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


Two railroad companies, two barons and three photographers were pivotal in advancing the first transcontinental railroad project, and ultimately, westward settlement. Judge Edwin Bryant Crocker, chief legal counsel, director and general agent of the Central Pacific Railroad and Thomas Durant VP and Director of the Union Pacific Railroad knew instinctively of the inherent power of photographic images to influence public perception. Both heavily marketed photos of the railroad project and the breathtaking landscapes of the Western territories along the route.


In October of 1866, Durant hosted an expedition near Cozad, Nebraska “The Excursion to the 100th Meridian” to celebrate a railroad construction milestone. The Union Pacific had completed close to 250 miles of rail almost a year ahead of schedule. He invited politicians, financiers and reporters, and hired photographer John Carbutt to record the event. More than 100 guests were invited including members of Congress, foreign dignitaries, and other VIPs including Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the assassinated president, and George Pullman, inventor of the sleeping car. Durant also had an album of photos of the West produced so that he could use it to market the land he owned to investors and encourage ambitious Easterners to venture West to work the land.

Wet plat stereo camera of the 1860s used by Alfred A. Hart

That same year, Central Pacific attorney E.B. Crocker paid Alfred Hart $150 for 32 “stereograph” negatives showing the railroad’s early progress in California.


At London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, a new camera was introduced to the still-new field of photography. The stereoscopic (or binocular) camera was mounted with a pair of lenses that made two parallel, simultaneous exposures. When the images were viewed through a stereoscopic viewer, called a stereoscope, the captured image exhibited a striking three-dimensional appearance. They became a huge hit, first with Queen Victoria and then with the masses. Within three months of the Exhibition, over 250,000 refracting stereoscopes were sold along with over a million stereoscopic prints.


Stereoview Snow Gallery around Crested Peak

Alfred Hart

Alfred Hart made wide use of stereographic cameras. He made more than 500 negatives for the Central Pacific. Crocker purchased and archived 364 of the best images that showed the progress and prowess of the railroad. Hart’s photos depicted the railroad construction from Sacramento to Utah and skillfully documented the transition from rough and tumble wilderness, to industry and settlement. Prints made from these negatives were used in New York City to attract railroad advocates and investors.

Alfred A. Hart (1816–1908)

Alfred Hart began his career as a portrait painter in New England and later created massive “moving panoramas” on Broadway to much fanfare. His religious themed canvases would advance from one spool to another in front of an audience, stopping at each ‘frame’, while a lecturer, accompanied by music and light effects, told a story for each scene.


From the late 1850s to the early 1860s, Hart retouched and tinted photos for a prominent Hartford daguerreotype photographer. He then made a living as a portraitist using a camera rather than a paint brush.


By January of 1866, Hart became the official photographer of the CPRR. As company photographer, Hart was granted special privileges by the directorate, including transportation for his traveling wagon, and the authority to stop the railroad construction whenever he needed to compose his picture.


Alfred Hart Prints

Andrew J. Russell

A Union Pacific executive saw Hart’s work and his competitive spirit led him to the studio of Andrew Joseph Russell, a painter turned photographer from Nunda, N.Y. Russell worked under “father of photojournalism” Mathew Brady before enlisting in the 141st New York Volunteers in August 1862. He became an official Union Army photographer, the only soldier-artist known to have served in the Civil War. Russell understood how to operate a darkroom wagon in the field and transport his fragile equipment on the rails. He documented bridge building activities and railroad construction techniques, camps and supplies of the Corps. He also photographed the troops, battlefields and combat aftermath scenes.


Russell Civil War photos

Top left: Captured guns at Richmond ready for transportation to Washington, May, 1865. Top right: Front of slave pen Price, Birch & Co., Alexandria, VA. Bottom left: Fifteen inch gun at Battery Rodgers, Alexandria, VA, May 18, 1864. Bottom right: Ruins in Richmond, VA, All photos Library of Congress

Top left: Captured guns at Richmond ready for transportation to Washington, May, 1865. Top right: Front of slave pen Price, Birch & Co., Alexandria, VA. Bottom left: Fifteen inch gun at Battery Rodgers, Alexandria, VA, May 18, 1864. Bottom right: Ruins in Richmond, VA, All photos Library of Congress


Andrew Russell began capturing Union Pacific’s journey west in 1868, four years after initial work began in Omaha, Nebraska. Using a portable box darkroom mounted to a buckboard wagon, Russell traveled far along unbuilt sections of line with advance survey and work crews. Like Hart, he was offered extensive access and assistance. He spent two long seasons in the field in 1869 photodocumenting the construction activities. During his time with the Union Pacific, he made over 200 10” x 13” wet plate negatives and, with four assistants, made more than 400 stereographic negatives.


