Often times as an artist inspiration comes from many sources, mine takes root from a fascination of railroads, geography, architecture and history. With consideration of the Mainline Project there came another major source of inspiration: the photographic work of William H. Rau.
No. 6 Bridge from Deep Cut, Pittsburgh Division. Image from Rau’s 1891 commission showing the fresh re-construction of the mainline through the Conemaugh River Valley that was decimated by tragic floods just three years before. William H. Rau photograph, Collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc.
Born in 1855, Rau was a Philadelphia based commercial photographer whose relationship with the Pennsylvania Railroad spanned his career in the business. Though he had numerous assignments with the railroad over the years, it would be two commissions that brought Rau to our attention in the 20th Century. The first assignment was from June to September 1891, the second, April to July of 1893. The commission employed the relatively new concept of advertising photography to entice the leisure traveler to explore the American landscape by way of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Illustrating the terrain and destinations along the system, Rau worked with a mammoth plate view camera in the field, traveling in a customized passenger coach complete with living quarters and darkroom.
(L) William H. Rau portrait circa 1908. (R) Rau and his assistants setting up his camera along the Conemaugh River at the Packsaddle near present day Torrance, Pennsylvania, circa 1891. Both images collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia.
In 2002 the Library Company of Philadelphia mounted an exhibition of original prints by Rau from the 1890’s commissions in conjunction with the release of a companion book titled “Travelling the Pennsylvania Railroad” published by University of Penn Press. The exhibition hit home with me for many reasons, providing not only a view of the Pennsylvania Railroad over 100 years ago but by also appealing to my photographic sensibility. Like Rau I was using the view camera to craft thoughtful, creative and technically resolved images that can function on both a documentary and artistic level. Rau’s mammoth plate images provided insight for an approach to photographing not just the trains but also the infrastructure of a railroad and the landscape it traversed. This exhibition and subsequent book was the seed that would germinate into the Mainline Project some five years later.
View southeast from the Rankin Bridge of the Mon Line and Union Railroad interchange, Kennywood, Pennsylvania. One of many images made during the initial development of the Mainline Project draws from Rau’s use of the landscape for context and the often wide and elevated views common in his imagery.
In 2006, having been out college more than five years, I was making work and exhibiting as much as possible. I had finished a two-year Career Development Fellowship with the Philadelphia based Center for Emerging Visual Artists and was teaching at Drexel University. My projects focused on the Delaware River Watershed and later documenting historic but obsolete structures in and around the Philadelphia area. Though I was having a fair amount of success with the work, I couldn’t help but think more about Rau’s PRR commissions. Using his work as a starting point could provide insight on how to revisit the very subject that led me to pick up a camera in the first place – the railroad. In the spring of 2007 I applied for and received an Alumni Travel Grant with the Center for Emerging Visual Artists to photograph the surviving railroad and landscape along the former PRR between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, the segment I was most familiar with. With the Rau book always by my side I made several trips building the conceptual framework of the project. Drawing from approaches utilized in past work, I photographed everything along the route, compiling an assortment of over a hundred images that ran the gamut, some good, some bad; others that became the cornerstones of how the project would evolve.
Between trips I contacted the Library Company to inquire about viewing the Rau Collection for further inspiration. Knowing that the book reproduced 50 plates from a larger collection of 463 individual images I could tell just by the published inventory list that I needed to see more. With the help of the Library Company’s prints and photographs curator Sarah Weatherwax, I began reviewing small reference prints and later original 18×22” contact prints. There was something magical about looking at this work in person, to be able to hold and interact with it minus the glass and polish of an exhibition. Seeing the sheen of vintage albumen prints and the endless amounts of detail from an image made from a negative of the same size was a true sensory experience. It was a first hand view of a historical photographic process, a cohesive collection of how one photographer viewed the world and the landscape that was in front of his lens.
Though this project was never meant to be a re-photographic survey sometimes the opportunity presents itself to study the 120+ years of change on the Pennsylvania Railroad like here at Jacks Narrows on the Middle Division. Left image by the author, right image by William H. Rau, Collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc.
Though Rau’s work was playing a big part in molding my project I did not want this to become a re-photographic survey, getting mired down in finding the exact locations and times Rau made pictures. Instead my relationship with Rau was an open dialogue, one that takes influence from the imagery while considering the modern landscape and rail corridor. Recognizing that Rau was commissioned to make this work, for me it was much bigger than just an assignment. I was working to discover the history tied to a railroad corridor that has largely shaped the landscape throughout the Northeast and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania – about using Rau’s work to inspire and inform me of a past time in the landscape and on the railroad. The act of gleaning information from Rau’s images added yet another layer of depth in my relationship to his work.
