It’s Work: Still a World Apart

Lake Superior Railroad Museum Shows “It’s Work: Still a World Apart”

“Still a World Apart,” a photographic exhibition by the Center for Railroad Photography & Art that looks at the human side of railroading, is appearing through August 31 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, is 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 maintain track in all weather and at all hours of the day and night, while others spend 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 settlementst. 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.

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.