An army of men built America's first transcontinental railroad west out of Omaha.
They were rail gangs, rock blasters, bridge builders, blacksmiths, carpenters, masons, surveyors, teamsters, telegraphers and cooks.
And a photographer hired by Union Pacific Railroad to chronicle the feat.
New York photographer Andrew J. Russell caught up with shoveling, drilling, blasting, carting and track-laying as the rails moved west out of Nebraska.
Russell's pictorial portfolio focused not only on the railroad's engineering wonders but also on a western landscape at the moment of its transformation. Some say it was the greatest industrial accomplishment of the 19th century.
About 50 of Russell's photographs — many of which have never been published or exhibited — go on rare public display Saturday through Sept. 16 in a Joslyn Art Museum exhibition marking Omaha-based Union Pacific's 150th anniversary.
“The Great West Illustrated,'' the Russell album featuring his work, is arguably the most important photographic collection of the frontier American West, said Glenn Willumson, an art historian at the University of Florida and an authority on Russell.
“Russell was one of the best,'' Willumson said.
Toby Jurovics, chief curator at Joslyn in Omaha, said some of Russell's prints are among the most distinctive photographs made in the 19th-century West. But Union Pacific hired Russell to do more than publish a book for posterity or produce photographic prints and stereographs to entertain Eastern audiences, Jurovics said. Union Pacific hoped to attract investors, encourage western migration and inspire continued lawmaker support in Washington, D.C.
Private funds, government bonds and land grants financed building the railroad. It was to Union Pacific's advantage to present a western landscape ripe with prospect and opportunity, Jurovics said.
The railroad company started July 1, 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act authorizing the construction of a transcontinental railroad. The first rails in Omaha were laid three years later.
Union Pacific hired Russell, a former landscape painter and Civil War photographer, to make three trips west in 1868 and 1869 as the rail line pushed across Wyoming toward completion in Utah. He was nearly 40 years old.
He was there, recording the moment, when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads met at Promontory Point on May 10, 1869, for the historic Golden Spike ceremony.
Union Pacific celebrated completion of the transcontinental railroad by publishing 50 of Russell's images in the album in 1870. Some images also were reproduced as engravings and lithographs in travel guides and shown as slides during public lectures about the West.
Construction of the transcontinental railroad enthralled Americans, said Patricia LaBounty, collections manager at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs.
“People bought Russell's stereocard collection like we buy DVDs today,'' she said. “It was kind of like the lunar landing a century later.''
Jurovics said Russell's images focused less on the West's magnificent landscapes and more on its seemingly endless potential for development.
Russell wrote to his hometown newspaper after the completion of the rail line: “The Continental Iron Band now permanently unites distant portions of the Republic, and opens up to Commerce, Navigation and Enterprise the vast unpeopled plains and lofty mountain ranges that now divide East from West.''
The enthusiastic proclamation overlooked the American Indian nations that had lived in the plains and mountains for millennia.
Russell's images weren't widely distributed in the Union Pacific album — only about 50 were published — but railroads accelerated the arrival of settlers and altered the West dramatically and permanently.
The album's preface says the publication's intent “. . . is calculated to interest all classes of people, and to excite the admiration of all reflection minds as the colossal grandeur of the Agricultural, Mineral and Commercial resources of the West are brought to view.''
Jurovics said Russell achieved Union Pacific's goal. The depiction of the terrain and landmarks created one of the most compelling visual records of the American landscape ever assembled.
Russell made good choices when he pulled the view camera's dark cloth over his head, stared out over thousands of acres of landscape and composed a photograph.
“The trick is not what's in the middle (of the image) but what you're leaving out by using the edge of the glass plate to define the landscape,'' Jurovics said. The traditional composition of Russell's photographs reflect his roots as a landscape painter.
“He finds muscularity and quiet elegance in western landscapes,'' Jurovics said. “He has a vision that sets him apart from other photographers. He has a way of making elegance out of disorder."
