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A Journey Back in Time: Analyzing Primary Sources to Paint a Picture of the Past

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This is a guest post by Arline Troncoza, who is working with the education team at the Library of Congress as part of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) Internship Program.

As a newly hired intern here at the Library of Congress, I have been asked quite frequently, “Where are you from?” but most people are puzzled when I respond “San Bernardino, California.” When I told my manager how the city sometimes seems desolate to me, with empty and unused buildings due to the city’s recently filing for bankruptcy, we wondered what the city was like before.

This was a wonderful opportunity for me to explore the primary sources available from the Library to discover what was going on in the city before my time there. At first, I did not find many photos depicting the previous economic status of the city, but I did find photos of trains and railroads from the 1940s. As I observed the collection of photos of trains and of men and women photographed working at the train station, I wondered, “Why were there so many of these photos? How important were the railroads? Were the railroads a source of income and jobs for the city?”

San Bernardino, California. Men coming out of work at the end of a day’s shift at the Atchison, Topeka, and Sante Fe Railroad shops, 1943
San Bernardino, California. Engines at the roundhouse, 1943


San Bernardino, California. Women workers employed at the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad shops coming out at the end of the day’s shift, 1943

I was also surprised to see a picture of Main Street, which is now called Second Street, filled with businesses and beautiful brick buildings that I had never seen before. It made me wonder what happened to these buildings, but I hit a dead end. Luckily, one of my new colleagues suggested that I search in Chronicling America for newspaper articles.

Los Angeles herald., June 10, 1891, Page 16

I discovered a booming, beautiful city. I found an article from February 13, 1898, that read, “In her climate, San Bernardino has her greatest charm. It can be expressed in two words–bounty and beauty.” I found several newspaper articles that spoke of the city as flourishing because of the rich soil that surrounded the city and the Santa Fe railway that brought plenty of traffic into the city allowing them to build shops around the railway. There were several beautiful buildings erected because of the bountiful resources available. Another article noted that the city was known for, “its beautiful, commodious and costly buildings, the public buildings as well as the residences being very handsome.” I was also surprised to find an 1898 article that stated, “There is scarcely a vacant storeroom in the business portion of the city.” I wondered what happened to all of the abundant resources and beautiful buildings that popularized San Bernardino in the late 1800s. A research project for another day, perhaps!

As I went from one primary source to another I found myself getting more and more excited to put the pieces of history together to find out what my home town looked like before it became what it is today. Teachers could easily adapt the process that I used to get students engaged with primary sources. Start with a question and search for answers; refine the question in response to new information; consult an expert to learn where else to search. Coupling the photographs with Chronicling America’s Historic American Newspapers gives a rich depiction of what the past looked like. Use the Primary Source Analysis Tool to facilitate critical thinking. When the primary source relates so much to you it is not hard to observe, reflect and question.

What excites your students in doing research with primary sources?


  1. As a former Detroiter, I was interested to read that San Bernardino was also going through bankruptcy. The financial reorganization process in Detroit is now finished, but the work is far from over. Since I am older, I actually do remember buildings and events from “back then”, and it’s difficult to look at what has happened to the city over the years. I no longer teach but continue to receive the newsletters, as I find them interesting and educational. I just wish I lived closer to D.C., so I could attend the live presentations. (I live in Texas!)

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