Plains, Trains & Stereoscopes

By Kevin Taylor and Chuck Spinks


This article was originally published on Aimee Crocker.


The Transcontinental Photographers

On Monday, the 10th of May, 1869, a crowd of about 500 people congregated on Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, to witness an historic, monumental, world changing event–the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. Charles Crocker and ten thousand Chinese laborers had crossed the Sierra Nevada in building the line, while the Union Pacific workforce of mostly Irishmen crossed the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains and the native homelands of sometimes combative indigenous tribes. They met ten miles from Great Salt Lake. It was among the most diverse crowds assembled in American history. A witness wrote, “… [they] gathered from the four quarters of the Union, and, we might say, from the four quarters of the earth. There were men from the pine-clad hills of Maine, the rock-bound coast of Massachusetts, the everglades of Florida, the golden shores of the Pacific slope, from China, Europe, and the wilds of the American continent. There were the lines of blue-clad boys, with their burnished muskets and glistening bayonets, and over all, in the bright May sun, floated the glorious old stars and stripes, an emblem of unity, power and prosperity.”


There were 37 stars on the flag flying over that Utah terrain. It was a dismal meeting place. One observer characterized the arid railroad town of Promontory as “thirty tents upon the Great Sahara, sans trees, sans water, sans comfort, sans everything.” The hour and minute designated arrived. Leland Stanford, President of the Central Pacific, came forward. T. C. Durant, Vice-President of the Union Pacific met him at the end of the rail. They paused while reverend gentleman Dr. John Todd gave the divine invocation. Then the final tie made of California laurel was put in place, and the last connecting rails were laid by parties from each company. The two engines inched forward across the new rails until they finally met cowcatcher to cowcatcher. The last spikes were dropped into predrilled holes and driven by Stanford for the CPRR and Durant for the UPRR. President Stanford grabbed a silver plated hammer wrapped and rigged with telegraph wires. With the first tap on the head of the 17.6-karat gold spike, at 12 noon, the news of the event was flashed all over the continent. The iron rails at last stretched in one unbroken line from the Sacramento to the Missouri River and beyond to the Atlantic Ocean. The railroads were wedded. Speeches were made as each spike was driven, and when all was completed, cheers rose from the enthusiastic assemblage.


Inscription reads, “May God continue the unity of our Country as the railroad unites the two great oceans of the world. Presented by David Hewes, San Francisco.” E.B. Crocker’s name is on two sides, as a director and the attorney for CPRR

Andrew Joseph Russell then took his iconic photo “East meets West at the laying of the last rail,” which shows the two engines together with chief engineers Grenville Dodge of the Union Pacific and Samuel Montague of the Central Pacific shaking hands.

“East meets West at the laying of the last rail,” by A.J. Russell, May 10, 1869

While the Transcontinental Railroad was initiated in the beginning of a war that divided America, its completion, one of the most dramatic and significant episodes in American history, marked a muscular new unity that further defined the United States as a single nation of people that could dream big, inspire one another, and work together. A journey that once took up to six months by wagon train and cost the lives of tens of thousands of earlier pioneers who attempted to cross the vast untamed wilderness could be completed in just seven days.


News spread quickly across the nation and around the world. The West was opened to further settlement, commerce, industry and agriculture. The future had arrived. America would assume a leading role on the world’s stage. The entire country rejoiced with fireworks, brass bands, parades, steam whistles. In Chicago, an impromptu parade seven miles long jammed the streets. In New York, a hundred cannons rattled all the windows in lower Manhattan. Wall Street suspended business for the day. In Philadelphia, the ringing of bells on Independence Hall began a chain reaction of church bells spreading celestial music all across the city.


Two other photographers were on hand to record the event, Salt Lake City-based Charles Savage, who was commissioned by UPRR, and Central Pacific’s official photographer Alfred Hart. Savage is known to have used a number of camera formats, including several large view formats. However, due to portability as well as financial concerns (stereo photos having a larger market) Savage usually took field photographs with either carte-de-visite (2 1/8″ x 3 1/4″) or stereo formats, leaving the larger cameras in his studio. The decision by Savage and Alfred Hart to use smaller formats limited the scope and clarity of their photos compared to those of A.J. Russell. It would be Russell who captured the unforgettable last spike image, perhaps the most important American photographic image of the nineteenth century.


Additional Golden Spike Ceremony photos by Russell, Savage and Hart



John Plumbe, Jr. Envisions the Railroad


In 1838, when American steam railroading was barely a decade old, John Plumbe, a civil engineer and correspondent of leading newspapers in Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, New York, Boston, Philadelphia and St. Louis, held the first convention for the planning of the “Pacific Railroad” urging Congress to underwrite construction of a rail link to the Pacific. He was convinced that a rapid development would transpire in the great West, and that an investment in a coast to coast rail line would hasten settlements and civilization there. General prosperity of the entire country would prevail. He campaigned enthusiastically for the construction of “direct steam communication between the extreme east and the far west [that would] speedily connect the waters of our two opposite oceans.”


Legislators weren’t convinced. They lambasted the zealous and relentless crusader commenting that next he’d be asking for “a railroad to the moon.” Plumbe lectured and delivered pamphlets on the subject in cities and towns all over the mid-West. His pleas were ridiculed by some, but eventually the ideas took root. Some historians regard Plumbe as the father of the transcontinental railroad, as his tombstone now claims.

Original Giroux Daguerréotype Camera, c. 1839, restored

Plumbe learned the daguerreotype photography process in the spring of 1840, from none other than Aimée Crocker’s grandfather-in-law François Gouraud, American agent for Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. He mastered the art quickly and took up the practice professionally to fund his railroad advocacy. As he had for railroading, Plumbe became an early and energetic booster for the new technology of photography.


Sixth president John Quincy Adams by John Plumbe, Jr.

By the fall of 1840, Plumbe was demonstrating the apparatus and presenting daguerreotypes at Harrington’s New Museum in Boston, sharing the billing with a lady magician, a phrenologist and a tattooed man. He got rave reviews from Brooklyn Eagle reporter Walt Whitman. The self-described “Professor of Photography” photographed the American Bard as well as icons Washington Irving, Daniel Webster, Dolley Madison, John James Audubon and Gen. Tom Thumb. Presidents James Polk, John Quincy Adams, James Buchanan and Martin Van Buren all sat for the brilliant entrepreneur and renaissance man. Plumbe took the earliest known photos of the White House and the U.S. Capitol. He became the first American photographer to franchise studios. At his peak, he had established over twenty galleries in the U.S. and overseas and employed 500 people.


Pacific Railroad bills proposing land grants and subsidies were periodically introduced in Congress throughout the 1840’s, but a route could not be decided on. The discovery of gold near Sutter’s mill in California in 1848 and the Gold Rush that followed reinvigorated the American economy, and railroad advocate John Plumbe’s mission. He made the move to the Golden State selling off his galleries to his franchisees. He continued to lecture for a transcontinental railroad in America while living in California in the early 1850s.


Sadly Plumbe never got to see his transcontinental railroad. The financially strapped visionary committed suicide in 1857 before construction work ever began. His legacy would be the important photos that he left behind and his transcontinental dreams.


Plumbe’s daguerreotype of the south side of the White House was probably taken in the winter of 1846 during President James K. Polk’s administration.

U.S. Capital Building colorized, c. mid 1840s. Plumbe’s image of the Capitol, with its former copper-sheathed wooden dome, is the earliest surviving photograph of the building.

The Photography Work Begins