The following is the third in a series of guest posts by Micah Messenheimer, Assistant Curator of Photography, Prints and Photographs Division, that discuss the parallel development of two technologies in the 19th century: railroads and photography.
The catalysts for a transcontinental railroad lie in the increasing industrialization of the country and the rapid expansion of its territories in the years prior to the Civil War. However, the war itself would provide traction for its construction and a proving ground for photographic documentation of a major engineering project.
Perhaps the most prominent photographer to document the building of the transcontinental railroad, Andrew Joseph Russell (1829-1902) learned the medium as a volunteer officer in the Union Army during the Civil War. A portrait and landscape painter in New York, Russell was commissioned as a photographer for the United States Military Railroad Construction Corps under General Herman Haupt in 1863. In addition to photographing the works of the railroad proper, he documented other engineering projects and battlefield scenes that rivaled those of the primary private operations managed by Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner
In 1863 Haupt published an album incorporating Russell’s photographs, Photographs Illustrative of Operations in Construction and Transportation as Used to Facilitate the Movements of the Armies of the Rappahannock, of Virginia, and of the Potomac. Likely the first photographically-illustrated technical manual, the views focused on the labor of railroad construction and rapid improvements in technology and infrastructure, including experimental bridge and trestle designs.
Russell’s military service directly contributed to his commission from the Union Pacific to document the company’s transcontinental construction. Despite starting relatively late in the building of the railroad, Russell would make three trips along the route, spending long seasons in the field: first in 1868, and twice more in 1869. He was offered extensive access and assistance with the results of his work used to generate political and financial support for the railroad’s endeavor.
Russell began photographing the Union Pacific headquarters in Omaha and then followed construction crews as they advanced westward from Cheyenne, Wyoming into Utah. Utilizing a small, portable box darkroom mounted to a buckboard wagon, Russell ranged far along unbuilt sections of line with advance survey and work crews.
There is a noticeable shift in Russell’s work during and following the Civil War. His charge during the war was to underscore the engineering prowess of the Union as it acquired and operated over 2000 miles of rail in aid of the war effort. For the transcontinental railroad, his purpose was as much promotional as technical.
Russell’s pictures evoked both the magnificence of the Western terrain and its suitability for settlement and resource extraction.
During his time with the Union Pacific, he produced over 250 large format plates and 500 stereo negatives. As a testament to the power of photography to generate excitement for the transcontinental passage, Russell and the Union Pacific published an album of 33 views, The Great West Illustrated, one month before the joining of the rails at Promontory Summit.
While the large prints and lavish albums accentuated Russell’s artistry, most Americans viewed the building of the railroad through the prodigious number of stereo cards published in the years during and after construction. His stereo views, like his military work, emphasize the engineering of the railroad and the workers who labored for its completion.
Russell retained his negatives and maintained substantial freedom in what he photographed, with license to conduct side projects outside of the Union Pacific’s purview.
The breadth of imagery he made along the line is particularly evident in Sun Pictures of Rocky Mountain Scenery, which was published in 1870 by Ferdinand V. Hayden, the geologist in charge of the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories. This album included 30 photographs—including many previously published in The Great West Illustrated—re-contextualized with extensive writings by Hayden on the geological features of the region. The publication is a prelude to the more extensive albums that Hayden would publish with the Survey in the following years.
In photographing for the album, Russell traveled into California before returning home to New York. While he would continue as a photojournalist for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, he never returned to the West.
- Explore a map showing the extent of lines constructed or operated by the United States Military Railroad by the close of the Civil War.
- View more of Andrew J. Russell’s photographs from the Civil War, including an unbound album of photographs that General Haupt presented to his son Charles Edgar Haupt in June, 1898. [view the contents of the album; view the description]
- Look through the images in Sun Pictures of Rocky Mountain Scenery.