I am very excited to announce the Monmouth Museum’s upcoming exhibition, “All Aboard, Railroads and the Historic Landscapes They Travel” which was curated by yours truly! See below for the full press release and look forward to future posts on the artists featured in the exhibition!
The Monmouth Museum Presents
All Aboard! Railroads and the Historic Landscapes They Travel
Curated by Michael Froio
November 16, 2014 – January 4, 2015
Opening Reception: Sunday, November 16, 3 – 5 pm
Gallery Talk with Curator Michael Froio: Friday, December 12, 7 pm
(LINCROFT, NJ) The Monmouth Museum presents All Aboard! Railroads and the Historic Landscapes They Travel, curated by Michael Froio. An Opening Reception will be held on Sunday, November 16, 3 – 5 pm, and a Gallery Talk will take place on Friday, December 12 at 7 pm, with Curator Michael Froio. The Opening Reception and Gallery Talk are free of charge. We are delighted to announce the Monmouth Museum Model Train Display will make its comeback with new, improved trains and updated network of track! The Friends of Monmouth Museum will present their Annual Holiday Tree, decorated with train and railroad memorabilia!
Railroads played a vital role in the development of the United States, providing the vehicle to feed the industrial revolution, the means to bridge the east and west coasts and the ability to move the American people, goods and raw materials over a network that greatly shaped the American landscape. All Aboard! is a celebration of railroads in the American landscape detailing some of the most transformative times in railroad history. This visually stunning and informative historical exhibition features the work of eight renowned photographers, including David Plowden, Jim Shaughnessy (both on loan from The Center for Railroad Photography and Art), Ron Wright, Mel Patrick, Scott Lothes, John Sanderson, Travis Dewitz and Guest Curator Michael Froio. Also featured are vintage travel and advertising posters (on loan from the Private Collection of Bennett Levin). All Aboard! Railroads & The Historic Landscapes They Travel is an enchanting journey through the history and nostalgia the railroads evoke and the landscape they have traveled for over 150 years.
Michael Froio is an acclaimed professional photographer, associate professor and facilities manager for the Photography Program, part of the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Michael has received several grants and fellowships including a two-year Career Development Fellowship and Alumni Travel Grant with the Center for Emerging Visual Artists as well as a 2009 Individual Artist Fellowship from the New Jersey Council on the Arts. Michael has published articles with the National Railway Historical Society and presented lectures for the Center for Railroad Photography and Art, The Library Company of Philadelphia and various Chapters of the National Railway Historical Society across the country.
Dillerville Junction was a complex interlocking controlling access to several important lines on the PRR in the northwestern corner of Lancaster. This remarkable view looking railroad west from the Lancaster Cut-Off depicts the new line veering off to the right connecting with the H&L line to Harrisburg. The old alignment of the H&L into Dillerville and Lancaster still exists and is where Rau’s photographic train is sitting behind the interlocking tower. Straight ahead is the connection to the Columbia Branch while the tracks that fan off to the left from that line in the distance are the original alignment and connection to the Old Main to the Queen Street station. The last line of note through the junction is the single track passing left to right in front of the tower crossing all of the PRR tracks at grade, this was the Reading Company’s Lancaster Branch, part of its Reading & Columbia Division which terminated at the foot of North Prince Street. The meticulous landscaping, track and ballast work reflect a railroad that took great pride in their physical plant. Image circa 1888 by William H. Rau, Collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc.
In 1835 Revolutionary War officer and Sheriff of Lancaster County, Adam Diller founded Dillerville, a one time separate settlement in Lancaster’s northwest corner. In June of the same year Diller would grant the Harrisburg & Lancaster Railroad a 1.5-acre plot to construct a depot. From these meager beginnings Dillerville would develop to become the western gateway of the Lancaster terminal, evolving with continual improvements after the PRR assumed control of the Philadelphia & Columbia and Harrisburg & Lancaster Railroads.
Originally the location where the PRR predecessors split away heading west on their respective routes, DV interlocking as it became known, developed into a far more complex facility with the addition of the Lancaster Cut-Off in 1883. The second know tower in this location was completed in 1884 for the new cut-off utilizing Armstrong levers to control lower quadrant semaphore signals and switch points throughout the junction. This tower was built in the typical style of that era with Victorian details including a slate shingled hip roof and center cupola similar to surviving examples like LEMO tower now located in Strasburg, PA and SHORE at Frankford Junction in Philadelphia. DV was an important facility, directing trains to the Columbia Branch, Old Main, H&L line to Harrisburg and the Lancaster Cut-Off / Mainline east. On either side of the interlocking there were several yards servicing industries on the Old Main and the later plants of Armstrong World Industries and its predecessors. Adding to the complexity of this interlocking was an at grade crossing of the R&C division of the Reading Company who’s Lancaster Branch terminated at the foot of Prince Street in the north west corner of the city.
