Railroads and Photography: 150 Years of Great Images

Undated daguerreotype of the “Tioga,” built in 1848 for the Philadelphia & Columbia, among the earliest known railroad photos (Unidentified photographer, Smithsonian Institution).

Railroading and photography grew up together. Only a few years separate the beginning of US railroading in 1827 and the first photographic image—and the iron horse soon became a favorite subject.

A decade after railroading gained a toehold in America, Louis Daguerre invented the first practical photographic process. Samuel F. B. Morse, a painter better known for his telegraph code, brought the daguerreotype to the US in 1839. An undated view of the 1848 locomotive “Tioga” is among the earliest American railroad photographs.

Railroads pioneered the field of industrial photography, first as a way to record their locomotives and later to promote travel by rail. Beginning in the 1930s, impressive photo books brought new attention to rail photography. Through the years, the tie between railroading and photography has remained strong, maintained by professionals, railroad companies, and skilled amateurs alike.

These examples of railroad—inspired creativity only hint at the 150—year legacy of thousands of talented men and women. The outstanding images suggest how deeply railroading has affected our culture, our visual heritage, and our daily lives.

Railroading was an agent of change and a powerful tool. With it, men and women reshaped the continent and made our modern existence possible. Those same Americans used and enjoyed photography, both for personal creative expression and as a powerful tool for change and development. The camera and the locomotive grew up together.

Together, railroading and photography permit us to look back over the last century and a half and realize how far we have come. But some things do not change. It is safe to assume that for as long as trains rumble through the landscape, folks at trackside will capture the moment with an image.

We thank the Donnelley and Lee Library, Lake Forest College, Lake Forest, Illinois, for sharing photographs in the Munson Paddock Collection, and photographers who contributed to the exhibition.

Exhibition Photographs, Chronologically by Photographer

* – denotes winner of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society national award for photography.

  1. Unidentified: Tioga, built in 1848 for the Philadelphia & Columbia, among the earliest known railroad photos (Smithsonian Institution)
  2. Andrew J. Russell (1830-1902): Dan Casement and clerks at Echo City (Union Pacific Museum Collection)
  3. Carleton E. Watkins (1829-1916): Lumberyard for the Comstock south of Carson City, Nevada, in 1876, with Virginia & Truckee engine I. E. James amid mining timbers. (Nevada State Railroad Museum)
  4. John B. Silvis (1830-1900): Winnemucca family, Nevada (Barry J. Swackhamer Collection)
  5. Perrie Mahaffey (1887-1961): Broadway Limited at Night, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, 1930 (California State Railroad Museum)
  6. Albert Phelps (1917-1994): Outback meet of Nevada Northern varnish from Ely and Southern Pacific’s eastbound Challenger at Cobre, Nevada, in July 1941. (Nevada State Railroad Museum)
  7. William Rittase (1887-1968): Chesapeake & Ohio locomotives at Clifton Forge, Virginia, 1944 (C&O Historical Society)
  8. Esther Bubley (1921-1998): CB&Q worker, Princeton, Illinois, 1948 (Newberry Library, Chicago)
  9. Ted Wurm (1919-2004): Virginia & Truckee locomotive 27 and train no. 2 at Carson City, Nevada, May 30, 1950. (Nevada State Railroad Museum)
  10. *Richard Steinheimer (1929-2011): Leased Rio Grande diesels at Mina, Nevada, New Year’s Eve, 1971 (Center)
  11. *Stan Kistler, Grass Valley, California: Southern Pacific Cab Forward, Colton, California, 1952 (Center)
  12. *Jim Shaughnessy, Troy, New York: Central Vermont at St. Albans, Vermont, 1956 (Center)
  13. Robert Hale (1912-1992): Second 24, Grand Canyon Limited, Cajon Pass, California, 1950s (M. D. McCarter collection)
  14. *William D. Middleton (1928-2011): Chicago & North Western Station, Madison, Wisconsin, 1955
  15. *James P. Gallagher (1920-2002): Maryland & Pennsylvania, Gross Trestle, 1955
  16. *O. Winston Link (1914-2001): Train No. 2 Crossing Bridge 425, Arcadia, Virginia (Front View), 1956 (Lent by Link trust)
  17. *John Gruber, Madison, Wisconsin: Rochester 400 in the fog, Madison, Wis., 1962
  18. Gordon Osmundson, Oakland, California: Hook and Boom, Nevada Northern, Ely
  19. *Ted Benson, Modesto, California: San Jose, California, Station, 1985
  20. Joel Jensen, Ely, Nevada: Winter Olympics, Utah, 2002

The display as it appeared at the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City.

About the exhibition
The Center’s first traveling photography exhibition presented the visually stunning history of railroads and photography. Featuring 20 images dating from the mid-1800s to the 21st century (see list at bottom), the exhibition visited 10 different venues throughout the United States. It opened in 1999 at Railfair at the California State Railroad Museum, Sacramento, and moved to Altoona, Pennsylvania; Madison, Wisconsin; Lake Forest, Illinois; Champaign, Illinois; St. Louis, Missouri; Temple, Texas; Carson City, Nevada; Lisle, Illinois; and finally Ely, Nevada, in summer 2003.