After framing history at Promontory, Russell returned to New York and became a photojournalist for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.


Andrew Russell Prints



Judge Crocker had woodcuts made from Hart’s negatives and the images were published in Harper’s Weekly on Dec 7, 1867. He also sent a full set to Brigham Young with a Central Pacific delegation who was very impressed. “He had some from the Union Pacific, but they did not compare to ours,” boasted Crocker. Hart remained the CPRR’s photographer until the railroad was completed in 1869. In 1870, Hart sold his negatives to fellow photographer Carleton Watkins (who had replaced Hart as the CPRR photographer), and Watkins published them as the Watkins Pacific Railroad series.

Carleton E. Watkins

Carleton Watkins (1829-1916) National Portrait Gallery

In 1851, Carleton E. Watkins and his hometown friend Collis Huntington set off to make their fortunes in the gold fields of California. He began his photographic career as an apprentice to Bay area studio photographer Robert H. Vance, the premier daguerreotypist of California. In 1851, Vance exhibited more than three hundred views of the nation’s newest state in New York City.


Mammoth Plate Wet-Collodion Camera c. 1874 Getty Museum

In July 1861, Watkins purchased a “mammoth” custom-built, wet-plate collodion camera that made huge 22 x 18-inch glass negatives. At that time, negatives could not be enlarged. The size of the plates were the final size of the prints. The mammoth contact prints from these negatives were startlingly sharp capturing the world in exquisitely fine detail. Watkins then set off for Yosemite Valley in a wagon drawn by a team of mules loaded with his new mammoth camera, a stereoscopic daguerreotype camera, a mobile darkroom tent, several wooden tripods, crates of large glass plates, and a dangerous assortment of flammable chemicals. Watkins returned to San Francisco with thirty glass plate negatives and one hundred stereoscopic views.


Soon, Yosemite prints capturing the valley’s steep ravines, cascading waterfalls and monumental trees were being sent back East. They were the first images of the valley any Americans had ever seen and they were a revelation. One photograph of a giant sequoia, a tree eighty-six feet in circumference and 225 feet tall was especially popular. The tree was taken as a relic of a Pacific Eden.


By the end of the Civil War, Watkins had become one of the medium’s shining stars, winning prestigious commissions and international acclaim. His Yosemite images were displayed at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867, winning him a gold medal for landscape photography.


John Muir studied Watkins’s photographs and later spent many hours with Watkins and retracing the photographer’s travels. Watkins’ photos hung in the halls of Congress. Oliver Wendell Holmes ordered prints. Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson hung Watkins’s Cathedral Spires (1865–66) and Mount Shasta (1867) in his living room in Concord, Massachusetts. In 1864, his stunning large-scale images inspired President Lincoln and the U.S. Congress to declare Yosemite the nation’s first national preserve.

Watkins’ commission work as the official photographer with the CPRR included taking photos of Big Four properties in San Francisco and Monterey.


Architectural Grandeur

Top left: Governor Leland Stanford mansion, Berkeley. Top right: Charles Crocker mansion, Berkeley. Bottom left: Crocker’s Hotel del Monte in Monterey, Huntington Library. Bottom right: Mark Hopkins mansion, Berkeley. Photos by Carleton Watkins.


Like other entrepreneurial American photographers of the nineteenth century, Watkins opened his own gallery, the Yosemite Art Gallery, in San Francisco to sell his work to the public. Unlike them, though, his photographs were also sold by Parisian art prints dealer Goupil & Cie at an age when photographs were considered documents rather than high art. Watkins minutely detailed, massive photos offered a vision of an unspoiled American paradise in the far off West.