This view looks west depicting the first tower at Dillerville around 1880. To the left is the Columbia Branch of the former P&C and to the right is the former H&L to Harrisburg. Note the sign on this early wood frame octagonal switch tower which proclaims an exact distance of 69 and 30/100 miles to Philadelphia and 283 and 70/100 miles to Pittsburgh. Another noteworthy detail is the early signals utilized to govern traffic at the junction. As evident from Rau’s photo in 1888 this junction would be greatly reconfigured with the addition of the Lancaster Cut-off. Photographer unknown, image courtesy of LancasterHistory.org, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
In the late 1920s DV interlocking was part of a consolidation project in preparation for the opening of a new passenger station complex on the Cut-Off centralizing several towers into Lancaster Tower, which was later renamed Cork for its proximity to the PRR’s largest freight customer in the city, Crown Cork & Seal (Armstrong). Another component to this improvements program involved partial abandonment of the Old Line retaining only the segment from West Yard to the freight houses on Water Street. Dillerville Yard continued to serve as a local base of freight operations for the diverse manufacturing and agricultural consignees in the city and beyond on both the mainline and New Holland branch.
Views looking east and west from the footbridge off Liberty Street in the Dillerville area of Lancaster. (L) Looking west on the Old Main one can see the catenary poles of the Lancaster Cut-Off in the distance coming in from the right. At DV interlocking this line crossed at grade with the Columbia Branch and connected to the former H&L to head west to Harrisburg. (R) Looking east was the remaining segment of the former Old Main which recently terminated at the foot of Mulberry Street and Harrisburg Avenue. Here a bulk transfer trestle, crew base and engine storage area were all recently abandoned when NS completed the new H. Craig Lewis yard part of the Lancaster Northwest Gateway redevelopment project.
In 2009 Norfolk Southern, successor of PRR operations in the area (through the purchase of Conrail) began a major reconfiguration of Dillerville Yard in order to accommodate the $75 million Lancaster Northwest Gateway Project, which is developing acres of unused brown fields to provide expansion opportunities for both Lancaster General Hospital and Franklin & Marshal College. Earlier this year the last of the remaining PRR era facilities including the pedestrian bridge, trans-load facility and engine terminal were abandoned after NS dedicated new facilities in a yard named after the late H. Craig Lewis state senator and former NS VP of corporate affairs. Part of more than a century of urban renewal the Northwest Gateway Project is the last effort in removing all rail activity from the city center including the industries the railroads once served completing an effort that began in the 1880′s with the construction of the Lancaster Cut-Off.
Postcard view of the ornate Victorian styled PRR station located at N. Queen and E. Chestnut Streets in the city of Lancaster. Collection of the author.
Lancaster Old Main: The original mainline of the Pennsylvania Railroad made a gentle southern arc from the area of Dillerville in the northwest corner of the city limits to where it crossed the Conestoga in the northeast, intersecting busy streets through the growing city of Lancaster. The line was the combination of routes built by the Philadelphia & Columbia (P&C) and Harrisburg & Lancaster (H&L) railroads. The P&C, part of the state built Mainline of Public Works, was a through route connecting Philadelphia to the east and Columbia to the west. The H&L was an early private venture that terminated in Lancaster connecting the P&C via its own mainline directly to Elizabethtown and Harrisburg. Shortly after the charter and beginning of construction on the mainline between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh the PRR contracted a 20-year agreement with the H&L in 1848, part of an effort to secure a direct route to Philadelphia. J. Edgar Thompson would accomplished this goal when the PRR finally assumed operations of the P&C in 1857, part of its $7.5 million purchase of the Mainline of Public Works. With the reorganization of both lines into the PRR, traffic patterns west from Lancaster evolved to a pattern familiar to contemporary operations with passenger trains favoring the more direct H&L and the P&C for freight traffic.
1912 Sanborn map detail showing the congested area surrounding the original alignment of the Philadelphia and Columbia route which became the PRR’s original mainline through Lancaster. The station was located at Queen and Chestnut Streets (location 25 on the map) and the freight terminal was on the corner of Prince and Walnut Streets (upper left from station). Map collection of the Penn State University Library
After the PRR purchased the P&C it immediately took initiatives to replace primitive station facilities run out of a local inn. The result was a beautiful train shed and station built between Queen and North Christian Streets parallel to Chestnut Street. While a drastic improvement from previous arrangements it would prove to be a stopgap measurement for the fast growing railroad. Larger operational issues existed to the west of the station in a maze of trackage servicing both PRR owned freight houses and numerous industries most of which was at grade with the city streets. Adding to the congestion was the connection to the Quarryville Branch and interchange with the Reading Company’s R&C Division all within the city limits.