Willumson said that Russell's photographs gave most Americans their first glimpse of the West, particularly the plains, mountains and deserts between Omaha and Salt Lake City.
“That landscape was really unknown,'' he said.
Willumson made discoveries, too, when Union Pacific invited him to sort through its photo archive last year. He found more than a dozen Russell prints not known to exist anywhere else.
Researchers have long studied Russell's album photographs and known that railroad archives held dozens of individual prints from the period.
When LaBounty sorted them, it became apparent that she was looking at four different collections of photos that at some time had been taken out of the bindings and put in boxes.
“It became apparent with Glenn Willumson's visit that we had much more of a gem than we realized,'' LaBounty said.
The collection was moved out of the railroad museum in Council Bluffs as a precaution during last summer's Missouri River flood and later was sent to conservators in Minneapolis and Boston for preparation for the Joslyn exhibit.
The newly found prints give photography historians a greater perspective on Russell, including insights into what interested him, Jurovics said. “He's very adroit at capturing the energy of rock formations,'' he said.
The collection identifies Russell as an artist, Jurovics said, during a period when the new medium of photography was finding its footing.
Russell was one of several photographers turned loose in the West after the Civil War, thanks to unprecedented financial support by the federal government and companies like Union Pacific.
No photographer was better matched for the assignment than Russell, Jurovics said.
A New Hampshire native, Russell was raised in New York and painted portraits and landscapes. He enlisted in the Union Army in 1862 and was assigned as an artist with the U.S. Military Railroad, where he learned the wet-plate photography he later used for Union Pacific.
“The years after the Civil War were the most exciting time periods for American photography,'' Jurovics said. “We were exploring the West on a large scale simultaneously with the development of photography.''
Jurovics said Union Pacific's financial support of the project made it feasible and assisted in giving the images a wider audience than possible by a studio portrait photographer working alone.
After the Union Pacific project, Russell returned to his New York City studio and worked as an artist before switching careers and writing and producing images for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. He died in 1902.
The Joslyn exhibit will feature a combination of pages from an unbound version of Russell's “Great West Illustrated'' and the loose pages collected from unknown former albums. The original prints would have been dark purple or brown. The framed images in the exhibition have a warm tone because of color shifts in the prints over the years.
The images are extremely sensitive to ultraviolet light. Curators are careful about when and where the prints are displayed.
“This is really a one-time shot to see all of these images together,'' LaBounty said.
Willumson said the exhibit will thrill enthusiasts of the West and photography.
“The images are spectacular,'' he said. “They're large, full of information and visually beautiful.''
Russell dealt with difficult conditions while documenting feat
Photographer Andrew J. Russell dealt with heat, low humidity, dust and poor-quality water while documenting construction of the Union Pacific Railroad.
Russell used 10-by-13-inch glass negatives, exposed while wet and quickly processed.
To accommodate the process, he constructed a light-proof box for creating and developing glass negatives in complicated field conditions. The black box mounted on Russell's wagon appears in some of his photographs.
Toby Jurovics, chief curator at Joslyn Art Museum, described the process:
After composing and focusing an image on the ground glass of his camera, Russell prepared a negative by sensitizing a glass plate in a portable developing box. This compact darkroom was fitted with a light-tight cloth that enclosed his arms and head.
Russell poured collodion — a viscous mixture of nitrated cotton dissolved in alcohol and ether — onto the center of the plate, which was carefully tilted to ensure even coverage. He then dipped the plate in a solution of silver nitrate to make the iodide and bromide in the collodion sensitive to light.
The wet plate was inserted in a holder that was fitted onto the back of the camera in place of the focusing glass. The lens was uncapped to make the exposure.
The exposure had to be made and developed while the plate remained damp, giving the photographer anywhere from five to 20 minutes to complete the process.
Processing also was accomplished in the developing box. The image was developed by pouring acidified ferrous sulfate or pyrogallic acid solution onto the surface of the collodion.
When Russell judged the density of the negative to be satisfactory, he washed the plate with water and the fixed the image with a solution of sodium thiosulfate or potassium cyanide to prevent further exposure.