Different views made by Rau throughout his commissions with the PRR show the great systemwide improvements that were taking place while also acknowledging previous modes of transportation that gave way to the railroads. (L) Trimmers Rock (looking east) showing both the Juniata River and relics of Mainline of Public Works canal. (R) McKeesport and Bessemer Railroad Bridge reveals fresh masonry work and construction debris of this new bridge constructed to connect with mills in McKeesport from the West Mifflin / Duquesne area. William H. Rau photographs, Collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc.
Around this time I began working with Amtrak’s engineering department and historic architect John Bowie Associates who were in the midst of documenting various historical facilities along the Northeast Corridor. It was the relationships that developed during this phase (which continue today) that helped me better understand more of the physical and economic history of the PRR and appreciate just how pivotal this era was to the company. Rau’s images reveal an evolution: a railroad building a physical plant that would be worthy of the claim of being the Standard Railroad of the World. In the 1890’s massive system wide improvements were well underway that would include construction of the countless stone bridges that remain today among other large scale engineering projects. At the same time the photos give a nod to antiquity, the relics of street running and canals that were giving way to a grade separated four track mainline that stretched from New York City to Pittsburgh.
Rau’s imagery provided a comprehensive study of a railroad about to hit its prime and a landscape that would see continual transformation because of its presence. The ability to gain such a clear perspective of the PRR in one cohesive body of work afforded the visual “before” to my after. Understanding the history of this great railroad in conjunction with the aesthetical response to Rau’s photos provide a sort of spiritual guidance in making images for the Mainline Project. Inspired in different ways by his work I consider channeling my inner Rau every time I pick up a camera and look to a subject like the former Pennsylvania Railroad.
On a damp morning smoke and steam rise from the Edgar Thompson Works in this view from Woodlawn Street in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Much of the commercial and residential infrastructure of this section is in disrepair leaving the remaining residents among relics of a once thriving community that looked to mill for life.
Since the first heat of molten steel was tapped in 1875 The Edgar Thomson Works has produced steel continuously along the banks of the Monongahela River in North Braddock, Pennsylvania. Constructed by Andrew Carnegie the plant was named in honor of his friend and president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, J. Edgar Thomson. Carnegie’s mill would be the prototype for many modern facilities to come, making use of the Bessemer process, an innovative way to economically mass produce steel by forcing air through molten iron to remove impurities by oxidation. The mill occupies the site of the historic battle where French and Indian Troops defeated the expedition of General Edward Braddock on July 9, 1755. Flanked by Turtle Creek and the Monongahela River the locale offers waterfront access to receive raw materials and ship finished product on the Ohio and Mississippi River networks.
In 1892 the Edgar Thomson Works would be part of one most violent labor strikes in American history, the Homestead strike. In an attempt to disband the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers in Carnegie’s Homestead Works, Henry Clay Frick and Carnegie locked out workers when negotiations for the union organization went sour. Employees at the Homestead works picketed for roughly five days, with plant workers at both the Thomson and Duquesne Works joining in sympathy. Picketing turned violent when plant owners brought in the Pinkerton Guards instigating a full-scale riot that resulted in ten deaths and thousands of injuries. State Governor Robert Pattison sent two brigades of the State Militia to disperse the chaos and resume operations with temporary strike breakers. Mill owners continued fighting the efforts to unionize steel labor for years, causing other violent outbreaks until 1942 when the AA finally merged with others to create the United Steel Workers Union, gaining momentum to unionize major steel mills all together.
East end view of the Edgar Thompson Works reveals one of the remaining blast furnaces which produce the raw steel to feed the Mon Valley Works which includes finish mills in Irvin and Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania. The complex rail infrastucture required to feed the mils is illustrated here: In the foreground there are staging yards for gondolas of scrap steel, the ram bridge that connects the ET Works to the Union Railroad mainline, the Union RR right of way left center (note signal gantry) all of which are on the bank of the Turtle Creek.