Images detailing both the freight terminal and industrial tracks the spurred off the mainline (left) and the western view from the passenger station shed looking out on the crossing of N. Queen Street. These images reinforce the complicated and dangerous operating conditions the city and railroad faced on a daily basis. Both images courtesy of LancasterHistory.org, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Serving as the sole through route into the 1880’s the PRR addressed the limitations of the Old Main by constructing a bypass known as the Lancaster Cut-Off. After the 1883 opening of this new route only trains serving Lancaster navigated the city route. Despite the growth and increasing need for more rail transportation the unfortunate reality was the mighty PRR was diverting more and more trains away from the Queen Street station in favor of the new by-pass. The net result meant mounting political pressure on the PRR from city government to provide residents and visitors improved rail transportation, an issue that would continue well into the 1920’s. This era marks the beginning of an effort of urban renewal that continues to change how people and the railroads interface with the city of Lancaster. In future posts we will continue the discussion of how and when the PRR diverted operations away from the Old Main and how successors have continued to revise and improve local facilities and operations.
Construction waits as a late running inbound crude train crosses the Delair Bridge into Southern New Jersey during the April Outage. This week marks the sixth and final shoot for Conrail documenting the Delair Improvements program.
I hope you all had an enjoyable summer! I know, I promised an in-depth series of posts on the evolution of the Lancaster area on the Pennsylvania Railroad and so far I have published one part. There is more to come I assure you! Recently with gracious assistance from friend William L. Seigford and accompanied by the knowledgeable Mark Hoffman I made a trip to sew up some loose ends on the Lancaster Terminal and the New Holland Branch. Much of this film has been processed but still needs scanning and editing to add to the series, rounding out the contemporary part of my survey. Adding to the backlog, this week marks the last of six shoots for Conrail documenting improvements to the former PRR Delair Bridge, a vital connection between the South Jersey cluster of Conrail Shared Assets and Norfolk Southern and CSX’s transportation networks. Once complete I’ll be shifting gears to finalize and begin promoting the upcoming exhibition I am curating at the Monmouth Museum in Lincroft, NJ. I look forward to sharing this exciting Fall season for the blog and Mainline Project and as always thank you for your patience and support!
The city of Lancaster has a rich and diverse history that began in the late 1600’s as a part of the Penn’s Woods Charter, a 45,000 square mile land grant to establish an English Quaker Colony in the New World. The area of Lancaster would develop and flourish around rich agricultural land and the development of iron forges throughout the 1700’s. As iron production increased the need to develop road networks became necessary to bring in raw materials and transport finished product to market, the Philadelphia & Lancaster Turnpike was one of the first, opening in 1795. Lancaster held the honor of being the state capitol from 1799-1812 and was incorporated as a city in 1818 developing at the crossroads of trade routes connecting Philadelphia with manufacturing centers like Columbia, York, Lebanon and Portsmouth (Middletown).
Early in the first quarter of the 19th Century construction of the Erie Canal put the state of New York at a great advantage over Philadelphia and the Comonwealth in trade and commerce. In an effort to compete, Pennsylvania would embark on a similar project known as the Mainline of Public Works, an ambitious network that utilized a multimodal system of railroads and canals. While the Erie Canal was in use by 1821, Pennsylvania did not break ground until 1828 and the network was not complete until 1834. What would determine success of these networks was ultimately the topography. The Commonwealth was far more challenging than the water level route of the Erie putting the Mainline of Public Works at a major disadvantage. The Mainline of Public Works network required multiple transfers to move cargo from train to boat in Columbia, back to train in Hollidaysburg, onto inclined planes to surmount the Alleghenies, and back to boat in Johnstown. Though the trip was a vast improvement over wagon travel, it was still hampered by logistics and weather. Though woefully under-engineered the only potential success of this network was found on the east end, the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad which ran the 82 miles between its namesake towns with Lancaster along the way.
Detail of an 1855 map illustrating the Pennsylvania Railroad system and its connections. This map shows the proposed Lebanon, Lancaster & Pinegrove Railroad which was to bypass the Philadelphia & Columbia to gain access to Philadelphia prior to the Commonwealth and the PRR coming to an agreement on the sale price of the failing Mainline of Public Works in 1857. Map collection of the Library of Congress.
