Completion of the first transcontinental railroad in North America 150 years ago signaled the closing of the American frontier and the ability to travel from coast to coast quickly and with more ease than ever before. In recognition of this anniversary, the California Historical Society (CHS) presents two simultaneous exhibitions that examine the history of the railroad in California and beyond.
The exhibitions, Mark Ruwedel: Westward the Course of Empire and Overland to California: Commemorating the Transcontinental Railroad, will be on view at the California Historical Society, 678 Mission St., in San Francisco from March 21 through Sept. 8, 2019. The galleries are open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Special events and programming will accompany the exhibitions, including a rarely seen gold spike, which was the last to be driven into the railroad connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco to the East Coast.
In his series Westward the Course of Empire (1994–2008), photographer Mark Ruwedel documents the physical traces of abandoned or never completed railroads throughout the American and Canadian West. Built in the name of progress as early as 150 years ago, these now defunct rail lines are marked by visible alterations to the landscape. Ruwedel catalogues eroding cuts, disconnected wooden trestles, decaying tunnels, and lonely water towers in quietly powerful images that point to the contest between technology and the natural world.
Ruwedel is an artist based in California, currently living in Long Beach.
“Ruwedel’s photographs ask us to consider the imprint of history on the land, even as nature takes its course, gradually erasing human alterations,” said Erin Garcia, California Historical Society’s Managing Curator. “Where nineteenth century railroad photographers celebrated the triumph of civilization over what was perceived as hostile land, Ruwedel’s work suggests that the path forward for people and the land we live on is much less certain.”
Overland to California: Commemorating the Transcontinental Railroad draws from the California Historical Society’s vast archival and photographic collections to consider the railroad’s impact on the industry and culture of California. Featuring photographs, stereocards, historical objects, and ephemera, this exhibition explores how the major railroad companies used marketing images to bolster their reputations and promote their lines in a period of rapid growth and social unrest. Overland to California will also examine the railroad’s complex labor history, taking into consideration the immigrant populations who built its infrastructure, as well as the scandals surrounding the monopolistic practices of the so-called “Big Four” railroad executives: Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins.
“We might assume that the expansion of the railroads into California was inevitable, or that it was an overwhelmingly popular decision,” said Natalie Pellolio, Assistant Curator at the California Historical Society. “But its construction was highly contentious at the time, and the major railroad companies relied on promotional materials and publicity stunts to help sway public opinion in their favor.”
The exhibition features important archival material from CHS’s permanent collection including a mammoth plate photograph by Carleton Watkins of a helix-shaped stretch of track known as the Tehachapi Loop, as well as a first edition copy of Frank Norris’ 1901 novel, The Octopus.
Founded in 1871, the California Historical Society (CHS) is a nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire and empower people to make California’s richly diverse past a meaningful part of their contemporary lives. In 1979 Governor Jerry Brown designated CHS the official historical society of the State of California. Learn more at californiahistoricalsociety.org.