Railroad Romance and Reality: Unpacking the Legacy of Railways in America

Documents and photographs found in the American Heritage Center’s collections can be used to explore the ways in which railways have been and are perceived in American society. Examples of these are on exhibit in “The Art of the Railroad” from May 10 through November 30, 2023, in the AHC’s Loggia, which is located on the building’s main floor.

Items in the exhibit illustrate how these perceptions have become woven into the fabric of our lives. An illustration of this was when Union Pacific’s Big Boy rolled through Wyoming towns in 2019, bringing with it the marvel and widespread nostalgic appeal of a historic steam engine. Crowds of train watchers gathered at depot platforms, railroad crossings, and along the railway.

The Union Pacific #4014 Big Boy on display at the Laramie, Wyoming, historic railroad depot during the 2019 inaugural run of the recently rebuilt steam engine. Photo by Gary Gray, July 9, 2019.

The Romance of the Railways

Thomas Hart Benton, undated. Box 278, Howard F. Greene Collection, Collection No. 2123, American Heritage Center.

The story of railways is central to telling the story of the development of the American West. Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858) was a vocal supporter of westward expansion. He advocated for the building of a central railroad line across the continent. In an 1849 speech delivered at the National Railroad Convention in St. Louis, he painted a picture of the railroad as a “conveyance being invented which annihilates both time and space…putting Europe and Asia into communication, and that to our advantage, through the heart of our own country.”

Post card labeled, “Driving the Golden Spike,” undated. Box 278, Howard F. Greene Collection, Collection No. 2123, American Heritage Center.

The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 was the culmination of Benton’s and others’ efforts. Out of this, the transcontinental railroad was built and, along with it, an industry that exploited its legendary role in American westward expansion. With the marriage of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific at Promontory Summit in Utah on May 10, 1869, the railroad began a campaign to bring “civilization” west.

Guidebooks were marketed to the American public encouraging the exploration and settlement of newly opened territory. Williams Pacific Tourist and Guide Across the Continent dating to 1877 (depicted below) was “Officially Endorsed by the Pacific R. R. Companies.” It described destination points along the railway route which detailed stories that contributed to the romance and mystique of the American West. Advertisements in the back of the Guide, sponsored by railways, promoted land sales and settlement in the West. 

Alice’s Adventures in the New Wonderland was an 1885 brochure that targeted Yellowstone National Park as a destination for tourists. A colorful, illustrated map lured tourists to travel the railroad to exotic places that were once a part of fanciful tales. The brochure can be found in the Fitzhugh Collection of the American Heritage Center’s Toppan Rare Books Library.

The realities of the pitfalls of railway travel, however, were not often included in the guidebooks. Train derailments were common and machine v. nature oftentimes saw nature getting the upper hand. In a letter to the New York Groten Journal, February 26, 1872, Edmund E. Robinson, an agent for the Union Pacific Railroad at Lookout Station in Albany County, Wyoming, recounted a particularly severe snowstorm that grounded engines for days. Robinson noted that it was “one which will be remembered for years to come, on account of its severity and long duration…The snow was flying and drifting into the cuts so fast that it was hard work for the three engines to work their way back to Lookout…One man could not keep standing room for himself on the track by shoveling, the snow drifting faster into the cut than it could be shoveled out.”

These problems continued into the 20th century as shown in the two images below from the infamous blizzard that hit Wyoming in 1949. Pictured are an engine stuck in snow drifts and a rotary plow clearing the tracks amid towering snowbanks.

On his way to join a Hayden expedition in 1872, Sidford F. Hamp, wrote of having to detrain because the “railway had been washed away and the bridge broken, so we had to walk over the broken bridge by moonlight which was rather difficult because the bridge was made…with a plank down the middle and if you missed your footing you would have dropped through into the river.”

The issues of travel, however, improved with technology. Into the 20th century the romance and lure of the railroad drew people on board. The railroad marketed its own excursions. On one of those was Ed and Mary Reithmeyer who took a trip on the Domeliner in 1958 from Missouri to Seattle, Washington. Their granddaughter said that it was “one they talked about for the rest of their lives.”

Postcard “’A’ Plus” Thrill for Coach Travelers, undated. Box 278, Union Pacific Historical Society Collection, Collection No. 10713, American Heritage Center.

The Railroad is First and Foremost a Business

While the railroad promoted travel on its lines, its first responsibility was and continues to be to its shareholders. In 1996, author Joshua Scott Johns wrote, “The railroads marketed each region along their lines…often exaggerating or distorting the truth about the territory in order to make it more appealing.”  They promoted the 774 million acres of lands they had acquired from the government to bring people west to purchase their holdings and, once settled, the railroad made money hauling freight to these new communities. Mismanagement by various railroad executives, however, led to bankruptcies and reorganization efforts to keep the railways viable. Railroads’ economic influence was and continues to be impactful. In 1873 the Northern Pacific Railroad overextended itself in the building of a northern route from the Great Lakes to Puget Sound. Their bankruptcy partly led to a banking panic and economic depression which lasted five years.