The potential success of this new railroad spurred private ventures to construct connecting lines like the Harrisburg, Portsmouth, Mount Joy & Lancaster Railroad (H&L for short) which completed its route in 1838 bypassing the train-boat transfer in Columbia and thus connecting local industry to an all rail route to Philadelphia. Recognizing the overall failure of the Mainline of Public Works the Commonwealth deemed that a private venture should be chartered to construct an all rail route from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh in order to preserve and improve trade and commerce, therefore in 1846 the Pennsylvania Railroad was born. Once the PRR route was complete to Pittsburgh, lines east of Harrisburg including the H&L and P&C became the object of desire for the young railroad striving to complete an exclusive rail network between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. An operating arrangement was established with the H&L in 1848 leaving one last lynch pin, the now cash starved P&C. The Commonwealth offered the entire Mainline of Public Works system for sale in 1854 but it wasn’t until 1857 that the PRR would agree to purchase the system for $7.5 million, almost a third of the original asking price. This purchase secured the final segment of a wholly owned rail route between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia while also providing the surplus canal right of way that would be crucial to expanding and improving the mainline west of Harrisburg. With the potential for increased traffic the railroad began improvements to its mainline system, an endeavor that would continue on and off well into the 20th Century. Antiquated facilities in Lancaster were a continuing concern; construction commenced on a new station in 1860, several bridges were improved, the physical plant expanded and finally a by-pass route was built around the congested city center in 1883. By 1904 the mainline of the Pennsylvania Railroad from Philadelphia to the Conestoga River was four tracks wide. In Lancaster the complex terminal reduced down from four tracks to two on the east end, splitting twice, once between the old main and the 1883 Lancaster cut-off and again at Dillerville where the old main (former H&L) connected back to the cut-off and the former P&C diverged to Columbia. Though plagued by the two track bottleneck over the Conestoga for some time, completion of the Atglen & Susquehanna branch in 1906 diverted a considerable amount of freight traffic away from Lancaster to the east and the two track Conestoga Bridge would remain as is, adequate to handle the remaining traffic on the mainline.
One of many early improvements in the Lancaster terminal area was the stone bridge over the Conestoga River where the mainline from the east entered Lancaster. Designed by Chief Engineer William H. Brown and completed in 1887 the two track Conestoga Bridge is unique in its design as the south side was left with protruding stonework to allow for further expansion had the railroad required additional capacity. Though this bridge was an operational bottleneck when the mainline east was four-tracked subsequent construction of the Atglen and Susquehanna branch alleviated much of the through freight congestion in the Lancaster area. Image courtesy of LancasterHistory.org, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Terminal improvements continued in the 1920’s including the abandonment of the old main and 1860 station in favor of a new passenger station on the cut-off providing expanded train service, the result of political pressure and some gentle encouragement from Armstrong Cork a major PRR customer in Lancaster. Around the same time electrification was sweeping the eastern mainline, preparations were being made to modernize area interlocking plants which were centralized to a single tower appropriately named Lancaster (renamed CORK a few years after its construction for the neighboring plant of Armstrong Cork). In 1938 electrification of the Paoli – Harrisburg mainline, Low Grade and Columbia branch were complete; Electric locomotives were now hauling the bulk of freight and passenger trains west to Harrisburg, leaving steam and later diesel propulsion to switch sprawling industries scattered about on the remaining sections of the old main, Dillerville area, Quarryville and New Holland branches.
Part of the last wave of Pennsylvania Railroad improvements in the Lancaster area was the 1927 abandonment of the old mainline and station through town and the opening of the new passenger station on what was formerly the Lancaster Cut-Off, now essentially the new mainline. Further improvements came in 1938 with the completion of the final phase of electrification including the mainline from Paoli to Harrisburg, the Low Grade and Columbia branch. Illustrated here in a view looking east is the new station facility and Cork interlocking tower which consolidated control of several interlockings in the Lancaster area. Image collection of the author.
