Representations of Railroad Work, Past and Present

Grand Central Terminal Exhibition
The Center’s exhibition Many Hands: Representations of Railroad Workers on display at New York City’s Grand Central Terminal in 2006. Photo by Joshua McHugh

Representations: a Report

During “Representations of Railroad Work,” a three-year program funded by the North American Railway Foundation (NARF), the Center created nine impressive photography exhibits that have been displayed at twenty-two locations across the country, reaching thousands of viewers. With these exhibits and our publications, Internet galleries, and bibliography, we have achieved our goal of building awareness of the significance of the human element of railroading. Interest is growing in the stories of the people who built the railroads, rail by rail.

About the Program

NARF, formed in 1996 as a private operating foundation “to explore, nurture and support railway safety, efficiency and technology and to educate about and preserve the history of railroads in the United States and Canada,” receives its financial support from organized rail labor. “We are very pleased with the work the Center has completed over the past three years and what they continue to accomplish today,” said Philip J. Sullivan II, executive director of NARF.

After the first exhibit, at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, its curator, Bradley Smith, commented, “great,” “visually stunning,” “appreciated by many.” He estimated that thousands, probably tens of thousands, had seen it.

“Our visitors found the images evocative and engaging,” added Kurt Bell, museum archivist. “Since the gallery is situated directly behind my office, I could always hear their comments–my overall impression is that parents with kids in tow don’t have much time to stop and read long labels, and since this exhibit had a minimum of text, it won popular favor. “It’s Work” was also effective for our audience because it allowed them to learn chunks of railroad history by “reading” the images since they were very people-oriented and graphically pleasing and they didn’t get bogged down with too much information.”

Ryan Kunkle, visitor services supervisor, echoed Bell’s comments. “Its impact was through its simplicity, a factor which made the exhibit nice from the museum’s perspective as well, requiring little extra effort on our part for set up and interpretation. Many of our visitors have asked for more interpretation of the railroaders themselves and this was a wonderful dovetail with our other exhibits. Since the vast majority of our visitation also associates railroading with a family member, there was an instant personal connection to the exhibit as well. Since most learning starts through these personal associations, that made the exhibit a tremendous portal into the rest of the collection, he said.

At the Nevada State Railroad Museum, its executive director, Peter Barton, was pleased with an increased in attendance when the exhibit opened there. “Our visitation for the period from July 1 through August 10 has been about 6,900–and that is up a respectable 10 percent over the same period last year. As you know, many museums are suffering through a period of static or reduced visitation, particularly so with recent substantial increases in the cost of auto fuel. So we are quite delighted to see an increase of any sort, not to mention a double-digit one,” he said.

To mark the completion of the “Representations” project on September 30, 2006, the Center published It’s Work, a 32-page publication featuring 41 memorable photographs from the seven exhibits. Twenty-eight photographers are represented (four photographs are anonymous) in It’s Work. “While driven by different motivations–some to promote or persuade, some to depict, and some to offer commentary on both the emerging and post-industrial worlds–photographers have created a visual legacy of American work and life that we have not yet fully explored, even while they make new images daily,” the introduction says. Classic Trains (Summer 2007, page 90) andRailfan & Railroad (June 2007, page 12) featured It’s Work in product news and reviews.

Another publication, Railroad Heritage No. 13, 2005, also contributed to the understanding of “Representations.” For this issue, special editor Mark W. Hemphill, former editor of Trains magazine and a former train dispatcher, with noted authors, photographers, and historians brought together a previously unseen sensitivity to railroad work. He described the issue in this manner: “Is railroading just another job? No. To the people who do it, railroading is a lifestyle, a brotherhood, a culture with its own language and identity. To the public, railroading is unknown territory. But through photography and art, the obscuring veil can be peeled back.” Railway History(Railway & Locomotive Historical Society) and the National Railway Bulletin vol. 69, no. 5 (National Railway Historical Society), among others, reviewed the issue. “Stressing this human aspect over the mechanical is what sets this issue apart,” theBulletin reviewer wrote.

The exhibits, publications, and web site are a sample of the scope and reach of the Center’s railroad heritage efforts, and the beginnings of an answer to the question above, posed by Albro Martin in Railroads Triumphant (Oxford University Press, 1992, page 308): “Why work for a railroad, then, if it demanded so much of a man’s patience, strength, and eventually his health and maybe even his life?”