In 1901 Carnegie Steel was merged with the Federal and National Steel Companies under the direction of J.P. Morgan among other partners creating US Steel. Once the largest steel producer in the world, US Steel still produces roughly 25 percent of America’s domestic steel at several major facilities in the United States. Operations at the Edgar Thomson Plant continue and now employ a basic oxygen furnace and continuous caster in addition to the remaining blast furnaces. Operated under the auspices of the Mon Valley Works this operation is the last integrated steel mill in the Pittsburgh area with coke produced at the Clairton Works to the south, raw steel produced at the ET plant and finishing into coil and galvanized products takes place at the Irvin Works.
Though the Edgar Thompson plant was served by numerous railroads most of it was done through interchange with the Union Railroad a wholly owned subsidiary of US Steel that was established in 1894 prior to Carnegie’s sale of the ET works. The Union Railroad grew into an expansive system connecting Carnegie’s Bessemer & Lake Erie with the industrial Mon Valley moving raw materials from Lake Erie and finished product to market. The Pennsylvania’s primary source of interchange was at Kenny Yard on the Monongahela Branch across from the works in Kennywood, Pennsylvania. Other companies interchanged with the Union Railroad including the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie, Baltimore and Ohio and the Western Maryland most via the P&LE gateway at Connellsville.
Every time I step foot out in the field to photograph I am fully prepared to handle a barrage of questions pertaining to my camera of choice, mainly because in this day and age its… well almost completely obsolete. I have for over 15 years had a love/ hate relationship with the view camera. A cumbersome, slow, maybe even archaic box like design. The basic principal and design of a view camera derives from the camera obscura a device used by artists and scientists alike through out early history, and ultimately the basis of early camera designs.
An example of a large format negative from a 5×7 view camera. When properly exposed and developed the negative produce a wide dynamic range in a single negative which can be either scanned or printed traditionally in the darkroom. (Below Left) View Camera film is cut into sheets and loaded into holders like this allowing for two exposures, one on each side. (Bottom Right) My camera of choice is a 5×7 wood field camera, a compact and precise design that affords the benefits of large format without the bulk of a rail design camera. Cassandra, Pennsylvania
Why use film and a View Camera? In the days of digital capture and Photoshop this is a very valid question. My mind is a process oriented one, I am fascinated by things that require a balance between artistry and technical proficiency, activities like cooking, beer making, and of course photography. Akin to a craft like woodworking, photographers have various tools available and over time you develop a preference to which tool you work with. The view camera for me is a technical tool that provides an interactive experience where you are fully and physically involved in the picture making process.
I exaggerated in describing the view camera as a primitive box, perhaps some people use it that way, but in reality the view camera is a complex device that allows an incredible amount of control in the picture making process. Constructed with two standards – front and rear they are connected by a light tight bellows creating a highly flexible camera body that is capable of use in most genres of photography. These standards operate independent of one another; the front providing the mount for lenses that are on rigid boards allowing for quick changing, the rear has a frosted ground glass the image is projected on which allows the photographer to compose and focus the camera. One of the most common comments I get when one looks through the camera is that image on the ground glass is “upside and backwards” this is because of the lack of reflex mirrors we are accustomed to in SLR type camera designs, its something you get used to, I don’t even notice it anymore until someone else points it out.
The standards move on multiple axes including rise, fall, shift, tilt and swing which allow the user to manipulate shape and focus of the object you are photographing and areessential to perspective control, one of the primary reasons I prefer this camera. Through use of the various movements the vertical and horizontal axis of the lens and film can be brought parallel to the subject eliminating convergence, keeping the subject straight in the resultant photo. In addition to this, one can also manipulate the plane of critical focus attaining sharpness and depth of field a standard fixed lens camera would have difficulty doing in certain situations.
Another benefit is the resultant negative. Though several view cameras are still produced to work with expensive digital capture backs, a properly exposed and developed piece of film, especially black and white which affords full processing control, will yield all the information you need whether you print in the darkroom or scan and print digitally (which I prefer). This is perhaps the biggest barrier to entry for new view camera users: Its expensive, slow and takes lot of patience (plus a few errors) to really learn how to utilize film intuitively, but once you become proficient there are limitless possibilities.
I choose to work with this slow meditative process because it works for my focus on the landscape, architecture, and infrastructure but not necessarily moving trains (only on a few occasions under the right conditions) and it satisfies my need for a technical and interactive experience. Over the years I have come to prefer using a ‘compact’ wood field camera, it produces 5×7” negatives and is also equipped with a reducing back to shoot 4×5″ as well. On occasion I will use an 8×10” field camera though lately while working on the railroad it sees a lot less use because of accessibility to locations and the bulk/ weight of the camera and film holders.