Lancaster and the railroad thrived during the surge of World War II traffic but as peacetime settled in, the PRR began to show its age, left with mounting debts and a worn out physical plant. With a decrease in traffic and increasing competition from trucking the rationing of their physical plant began in the early 1960’s removing two of the main tracks east of the Conestoga Bridge to Parkesburg. Traffic continued to diminish and the ill-fated merger of the NYC and PRR drained cash away from much needed infrastructure improvements. In 1971 Amtrak was created to preserve national passenger train service, on the Harrisburg Line the new company slowly began carving away at money loosing local, regional and long distance services the PRR once provided. In 1976 Conrail assumed control of freight operations in the Lancaster/Dillerville area which continues to generating traffic from a number of large industrial plants and new distribution warehouses. In the late 1990’s the future of Lancaster’s railroads faced more changes. Conrail was split up by CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Corporation, the later which assumed control of Lancaster freight operations. Amtrak’s Keystone Line was designated a high-speed corridor and work slowly began to rebuild the Harrisburg – Philadelphia mainline for hourly electrified service once again. In 2008 Franklin & Marshall College and Lancaster General Hospital struck an agreement with NS to develop the land along the former old main that was retained for yard and bulk transfer facilites for the railroad. NS commenced a long-term project to move, reconfigure and expand Dillerville Yard all of which was completed at the close of 2013. Today contractors are removing the remaining traces of the old main changing the local landscape forever. Amtrak’s rebuilding of the former PRR mainline is largely complete including the tumultuous rehab of Lancaster’s 1929 depot, the streamlining of the physical plant and the closing of Cork tower, one of a few left on the former PRR system. Though the PRR has been absent from the Lancaster area for over 45 years its legacy remains a vital infrastructure to the local economy. Over the next few months we will spend some time exploring the various lines and history of the Lancaster area including current and historic facilities.
Though I have spent some seven years documenting the former Pennsylvania Railroad I can count on one hand how many times I have actually rode the original mainline between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. This past weekend I graduated to three fingers making the round trip to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia. This one however was no ordinary trip; in fact it was quite special, for it was made on two privately owned historic rail cars; Bennett and Eric Levin’s lovingly restored Warrior Ridge and the Pennsylvania 120 a former PRR business car. As an invited guest myself and several others were lucky enough to see the landscape that that PRR has traveled since its completion in 1852, traveling through places I was all to familiar with but not always from the perspective of the passenger.
“Storm lifting in the Packsaddle”, William H. Rau photograph. The Packsaddle is one of several locations that were used during various illustration and photographic campaigns on the Pennsylvania Railroad in the 19th Century. Collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc.
It got me thinking as several of us discussed various facets of the PRR including illustrative and photographic campaigns undertaken over the years by the company. These campaigns were geared around flaunting the scenic vistas along this prolific engineered corridor; some are revisited several times, in particular during the second half of the 19th Century. Riding in a car that served PRR President Walter Franklin among other officials, I could imagine the conversations and acknowledgment of these beautiful locations that seemed to captivate railroad men whether it was because they conquered a particularly difficult pass there or because the beauty was just that breathtaking.
For over 160 years the PRR has traversed this natural landscape following the majestic Susquehanna, Juniata, Conemaugh and Allegheny Rivers among others. Throughout that time countless passengers gazed out the window at areas commanding names like Warrior Ridge, The Packsaddle, Mineral Point and Jacks Narrows. Let us not forget how many experience the westbound ascent of Horseshoe curve out of Altoona, entering the famous engineering landmark high above Burgoon Run one quickly gets a sense of the curve’s purpose, watching an eastbound descend the mountain across the valley at a noticeably higher elevation. Places like this were engineered by brilliant and driven men on the backs of cheap labor wielding pick axes and shovels, they are a testament of what was possible in the by gone era of industrialization. But yet they still survive, moving countless trains on a given day, a refined version of J. Edgar Thomson’s engineering genius. Besides the trains themselves little has changed from when Frederick Gutekunst or William Rau left footprints in the cinders making the large format images that preserved this rugged beauty. I have always been fascinated by the undefined spaces the railroad travels, the areas in-between the towns, cities and villages that create a sort of rhythm that illustrates the growth and progress the railroads fostered along the line, watching the ever changing landscape from the window of train who’s predecessors we owe our Nation’s existence to.
“The Horse Shoe Curve, Pennsylvania Railroad” Illustration of the engineering landmark envisioned by J. Edgar Thomson from an 1895 travel book which illustrates the scenic highlights of the Pennsylvania Railroad mainline. Collection of the author.
Yes this weekend was a welcome distraction, a reminder of why I embarked on this project, to document and share a railroad so historic and massive that its reputation and design lasted longer the company itself. To spend time on the railroad with like minded folks on a pair of beautifully restored private cars was exactly what I needed to put into perspective the past, present and future of railroading on the Pennsylvania Railroad and the landscape it travels. In regard to preservation, I take off my hat to people like the Levin’s who share the legacy of railroad travel in style and take every opportunity to see to it their guests are comfortable and having a good time. And to my fellow travel mates, I made some new friends and shared some great stories about the very railroad that bought us all together. Though the Pennsylvania Railroad has been gone for quite some time it is experiences like this that reinforce that the spirit and pride of the former Standard Railroad of the World is still very much alive through so many people and their work to preserve our railroad heritage. This is a trip that will stick with me for quite a long time!
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.