The Daily Graphic editorial cartoon dated September 29, 1873, is captioned, “Panic, as a health officer sweeps the garbage out of Wall Street.” Box 208, Howard F. Greene Collection, Collection no. 2123, American Heritage Center.
Old Colony Railroad Company stock certificate, 1896. Box 208, Howard F. Greene Collection, Collection no. 2123, American Heritage Center.

Railways and Communities

Depot Agent Don Kynion bending over a freight cart at the depot in Lingle, Wyoming in 1981. Others pictured are unknown. Box 1043, James L. Ehrenberger Western Railroad Collection, Collection no. 10674, American Heritage Center.

Railways had the power to make and destroy communities. The town of Sherman in southeastern Albany County, Wyoming, was razed to the ground when the Union Pacific changed the route of descent out of the “Black Hills.” Once thriving communities became ghost towns when railroads shut down agencies. However, they did not go without a fight. An example of the struggles of communities to remain viable in the face of a depot closure is demonstrated in correspondence regarding the closure of the agency at Ballantine, Montana.  In 1950 the Order of Railroad Telegraphers urged representatives to protest the closing of the Ballantine depot and to engage community members to participate. The General Secretary of the Order of Railroad Telegraphers wrote, “I think they [the railroad] will take notice…if business interests of that station protest the closing.” The closing of agencies throughout the United States eliminated jobs and marked the decline of communities along their route.

Correspondence from the General Secretary of Treasurer of the Order of Railroad Telegraphers (ORT) regarding the closure of station at Ballantine, Montana, August 10, 1950. The General Secretary wrote, “I think they [the railroad] will take notice…if business interests of that station protest the closing.” Box 1, Stout Family Papers, Collection no. 8414, American Heritage Center.
Ola Stout working at the agency in Ballantine, Montana. Box 1, Stout Family Papers, Collection no. 8414, American Heritage Center.

Ola Stout worked as a telegrapher for the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy Railroad at Ballantine Station. Her career as a railroad telegrapher spanned over two decades beginning in 1917. She and her husband ranched outside of Cody; her livelihood and that of her family depended, in part, on the railroad. She was ultimately transferred to the depot in Sheridan prior to her retirement. A personal reflection of how railroads have been viewed as controversial in communities is documented in the Stout Family Papers.

The advent of cars and air travel as well as rigid political and economic restrictions led railroads to economize. By 1980, however, deregulation of the industry led to a resurge and trains remain a viable transportation option into the 21st century. Today trains haul approximately 28% of freight in the United States.

Railroads in American Popular Culture

Iron Horse by Paul Detlefsen, 1953. Box 278, Howard F. Greene Collection, Collection no. 2123, American Heritage Center.

Trains are oftentimes depicted in pastoral settings (see painting Paul Detlifsen, Iron Horse) and yet the reality of rail travel was much less romantic and economically and politically problematic. An example of this is represented in the distrust of the railways which was enshrined in Wyoming’s Constitution wherein the Constitutional founders, in 1889, placed restrictions on the railways in no less than three articles. Regardless, the appeal of the railroads persisted in American culture as representations of romance and nostalgia.

Songs that evoked the railroad were and are shaped around the theme of transporting people to another place or reality. They arouse a sense of nostalgia and yearning or of celebration (i.e. Snow Train, Frisco Bound, Oh! Mister Railroad Man Won’t you take me back to Alabam’). They also commemorate specific lines or people who were associated with the railroad, like Pullman Porter Man and Happy Hobo (March and Two-Step). This music further evokes fanciful images such as those in That Railroad Rag, nostalgia such as The Twilight Express, and humor, such as Pullman Porter Man. The music has also memorialized historical events such as Frisco Bound which paid homage to individuals who traveled to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 from the Boston Traveler and Sunday Herald. The two sheet music covers below can be found in box 29 of the collection of Howard F. Greene, a railroad historian and collector of railroadiana.

Postcard “To the Zoo,” undated. Box 278, Howard F. Greene Collection, Collection no. 2123, American Heritage Center.

The day-to-day focus of railways has historically been to maximize profits, address shareholders’ concerns, and deal with the complex issues that are inherent in running a for-profit business. This includes addressing labor concerns, ever-changing rules and regulations governing the operation of railways, railroad maintenance, derailments and toxic spills, and marketing and public relations. Despite this, the volume of documents, artifacts, and photographs, found in the AHC’s collections have reinforced a continuing fascination with the expansion of the American West, and a yearning for simpler and better times. 

Post contributed by retired Wyoming educator and AHC Archives Assistant Patty Kessler.


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