The following is the fifth in a series of guest posts by Micah Messenheimer, Associate Curator of Photography, Prints and Photographs Division, that discuss the parallel development of two technologies in the 19th century: railroads and photography.
Capturing the entirety of the Central Pacific Railroad from 1864–69, photographer Alfred Hart (1816–1908) traveled east from Sacramento, California, documenting engineering efforts through mountains and deserts on the way to the line’s meeting with the Union Pacific at Promontory, Utah. After a career as a painter of portraits and moving panoramas, Hart moved to California in the 1860s, where he likely learned to operate a camera while working as a retoucher in a daguerreotype studio. By 1863, he was advertising his services as a traveling photographer in the state’s mining towns.
Hart specialized in stereo views and had an intuitive understanding of elements that would best showcase the three-dimensional effects of the format: sharp angles, curving tracks, and layered foregrounds and backgrounds brought his scenes to life. Unlike Hart’s counterpart, Andrew J. Russell, who would spend long stretches in the field (read about Russell’s work in a previous post), Hart would travel along the line for short periods of days or weeks, then return to his Sacramento studio to print. This working style was aided by his privileges as official photographer—the company transported his full-size photographic darkroom wagon and he had authority to halt work for the purposes of making an image.
In documenting the entirety of the Central Pacific Railroad construction from Sacramento to Ogden, Utah, Hart was among the first photographers to picture a major engineering project from start to finish.
Compared to Russell, Hart’s photographs reflect a more pronounced interest in the technical prowess required to construct the line. This aligned with company interests to assuage doubts that the rugged terrain of the Sierra Nevada could be traversed by a locomotive.
Particularly notable are a series of images of snow sheds. Thirty-seven miles of timber structures were built by the Central Pacific to allow year-round operation through areas prone to deep snow and avalanches.
While Hart often climbed high above the construction, or placed himself in precarious positions on top of railway cars or above tunnel entrances to make his pictures, most of his images include the rail line or evidence of its construction in process. Unlike Russell, he rarely moved ahead of the work at the end of the line.
As Russell had, Hart often turned his lens toward the laborers building the miles of track for the railroad. In the case of the Central Pacific, these work crews initially were comprised largely of Chinese-Americans already residing in California, and later of laborers contracted directly from China. Attempts to record the flurry of work were limited by photographic technology. The wet plate collodion negatives used required long exposure times and movement resulted in blurring. For this reason, most of these images show activity at a pause.
Central Pacific attorney Judge Edwin B. Crocker was Hart’s primary backer. Beginning in 1866, Hart supplied negatives to the company. The Central Pacific developed a final presentation series of 364 stereo views titled and sequenced to emphasize the feat of construction and a narrative of progress. These stereo cards were distributed widely as sets and reproduced as engravings in popular publications like the San Francisco Sunday Mercury and Harper’s Weekly. Negatives that were not selected for the final Central Pacific Railroad set were sold to the San Francisco publishing firm Lawrence & Houseworth.
Hart was also involved in promoting and publishing his own work for the railroad. He sought commercial work on the side and advertised his connections with the railroad to earn it.
In 1869, Crocker resigned from the Central Pacific board after a stroke. At this time, the company’s commercial arrangement with Hart ceased and he would be replaced by Carleton Watkins, who was a boyhood friend of Central Pacific vice-president Collis P. Huntington. Hart sold a number of his stereoview negatives to Watkins, who later published them under his own name.
Railroad companies would be primary patrons of photographers through the nineteenth-century as additional lines were built to traverse new routes across the country and connect to existing networks. A hundred and fifty years later, the pictures that resulted from the pairing of the two technologies continue to bring to life the epic accomplishment of building a railroad across the United States.
- In 1870, Hart published The Traveler’s Own Book, a guide to the full transcontinental rail journey from San Francisco to Chicago illustrated with color lithographs and two tipped-in albumen prints. A fold-out map within shows travel times between stops and the inconsistencies of timekeeping before standardization. For example, Salt Lake City time was 28 minutes behind Laramie and 37 minutes ahead of Sacramento. Find the book digitized online from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.
- View additional stereographs created by Alfred Hart.
- Take in more general railroad stereograph views, as well, from our Stereograph Collection.
- You can also browse hundreds of Lawrence & Houseworth views of Northern California and Western Nevada from the series Gems of California scenery.
- Read or revisit the previous four posts in the series Camera and the Locomotive.
- The Historic American Engineering Record conducted a survey of the Central Pacific route that includes drawings of tunnels and a description of the construction in the data pages.