Watkins fell on hard times financially in the mid-1890s, but was bailed out by old friend and CPRR VP Collis Huntington, who deeded Watkins a ranch to live on. Watkins rebounded and opened another studio in San Francisco. The bulk of his prints, negatives and stereo views, as well as the original stereo negatives purchased from Alfred Hart, were tragically destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. He died in 1916 at aged 87 at the Napa State Hospital.


Photos of Carleton Watkins

The Transcontinental photographers helped shape our national identity as rugged individualists and pioneers capable of both preserving and taming wildlands. Inspired Americans took on the role of stewards of these majestic and sacred lands west of the Missouri River captured so beautifully by Hart, Russell and Watkins.


The new technologies of railroading and photography worked in tandem to promote and publicize travel and settlement in the Western territories. Illustrated brochures and booklets, maps and pamphlets trumpeted a new era of travel and exploration. The Pacific Shangri-La captured by the Transcontinental photographers, who were at last hailed as artists, were featured in countless publications such as Traveler’s Own Book by Alfred Hart, Sun Pictures of Rocky Mountain Scenery with photos by Russell, Map of the Central Pacific Railroad and its Connections, published by the California Mail Bag in 1871 and Crofutt’s Great Trans-Continental Tourist’s Guide.


Map of the Central Pacific Railroad and its Connections, published by the California Mail Bag, 1871

Sea to Shining Sea and Beyond


Six months after Promontory, the Suez Canal was completed after ten years of arduous excavation by a labor force of 1.5 million people. It would divide Africa and Asia and offer a shortcut trade and travel route from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. It was the last link needed to belt the globe. Dr. Todd, the esteemed Reverend who gave the eloquent prayer at Promontory wrote a book in 1870, The Sunset Land. In it was a chapter about the triumph of the transcontinental railroad. He foresaw a travel boom, offered up a new route to circumnavigate the earth in three months, and illuminated the global contribution that the rail line would give to the betterment of mankind. In a statement echoing the famous “One small step for Man, one giant leap for Mankind” moon-landing speech Todd wrote:

… a road which goes into the far west of the Pacific, does not stop there. In ways that we do not know, it reaches into the spiritual world, and is the bearer of spiritual good to our race. It already melts away our prejudices, and brings us into brotherhood with all the nations. I may not be able, and I am not able, to point out all the bearings which this one new road will have on the kingdom of light and mercy.

The completion of the Transcontinental rail line occurred almost exactly 100 years before the first moon landing in 1969.


Walt Whitman was greatly impressed by the engineering achievement of the Brothers Crocker and the Associates. This grand feat of creating a road between Europe and Asia as well as the opening of the Suez Canal that same year inspired Whitman’s masterpiece, A Passage to India, which was published in 1870. Whitman’s vision of a new world mirrored that of Dr. Todd. Whitman saw the completion of the physical route to India, the “cradle of mankind,” as a prelude to a spiritual pathway to the mysteries of the East, and, ultimately, to God. Whitman endeavored, “to celebrate in my own way, the modern engineering masterpieces, the Pacific Railroad & the Suez Canal… and then make of them as heights and apices whereby to reach freest, widest, loftiest spiritual fields.”


The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 was the major inspiration for French writer Jules Verne in writing his book Around the World in Eighty Days, which was published in 1873. A new goal was set among the more daring members of the cultural elite. In 1881, King Kalākaua of the Sandwich Islands, now Hawaii, famously became the first monarch to circle the globe. The offspring of Charles and Edwin Crocker would of course take on the challenge. First out of the gate, Harriet Crocker made her epic excursion in 1883 with Lord Mayor of London Sir Sydney H. Waterlow and his California bride six years before American journalist Nellie Bly made her record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days. Both Aimée Crocker and Col. Charles Frederick “C.F.” Crocker would embark on their own Saturnalian journeys in September of 1894. Jennie Crocker circled the globe in 1913 with her children and Templeton Crocker made his own record breaking expedition in 1930.*

The last decades of the nineteenth century were a time of idealistic internationalism. Before this era, only select explorers, usually on expeditions financed by governments, could cover as much ground in one lifetime. These early world travelers, like Aimée, reveled in their new found ability to share what they learned about the untamed territories, the exotic customs and the foreign cultures that they encountered. Few people had the money to finance these extravagant journeys, but fewer still had the time and the inclination to travel to not only the great cities of Europe, but the unexplored lands (Borneo, Burma, Java…) like the swashbuckling heiress and princess. Crocker would be a shining example of a first generation Citizen of the World.