I am not the only one either; there is a list of others that utilize the large format camera to document the railroads, some taking the approach of focusing on the environment or people. Others have pushed the limits of what a large format camera can be used for in this genre. Over the next few months we will explore several different photographer’s work to understand why the large format camera was essential to their creative process and contribution to this unique genre in photography.
Steubenville OH – Situated along the Ohio River, the County Seat of Jefferson County was a center for steel production for over 120 years. Flanked by mills and associated support industries up and down the Ohio River, Steubenville was the home to nearly 40,000 people at its peak in 1940. The history of steel production here began when the LaBelle Iron Works, a leading nail mill in Wheeling, WV purchased an independent mill here and immediately began construction of two blast furnaces by 1899. Known as the North Plant these furnaces produced the raw steel to feed several other specialty plants in the area to produce tin, galvanized and structural steel. LaBelle stayed independent until 1920 when Wheeling Steel was founded absorbing several companies in the process. These furnaces operated constantly through the 1960’s merger with Pittsburgh Steel, operating under the name Wheeling-Pitt Steel. The Number One Furnace operated continuously until the mill was shut down in 2005.
The remaining blast furnaces of the Wheeling-Pitt North Plant was one of many industrial landmarks along the Ohio River, complete with a large cantilevered Baltimore truss bridge that linked the North plant with mills on the West Virginia side including the Coke Works in Follansbee. Tracks in the foreground are the Wheeling secondary track, on the Ohio side the PRR’s Panhandle Divison mainline and River branch flanked the former LaBelle furnace converging in Steubenville to the (railroad) east.
A prominent landmark in Steubenville is the Market Street Bridge the sole project undertaken by the Steubenville Bridge Company in 1905. The suspension bridge was constructed by the Ohio Erecting Company with the steel coming from Jones & Laughlin and Bethlehem Steel and the frame fabrication performed by Penn Bridge Company. The bridge’s sole purpose was to connect Ohio to West Virginia providing an easy means of access to the Follansbee Brother’s steel mill that later become the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Coke Works in appropriately named Follansbee, WV. Designed by noted engineer E. K. Morse who was involved in the design of Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge, the structure has a checkered past. From its original design the bridge was multi-modal, carrying pedestrians, trolleys and automobiles. In 1917 it was sold to the West Penn Traction Company and was operated by the streetcar line until the constant stress of heavy freight rail traffic caused a major cable failure on the bridge. Dr. David B. Steinman, a noted bridge engineer in the same year, addressed design flaws and oversaw repairs; Steinman would also be involved in a major upgrade in the 1940’s.
View looking south down the Ohio River we see the 1905 Market Street Bridge prior to its restoration and the Wheeling-Pitt Railroad Bridge at a distance behind it. To the left of the suspension tower rises the stacks of the coke works now operated by Mountain State Carbon in Follasbee, WV.
Traffic on the Market St. Bridge decreased with the opening of the Fort Steuben Bridge in 1928, providing better access to the area industry via highways outside the city center. Ironically the Fort Steuben Bridge was replaced in 1990 with the opening of the Veterans Memorial Bridge and sadly the historic structure was found structurally deficient and ultimately demolished in 2012. Fortunately the Main Street Bridge did not suffer the same fate, though it was also found to have structural issues. With funding from the WV Department of Transportation the bridge received major repairs in 2009 providing the necessary steel reinforcements as well as period lighting and fresh paint. The bridge, now eligible to be on the National Historic Register, was dedicated on December 7th of 2011 opening again for local traffic.
Though the Market Street Bridge was the first of its kind for the general public it was not the first crossing of the Ohio in Steubenville. The Pennsylvania Railroad constructed the first bridge in the area around 1868 with two subsequent replacements in 1888 and 1927, the later survives today carrying what remains of the former PRR Panhandle Division which once extended to St. Louis via Cincinnati and was the supply line to the heavy industry of the Ohio Valley. Like the railroad Steubenville and the steel industry have faced hardships, seeing a decline in population directly connected to slumping steel production and subsequent closure of the mills. What remains today is quickly disappearing as the shuttered mills are torn down for scrap. The surviving towns face the challenge of adapting to a new life or fading away in existence an unfortunate reality to many towns through out the former steel belt.
