Representations of Railroad Work, Past and Present

About the Program

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) and Railfan & 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,” the Bulletin 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 as Working 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 www.railroadheritage.org, will allow people to access and view railroad art and photography from both private and institutional collections. The railroad heritage.org 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. Several are still available to travel: Faces of Railroading and the Making of Madison and Dane County, Still a World Apart: Visual Profiles of Contemporary Railroaders, A World Apart: 150 Years of Railroaders at Work, and Many Hands: Representations of Railroad Workers, and A Visible Past. 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.

Exhibitions Available to Travel and Past Venues:

Faces of Railroading and the Making of Madison and Dane County

  • 2017 Annual Wisconsin Department of Transportation Freight Conference, Crowne Plaza Hotel, Madison, October 31, 2017
  • RP’s Pasta, Madison, Summer 2007
  • Railroad Station, Mineral Point (Wisconsin), June 16-17, 2007
  • Mid-Continent Railway Historical Society, North Freedom, August 1-October 30, 2006
  • Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison, June 8-22, 2006

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

A World Apart: 150 Years of Railroaders at Work

  • Tucumcari Railroad Museum, Tucumcari, New Mexico, June 1 to September 30, 2015
  • Ford Center for the Fine Arts at Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois, June to August, 2013
  • 150th anniversary of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, Detroit, Michigan, May 2013
  • Great Overland Station, Topeka, Kansas, 2009
  •  B&O Heritage Center, Grafton (West Virginia), 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

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

Past Exhibitions and Venues:

It’s Work: Still a World Apart

  • Lake Superior Railroad Museum, Duluth, Minnesota, 2009

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

  • 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

Railroads and Photography: 150 Years of Great Images

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

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

Faces of Railroading

Faces of Railroading and the Making of Madison and Dane County

Conductor Tom Burke smiles as he helps passengers climb aboard the last Milwaukee Road passenger train out of the Madison depot on April 30, 1971. Photo by John Gruber.

Faces of Railroading and the Making of Madison and Dane County looks at the historic role railroaders have played in this mid-western town, as they did in so many other communities. Special attention is given to railroader neighborhoods and their geographic proximity to the railroad yards. The exhibition takes a focused look on the individual workers, the unsung heroes of the rail lines, and highlights the importance of the industry in the growth of the city of Madison, Dane country, and the surrounding service area.

NARF and The Evjue Foundation, Madison, provided major support. Its first venue, June 8-28, 2006, was at the state capitol in Madison. The exhibit opened with a program June 8 and a reception courtesy of Trains magazine, Waukesha, Wisconsin, and Kitchen Hearth Catering, Madison. Display followed at Mid-Continent Railway Historical Society, North Freedom, Wisconsin, through October 30, 2006, and at the Mineral Point (Wisconsin) Railroad Society’s historic depot in 2007. Recently, the show was on display at the 2017 Annual Wisconsin Department of Transportation Freight Conference at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin on October 31, 2017.

About the Exhibition

The exhibitions features thirty-five photographs, including views by Henry Koshollek, photographer for The Capital Times; John Gruber, Richard Gruber, Robert Eineke, and Paul Swanson, plus images from the Wisconsin Historical Society. John S. Fuller made the earliest known photograph of the railroad in Madison in the 1860s showing the causeway across Lake Monona, the yards, and a stone roundhouse. 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.

Previous Venues

  • 2017 Annual Wisconsin Department of Transportation Freight Conference, Crowne Plaza Hotel, Madison, October 31, 2017
  • RP’s Pasta, Madison, Summer 2007
  • Railroad Station, Mineral Point (Wisconsin), June 16-17, 2007
  • Mid-Continent Railway Historical Society, North Freedom, August 1-October 30, 2006
  • Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison, June 8-22, 2006

 

Still a World Apart

Still a World Apart: Visual Profiles of Contemporary Railroaders

A lantern swung in a circle at half arms length was standard signal for locomotive engineers to reverse. Photo by Joel Jensen.

Still a World Apart: Visual Profiles of Contemporary Railroaders, a photographic exhibition by the Center for Railroad Photography & Art, looks at the human side of railroading. The exhibit last appeared at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center’s Historic Union Depot in Duluth. The historic station, built in 1892, was an ideal location for the exhibition, whose subtitle is Visual Profiles of Contemporary Railroaders. While the exhibit covers the nation, it includes Duluth-Superior area views: a Missabe ore dock worker in 1947, a Duluth & Northeastern crew cooking in the caboose in 1962, and John and Peter Lawson, a father-son Amtrak crew, with a passenger train in Superior in 1976.

In the exhibit, the Center recognizes Robert W. Downing (1913-2010), who as president (1971-73) and vice chairman and chief operating officer (1973-76) of the Burlington Northern had a major role in building and improving railroad access to the Powder River Basin coal mines. Downing was trainmaster at Kelly Lake, Minnesota, in 1951-54, when the Great Northern in 1953 moved record tonnage on the iron range. He revisited the ore docks in 2005.