Trans continental route illustrated: Crossing the Switzerland of America was published by Rand McNally in 1876. It offered a map to circumnavigating the globe.

*C.F.’s son Templeton, following the family tradition, went around the world in 1930, not taking any train rides but sailing his yacht Zaca covering 27,152 miles and calling at 50 ports including Marquesas, Tahiti, Cook Islands, Pago Pago, Trobriands, Bali, Java, Singapore, Ceylon, Aden, Arabia, Egypt, Malta, Cannes, Teneriffe, Puerto Rico, Panama, Guatemala, Manzanillo, and Ensenada. It was the first time a private yacht circumnavigated the globe from the West Coast.


Selected Bibliography

  1. Alfred Hart, Traveler’s Own… (Chicago: Horton & Leonard Printers, 1870)

  2. Barbara Orbach Natanson, “Camera and Locomotive: Two Tracks across the Continent: Andrew J. Russell’s Eye for the Land,” (loc.gov, December 28, 2017)

  3. Bradley W. Richards, “Charles R. Savage, the Other Promontory Photographer,” Utah Historical Quarterly, Vol. 60, 1992, No. 2

  4. Crofutt’s Trans-continental Tourist’s Guide (New York: George A. Crofutt, 1872)

  5. H. Prime, The Great West Illustrated in a series of Photographic Views across the Continent; taken along the Line of the Union Pacific Railroad, (New York: Union Pacific Railroad Company, 1869)

  6. Elliott West, American Indians and the Transcontinental Railroad, https://ap.gilderlehrman.org/

  7. Ferdinand Vandeveer, Sun Pictures of Rocky Mountain Scenery, (New York: Julius Bien, 1870)

  8. Glenn Willumson, “Alfred Hart: Photographer of the Central Pacific Railroad,” History of Photography (London, January/March, 1988), Volume 12, No. 1, pp. 61-75.

  9. Glenn Willumson, Iron Muse: Photographing the Transcontinental Railroad, (University of California Press, 2013)

  10. Hank Burchard, “Plumbe’s Photographic Depths,” (washingtonpost.com, December 19, 1997)

  11. Howard Goldbaum & Wendell W. Huffman, Waiting for the Cars: Alfred A. Hart’s Stereoscopic Views of the Central Pacific Railroad, 1863-1869, (Nevada State Railroad Museum, January 1, 2012)

  12. John King, “John Plumbe, Originator of the Pacific Railroad.” The Annals of Iowa 6 (1904), 289-296.

  13. John Todd, The Sunset Land; or, The Great Pacific Slope, (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1870)

  14. Jordan G. Teicher, “Breathtaking Landscape Photos That Helped Make Yosemite a National Park,” (slate.com, May 30, 2014)

  15. Map of the Central Pacific Railroad and its Connections, (California Mail Bag, 1871)

  16. Mead B. Kibbey, The Railroad Photographs of Alfred A. Hart, Artist, Edited by Peter E. Palmquist, (Sacramento, California: The California State Library Foundation, 1995)

  17. Micah Messenheimer, “Camera and Locomotive: Two Tracks Across the Continent,” (loc.gov)

  18. “Photographic Reminiscences of the Late War,” Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin, Vol. XIII, July 1882, pp. 212–213.

  19. Steve Meltzer, “The Tragic Life and Luminous Legacy of Landscape Photography Pioneer Carleton Watkins,” shutterbug.com, Dec 26, 2014.

  20. Trans continental route illustrated: Crossing the Switzerland of America (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1876).

  21. Tyler Green, Carleton Watkins: Making the West American, (University of California Press, October 2018)

  22. Weston Naef and Christine Hult-Lewis, Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs, (Getty Publications, 2011)

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