Once the collodion film dried, the surface of the plate was varnished to protect the delicate image layer. Russell made prints on albumen silver paper when he returned to his studio in New York.
Although the process seems cumbersome by modern standards, wet plate photography carried a greater immediacy than the film processes used throughout the 20th century, Jurovics said.
“The success of each plate could be judged as soon as it was processed, and if an exposure was unsuccessful, Russell could clean and reuse the plate immediately, allowing him to continuously edit his photographs while still in the field,'' he said.
The Oakland (Calif.) Museum owns 237 of Russell's glass-plate negatives.
More on Russell's photos
Andrew J. Russell produced an unprecedented pictorial record of one of the world's most dramatic construction projects — the building of the Union Pacific Railroad west of Omaha during the late 1860s. Hired to document Union Pacific's efforts crossing the Continental Divide, Russell used both the smaller and more convenient stereo camera and the larger and more cumbersome 30-pound view camera. The big camera produced beautifully detailed negatives on 10-by-13-inch glass plates. Railroads used photography for decades to promote settlement, agriculture and passenger travel.
Click here to see more of his photos.
The Great West Illustrated: Celebrating 150 years of the Union Pacific Railroad"
When: Saturday through Sept. 16 at the Joslyn Art Museum, 2200 Dodge St.
Admission: $8 adults; $6 senior citizens (62+) and college students (with ID); $5 ages 5-17; free for children four and younger and Joslyn members. General public admitted free on Saturdays, 10 a.m. to noon, and for $5 on Thursdays from 4 p.m.-8 p.m. All Union Pacific employees admitted free of charge during the run of the exhibition (valid employee ID required).
Museum hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday and major holidays. Extended hours for some special exhibitions. www.joslyn.org; 402-342-3300; 2200 Dodge St., Omaha.
More to see at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum
Andrew J. Russell's photographs also were produced in stereo card format.
A stereo card presents two nearly identical images, mounted side by side on cardboard. When viewed through a stereo viewer, they present a three-dimensional image.
The Union Pacific Railroad Museum, 200 Pearl St. in Council Bluffs, owns 600 Russell stereo cards, a selection of which will be on view there during the time of “The Great West Illustrated” exhibition at Joslyn Art Museum.
Three pages of the 1862 Pacific Railway Act on display July 1 through July 31 along with railroad artifacts from Omaha's Byron Reed Collection.
Joslyn Art Museum
» Two gallery talks by Toby Jurovics, Joslyn's chief curator and Holland Curator of American Western Art, 6:30 p.m., July 19 and Aug. 16. Free with regular museum admission (discounted to $5 for all ages on Thursdays from 4p.m.-8 p.m.)
» Presentation by art historian Glenn Willumson of the University of Florida and photographer Mark Ruwedel, 1 p.m., Sept. 8. Willumson is an authority on Russell's photography and author of the soon-to-be released book, “Iron Muse: Picturing the Transcontinental Railroad.'' Ruwedel's photographs trace the imprint of the railroad on the western landscape. Free with regular museum admission.
» Railroad Days, Union Pacific's annual celebration “of all things trains and track,” July 14-15. Joslyn this year is a participating institution on the shuttle route. For details, visit www.omaharailroaddays.com.
» Group rates available for 10 or more with advance reservations. Call 402-661-3833 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Joslyn connections
Joslyn Art Museum's collection of watercolors by the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, one of the first artists to encounter the greater Missouri River basin, offers a complementary vision to the transcontinental railroad photographs of Andrew J. Russell.
Bodmer's watercolors and prints follow his 1832-34 journey through the Missouri River frontier. A selection of Bodmer's images are on view in the museum's Art in America permanent collection galleries.
Also during the Great West Illustrated exhibition, Joslyn presents an installation of works by contemporary photographer Mark Ruwedel from his series “Westward,” which traces the routes of abandoned 19th-century rail lines.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1127, email@example.com