The images emphasize the American Midwest and West, where some railroaders run trains or maintained tracks in all weather and at all hours of the day and night, while others spent their entire job shift in front of computer screens. The railroad is like no other employer. A worker’s life is defined by demanding work rules; irregular hours of service; and a host of labor, safety, and retirement laws that set the railroad apart from other industries. Even the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 1957 decision, observed that “the railroad world is like a state within a state.” The workers themselves are the focus of these photographs, on and sometimes off the job. The images hint at personal stories–of careers, families, and relationships. The settings are varied, since the railroad touches every part of the America, from thriving cities to forgotten settlements. While railroad employment numbers in the 21st century are greatly reduced from those of earlier decades, many workers continue to perform their duties in the time-honored railroad manner, ever mindful of the urgency behind the railroad’s efficient and demanding flanged wheel on steel rail technology. As in the past, many feel the pressure to put their work before everything else in their lives.

About the Exhibition

This exhibit highlights the human face of an industry that is dominated by machines and hardware. Technology has made the machines more powerful, and the hardware more sophisticated, but behind them people toil in an environment that is still a world apart from most other industries. The exhibit had its origins in a three-year program, Representations of Railroad Work, with funds provided by the North American Railway Foundation to the Center and is available to travel. The exhibition consists of thirty-six blue-and-white and color prints. 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.

Previous Venues:

  • 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

A World Apart

A World Apart: 150 Years of Railroaders at Work

A World Apart: 150 Years of Railroad Workers at Work traces some of the changes in railroad work environment, from the age of steam to the age of microchips. Behind every image hides the reality of the hard life on the rails—the harsh conditions, physical risk, long hours, and irregular schedules which make the work so challenging. The exhibition highlights the human face of an industry dominated by machines and hardware. Technology has made the machines more powerful and the equipment more sophisticated, but behind the scenes people toil in environments that are still a world apart from most other industries.

The Center’s exhibition about railroaders and railroad work last toured at Great Overland Station in Topeka, Kansas in 2009. The historic station, built in 1927, was an ideal location for A World Apart: 150 Years of Railroad Workers at Work. Union Pacific donated the station in 1998. After a redevelopment, the station reopened in 2004.

While the Center constructs exhibition with a national scope in mind, they can be tailored to fit local regions. At the Great Overland Station, for example, the exhibit showcases Topeka views. Jack Delano, a photographer for a federal government agency, the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information, made three photos at the Topeka Shops in 1943. They show Robert Hill (1892-1963); Walter Mitchell (1897-1967); and Harry Tostado, who lives in California. Two are by a Lawrence photographer, Robert P. Olmstead, including a view at Lawrence in 1949.

Appropriately, the photographs were on display in a railroad center. Shawnee County had 1,081 railroad employees in 2006, according to the Railroad Retirement Board.

The Center presented about thirty-seven photographs from across North America, beginning with a copy of a daguerreotype of the crew and locomotive Tioga, built for the Philadelphia & Columbia railroad in 1848. The images trace some of the changes in the railroad work environment, from the age of steam to the age of microchips. This exhibit highlights the human face of an industry that is dominated by machines and hardware. Technology has made the machines more powerful and the equipment more sophisticated, but behind technology are people who toil in an environment that is a world apart from most other industries. The exhibit had its origins in a three-year program, Representations of Railroad Work, funded by the North American Railway Foundation.

Chicago & North Western hired Dorothy Lueke and sixteen other women as “engine wipers,” and entry-level roundhouse job at Clinton, Iowa, during World War II. Photo by Jack Delano.

About the Exhibition

A World Apart: 150 Years of Railroaders at Work is  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.

Previous Venues

  • Tucumcari Railroad Museum, Tucumcari, New Mexico, June 1 to September 30, 2015
  • Ford Center for the Fine Arts at Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois, June to August, 2013
  • 150th anniversary of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, Detroit, Michigan, May 2013
  • Great Overland Station, Topeka, Kansas, 2009
  •  B&O Heritage Center, Grafton (West Virginia), 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

Many Hands

Many Hands: Representations of Railroad Workers, 1870-2005

Engineers were known as the monarch of the railroad. Photo by Lewis Hine, 1921. Courtesy of George Eastman House.

Developed by the New York Transit Museum and curators John Gruber and Michael Zega of the Center, the exhibition Many Hands: Representations of Railroad Workers, 1870-2005 was brought together with support from the North American Railway Foundation, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency. Focusing on the New York metropolitan region, Many Hands features Hal B. Fullerton, whose 19th century images along the Long Island Rail Road depict a long-forgotten landscape of American-type locomotives and stone arch viaducts; work portraits by social documentarian Lewis W. Hine, taken throughout the massive Penn Station improvements during the 1920s and 30s; Gordon Parks’s views of railroad workers from the 1940s; and recent work by Frank English, who has chronicled Metro-North Railroad for the last 22 years, as well as others whose work has rarely been seen.

About the Exhibition

The exhibition consists of approximately sixty-seven black-and-white photographs.Contemporary photographers represented include Pat Cashin, Gene Collora, John Fasulo, Joe Greenstein, George Hiotis, William D. Middleton, and Jim Shaughnessy. 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.

Previous Venues

  • 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

150 Years

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.

Previous Venues

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