I am happy to announce that I’ll be presenting a slide show and discussion on the ongoing photographic project, From the Mainline: A Contemporary Survey of the Pennsylvania Railroad for the Northern Central Chapter of the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society. Inspired by the work of photographer William H. Rau, who was commissioned in the 1890′s to document the PRR and its destinations, the project explores the transitioning landscape along the former PRR mainline from New York to Pittsburgh, highlighting the unique vernacular of facilities and infrastructure built by the PRR. Using large format film based images this project combines historical research and imagery to present a creative documentation of one of the most celebrated railroads in American history for both exhibition and web format.
The Pennsylvania Railroad Technical & Historical Society (PRRT&HS) is a national organization including 12 Chapters around the country whose mission is to further scholarly learning and interest in the Pennsylvania Railroad through a number of activities. For more information about the PRRT&HS, their activities and archives please visit their website. The lecture, part of the Northern Central quarterly chapter meeting is free and open to the public and will begin at approximately 1:30PM at the Otterbein United Methodist Church, 301 W. Philadelphia Street, York, Pa. For more information please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for your support!
As the mainline tour progresses I have been doing a lot of thinking about the direction of my blog posts during my seemingly endless research on the physical plant of the former Pennsylvania Railroad. In the process of producing this tour I have been ignoring a large part of the project, the towns the railroad traveled through. These places large and small developed around natural resources and manufacturing, much of which revolved around iron and steel production. The landscape of Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio and West VA first began expanding because of natural and man-made waterways, which provided industry with a means of transportation to expand their markets. Though a major advancement, canals and rivers were subject to seasonal changes shutting down shipping with the winter freeze and summer droughts. It quickly became evident that a better mode of transportation was needed and the railroad was the answer. Politicians, lobbyists and industrial magnates fought for access to prime locations, rail lines were chartered, built and continually improved through the late 19th Century. As a result towns along the railroad boomed, people were no longer in isolated communities but part of an industrial chain that drove the American economy. With the new ability to move large quantities of raw material and finished product across the country the steel industry expanded and so did the need for labor. Immigrants came by the thousands to places scattered across the region to work the mills, mines and for the railroads. The ethnic diversity was reflected in the various churches, neighborhoods and shops that brought the familiar comforts of the old country to this new place of work. Throughout the years there have been high times and lows in many of these towns, rocked by labor disputes, natural disasters and the eventual decline of the American steel industry.
The view from Singer Street in Johnstown, Pennsylvania exemplifies the somber beauty of mill towns across Pennsylvania. Homes cling to the hillsides and business districts look toward the mill, once the focal point to the local economy. Today countless places like Johnstown are a quiet memorial to the era of steel and manufacturing across the region.
Today many of these places serve as a monument to industry and a way of life that has disappeared. The villages, company towns and entire sections of cities often look onto the mill, celebrating the pride and prosperity these now abandoned places once provided for many hard working families. I have found myself completely entranced by places like Johnstown and Braddock, places that are a fraction of their former self, wondering what it was like when these places were in their prime. In residential areas there is little uniformity from house to house with the exceptions of clusters of company housing yet all of these places look oddly the same. Frame houses on hill sides, all slightly modified over the years or just plain neglected, empty streets and brown fields, virtually deserted town squares flanked with grand commercial buildings constructed of stone and terracotta, town by town the theme repeats.
East Conemaugh was situated across from the Franklin Works of Cambria Iron, later Bethlehem Steel. The mills are gone and the rail yards empty, the mainline of the Pennsylvania Railroad still enters town on the far side of the Conemaugh River, the final resting place of engineer John Hess who used his locomotive whistle to warn the townspeople of the impending destruction of the great flood of 1889.
Like much of my work, this imagery is an observation, part of connecting the dots to understand a particular place or landscape. To many its a bleak and depressing place, I am often asked why bother visiting let alone taking pictures, some locals even get mad that an outsider would objectify their struggling community. To me the typical mill town is a comforting and familiar place, one of repetition and rhythm. You can find something different in every visit, grand and ornate homes in a row of company buildings, five story apartment houses in a town that doesn’t even rate a gas station, and the rail line that once fed this industrial giant snaking along from town to town. This is where the mainline of the Pennsylvania Railroad once travelled, the towns it built, nurtured and its predecessors served until the industry dried up. The railroad still thrives but like many places, the trains don’t stop here anymore. The mill town is a place of beauty in its own right, and I am happy to have experienced every one of them and look forward to sharing a different viewpoint of the built landscape that came as result of the railroads and industry. Over the coming months you can expect images celebrating these places as work continues on understanding the late Pennsylvania Railroad and the landscape it travelled. Enjoy!
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 30,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 11 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.