The project brought a revamping of the Center’s web site, with more emphasis on visual content, especially galleries. “It’s Work” and “Faces of Railroading” are directly related to exhibits of the same names. For researchers and students, the Center compiled a bibliography and posted it on the site. Prof. Coleen Dunlavy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison distributed our publications as an introduction to the Railroads in America seminar.

The completion of “Representations” does not mean the Center will abandon its commitment to telling the story of railroad work. It will continue to expand on the topic in all its programs. The Center is cooperating in producing books such asWorking on the Railroad by Brian Solomon (MBI and Voyageur Press, 2006), which includes an introduction by John Gruber, president, and The Railroad Never Sleeps (in press).

The Center’s partnerships from this program will also serve it well in its next endeavor, an Internet archive dedicated to standout images of railroading. This site, at, will allow people to access and view railroad art and photography from both private and institutional collections. The railroad site promises to become a preservation program, a digital library, and an art and photography resource for rail enthusiasts, scholars and artists, and the public.

All these efforts are part of a larger program to explore the visual culture of railroading and better understand our railroad heritage and its future.

The Center’s exhibitions about railroad work at the California State Railroad Museum

About the exhibitions
“Representations of Railroad Work” was a series of exhibitions that toured from 2004 through 2009. One of them, “A World Apart: 150 Years of Railroaders at Work,” is still in circulation and available to travel. It consists of thirty-five photographs of workers from throughout the history of railroading. The photographs are both color and black-and-white, matted in white, and framed in black metal to approximately 22×26 inches. Get in touch with the Center at info [at] railphoto-art [dot] org or 608-251-5785 for more information or to book a show.

Exhibitions and Venues:

A World Apart: 150 Years of Railroaders at Work

  • Tucumcari, New Mexico, Tucumcari Railroad Museum, June 1 to September 30, 2015
  • Galesburg, Illinois, Ford Center for the Fine Arts at Knox College, June to August, 2013
  • Detroit, Michigan, 150th anniversary of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, May 2013
  • Great Overland Station, Topeka, Kansas, 2009
  • Grafton (West Virginia) B&O Heritage Center, Summer 2008
  • Carnegie Arts Center, Alliance, Nebraska, January 8 to March 8, 2008
  • Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, Kennesaw, Georgia, January 21-May 21, 2006

It’s Work: 150 years of Great Images

  • Railroaders’ Memorial Museum, Altoona, Pennsylvania, October-December, 2004
  • Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, Strasburg, March 1-September 27, 2004

It’s Work: 150 Years of Railroad Workers at Work

  • Topeka, Kansas, Great Overland Station, Spring 2009
  • Carnegie Arts Center, Alliance, Nebraska, January 8-March 2, 2008

Still a World Apart: Visual Profiles of Contemporary Railroaders

  • Lake Superior Railroad Museum, St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center, Duluth, Minnesota, 2008
  • Nevada State Railroad Museum, Carson City, July 1-December 31, 2006
  • California State Railroad Museum, Sacramento, July 9, 2005-June 13, 2006

Many Hands: Representations of Railroad Workers

  • Long Island Railroad Museum, Greenport, New York, Memorial Day weekend, 2007, and every weekend and Monday holiday through October 8, 2007
  • New York Transit Museum, Grand Central Terminal Annex, February 15-October 29, 2006

A Visible Past, Portraits of Work on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad

  • Grafton B&O Railroad Heritage Center, Grafton, West Virginia, April 2-June 30, 2007
  • Parkersburg Art Center, Parkersburg, West Virginia, October 8, 2006-January 5, 2007
  • Allen County Museum, Lima, Ohio, July 15-September 30, 2006
  • Previewed at the Lexington Group in Transportation History, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, September 29, 2005

Faces of Railroading and the Making of Madison and Dane County

  • RP’s Pasta, Madison, Summer 2007
  • Mineral Point (Wisconsin) Railroad Station, June 16-17, 2007
  • Mid-Continent Railway Historical Society, North Freedom, August 1-October 30, 2006
  • Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison, June 8-22, 2006

Railroad Work Today Worldwide, prize-winning photographs from the Center’s 2006 awards program.

  • California State Railroad Museum, Sacramento, May-December 2006

The Center’s exhibitions about railroad work at the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom, Wisconsin