The following is the fourth 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.
A previous blog post examined Andrew J. Russell’s background as a photographer during the Civil War and his achievements in photographing the sites of the transcontinental railroad. John Carbutt (1832-1905), a prolific publisher and printer of stereo cards in Chicago, briefly preceded Russell in working for the Union Pacific Railroad, but Carbutt’s work for the railroad was of much more limited scope. He was hired to document a promotional event celebrating the company’s progress: the October 1866 Union Pacific Excursion to the 100th Meridian, the symbolic start of the arid west. The Union Pacific had completed almost 250 miles of rail nearly a year ahead of schedule to reach the point depicted in the stereograph below.
Carbutt had made several popular series from his extended travels up the Mississippi and to Niagara Falls. Given the ease of rail construction over the relatively flat Plains, his engagement with the excursion differed substantially from this earlier work. Here, his primary responsibility was the creation of souvenir stereo cards for the railroad boosters, funders, politicians, and journalists from the major newspapers invited on a special train. Bound to the event from Chicago, the excursion traveled complete with a band, a saloon car, and a menu of elaborate meals.
While Carbutt photographed solely in stereo, his photographs from the excursion took little advantage of the 3-D potential of the format. Most of his pictures are of people lined along the level horizon. Only the rare image gives any indication of the progress of the railroad.
Carbutt would join a repeat trip for members of the press in 1867 before returning to Chicago to concentrate on his photographic endeavors. Perhaps prompted by his time spent in the field, he would later become the first to produce and market dry-plate glass negatives that allowed photographs to be made without the need for immediate processing.
- View eleven stereographs John Carbutt made for the Union Pacific in 1866.
- Sample other groups of photographs John Carbutt took.
- Learn about stereograph cards and explore the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog Stereograph Cards to get a sense of the range of subject matter stereograph photographers captured.
- Read about one participant’s experiences on the Excursion and view the extravagant menu offered to guests on the train in Incidents of a Trip through the Great Platte Valley… by Silas Seymour (New York, D. Van Nostrand, 1867), available through HathiTrust.org.