

In conjunction with next year’s sesquicentennial of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in the United States, the Center has launched a new special project, After Promontory: 150 Years of Transcontinental Railroading. On May 10, 1869, two railroads—built with haste, hope, and aspiration—joined in a lonely, dry desert of northern Utah, at a place called Promontory. At a small ceremony that day, dignitaries from both railroads—the Central Pacific, which had built from California, and the Union Pacific, which had built from the east—gave speeches and installed ceremonial last spikes.

The ceremonies were meant as a moment of self-congrat­ulation, but the significance of the day’s events is far broader. In the ensuing decades, railroad after railroad proposed new, competing transcontinental routes—and sometimes com­pleted them. Their construction swept away the dominance of native tribes, ended the open range, and restructured the West into a network of resources and industries dependent upon clusters of urban centers.

After Promontory is a traveling history exhibition that examines the significance and lasting impact of the transcon­tinental railroads on the American West and is the latest in a series of exhibits that explore varying interconnections between two of the most potent inventions of the Industrial Revolution, the photographic camera, and the railroad.

Launching in Spring 2019, After Promontory marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of this era. In compliment to many of the sesquicentennial exhibits and events planned throughout the West in 2019, After Promontory takes a far wider view, considering the events at Promontory to be the start of a larger phenomenon, an entire era of transcontinental railroad construction that stretched for nearly fifty years. At its core is the assertion that, collectively, the transcontinental railroads profoundly reshaped the human geography of the West, giving birth to the region we recognize today.

After Promontory’s literal and metaphorical lens on the transcontinental railroad boom is photography. Period photographs in the exhibit were made by some of the most ac­complished photographers in the nation’s history, artists such as William Henry Jackson, Timothy H. O’Sullivan, and Car­leton E. Watkins. These photographs were often created with the sponsorship of the railroads, whose leaders saw photogra­phy as a medium suitable for lobbying a distant population (and distant political leaders) on the need for public support and assistance. Also included in the exhibit is later photogra­phy from artists who have explored the lasting impact the railroads have had on the landscape, both to the benefit and the costs of the region. At stake in all of these images, both period and more contemporary, is not only the railroad itself as a subject, but how photographers of different eras, with different motivations and different sensibilities, have thought of the transcontinental railroads and their legacy.


About the Exhibition

Full Staging

  • 76 black-and-white and color prints
  • Various sizes
  • Commentary panels and exhibition labels
  • 320 linear feet, total

Region-specific stagings: Central, North, South

  • 50 black-and-white and color prints
  • Various sizes
  • Commentary panels and exhibition labels
  • 240 linear feet, total

Image Mounting and Captions

  • Matted in white and framed in black metal with clear plexiglass
  • Dry mounted on sintra

Publications and Collateral

  • Two-page exhibit guide
  • Custom exhibit catalogs
  • After Promontory: 150 Years of Transcontinental Railroading, by the Center for Railroad Photography & Art, (Indiana University Press, 2018)


To book a showing or get more information, get in touch with the Center at 608-251-5785 or send an email to info [at] railphoto-art [dot] org.


Cape Horn, C.P.R.R., circa 1878, Central Pacific Railroad. Photograph by Carleton E. Watkins. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

The Last Spike, 1869, Central Pacific Railroad, Union Pacific Railroad. Photograph by Andrew J. Russell. Courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California.

Central Pacific Railroad trestle bridge, 1867-1869, Central Pacific Railroad. Photograph by Timothy H. O’Sullivan. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley.

Staging Information

All sizes and versions of the exhibit include these core thematic groupings, a total of 30 images:

  • The First Transcontinental: 8 images of the original Union Pacific-Central Pacific transcontinental railroad by the most notable photographers of the American West: Wil­liam Henry Jackson, Timothy O’Sullivan, A.J. Russell, and Carleton E. Watkins.
  • Constructing the West: 8 images showing the con­struction of various transcontinental railway lines throughout the American West, by a variety of commercial and artistic photographers.
  • Photography and the Transcontinental Imagination: 6 images—one drawing and five photographs—that depict the activities of photographers and artists connected with the extension of the transcontinental railroads through the West.
  • The Continuing Legacy of the Transcontinentals: 8 images from contemporary artists showing the long-term footprint, both good and bad, of the various

For the Complete staging

  • The First Transcontinental (enlarged to 14)
  • The Southwestern Transcontinentals (10)
  • The Northern Transcontinentals (10)
  • Constructing the West (8)
  • Photography and the Transcontinental Imagination (6)
  • The Continuing Legacy of the Transcontinentals (enlarged to 28)

Three regional stagings of After Promontory, each with 50 images, are available:

  • Central, focusing on the route of the first transcontinental (and its competitors) from the Midwest to Northern Califor­nia via Utah. The core exhibit remains, the First Transcontinental thematic grouping grows to 14 images, the Continuing Legacy thematic grouping grows to 12 images, and an additional thematic grouping of 10 images titled The Other Transcontinentals is added.
  • South, focusing on the routes from the Midwest to Southern California via the Southwest. The core exhibit remains and 20 additional images from the Southwestern Transcontinentals is added.
  • North, focusing on the routes from Chicago and the Twin Cities to the Pacific Northwest via the northern tier of states. The core exhibit remains and 20 additional images from the Northern Transcontinentals is added.