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Rarely shown Transcontinental Railroad photos, spikes now on display at Omaha's Joslyn Art Museum

Rarely shown Transcontinental Railroad photos, spikes now on display at Omaha's Joslyn Art Museum

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It’s among the most famous handshakes in American history. On May 10, 1869, Samuel S. Montague, chief engineer of the Central Pacific Railroad, clasped hands with Gen. Grenville M. Dodge, chief engineer of Union Pacific. The solemn gesture, captured by photographer Andrew Joseph Russell, marked the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah.

It also symbolized technological progress, the promise of the American Dream and the unity of a country only recently fractured by the Civil War.

All of that is encapsulated in Joslyn Art Museum’s “The Race to Promontory: The Transcontinental Railroad and the American West,” created in partnership with Union Pacific and the Union Pacific Museum in Council Bluffs.

Ahead of the forthcoming 150th anniversary of the project’s completion, the exhibition features 50 framed Imperial plate albumen prints by Russell, 108 stereograph cards by Alfred A. Hart and three commemorative railroad spikes used on that historic day in Utah.

Because the photos are sensitive to light and humidity, they are rarely on view. And the spikes have never been displayed together before this month.

“This really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to engage with the collection, especially given that we have such a close tie to the railroad in Omaha,” said Patricia LaBounty, Union Pacific Museum’s curator.

Russell and Hart were instrumental in shaping how 1860s America experienced the project. The former focused on the east-to-west progress of Union Pacific’s line, the latter on west-to-east build-out for Central Pacific.

Their photographs helped persuade investors to support the endeavor, which was publicly and privately funded, and they provided instructional documentation as the railroads laid track and built bridges and tunnels. They also illustrated how crucial the railroad would be for the future of the country; it would now take days instead of months to ship goods and travel from sea to shining sea.

And Russell and White helped introduce Americans to the Western frontier.

“They were two of the most important photographers working in the American West at the time,” said Toby Jurovics, Joslyn’s chief curator, who calls this time period the “first Golden Age of photography.”

“Both railroads referred to them as artists. They weren’t just working in a mechanical medium. Everything you see was a very conscious choice. They helped elevate photography as an art form.”

Hart concentrated on the triumph of technology and the trains driving the railroad’s progress toward Promontory Summit.

His stereographs were similar in size to a postcard. A kind of forerunner of the Viewmaster, they let people experience the railroad in 3D via two images taken at the same time side by side that merged when viewed through special viewers. (The Joslyn has viewers on hand for that purpose.)


“Locomotive on Trestle, near American River.” This albumen stereograph was taken in 1865 by Alfred A. Hart, who documented Central Pacific’s west-to-east progress of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Locomotives, for example, seem to leap off the tracks, trestle bridges span into the distance and the western landscape comes into sharp relief.

Hart’s titles were at times as important as the images. “Am. River & Canyon from Cape Horn. River below Railroad 1,400 feet, 57 miles from Sac,” for example, provided the location, topography and mileage from Sacramento, which in turn enabled East Coast bankers, investors and politicians to track the construction up the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

“Hart wanted his images to stand out, and he used the topography to set them up,” LaBounty said. “It was a way to put people in the place in a way that photographs couldn’t. Stereograph cards allowed you as an individual to be in that space.”

Russell’s evocative images — ranging from canyons and coal yards to supply wagons and the men doing the backbreaking construction — created some of the most compelling visual accounts of the West.


"Snow Sheds, C.P.R.R. and Donner Lake," by Andrew J. Russell. This albumen silver print was taken in northeast California in 1869. 

By showing new towns filled with job prospects and opportunities for a fresh, prosperous start, Russell gave vision to Horace Greeley’s famous “Go west, young man” exhortation.

So masterful were his photos that in 1869 Union Pacific assembled them into the elaborately bound album “The Great West Illustrated,” from which a selection of images are showcased at Joslyn.

“The album was one of the most important documents of the American West,” Jurovics said, “and it would not have existed if Union Pacific had not given Russell the job.

“He shifted thinking following the Civil War from North and South to East to West.”


"Supply Trains," by Andrew J. Russell. The albumen silver print was taken in 1868, location unknown. Russell most often chronicled the east-to-west build-out of the Union Pacific line of the Transcontinental Railroad. 

Nowhere did he better capture that dynamic than in his photo of the famous handshake, officially titled “East and West Shaking Hands at Laying Last Rail.”

The photo, Jurovics said, “is arguably the most recognized image from the 19th century. People might not know the date, they might not know the location, but they know the photo.”

They also probably know that ceremonial spikes were used during the festivities. Four to be precise: two golden spikes from California to represent the California gold rush; a silver spike from Nevada symbolizing the silver mines; and a silver, gold and iron one from Arizona to signify banding the country together.

These spikes, LaBounty noted, were never “pounded in” as portrayed in popular myth. Rather they were “gently tapped” into a laurel wood railroad tie using a specially constructed silver-plated hammer.

The commemorative spikes immediately were removed and replaced with ordinary iron ones. The last spike was wired to the transcontinental telegraph line so that Americans could listen as the actual final blows permanently linked East to West.

Three of the four original ceremonial spikes have a special place in the Joslyn’s show: one of the gold ones is displayed alongside the silver and Arizona spikes. They haven’t been together since that famous ceremony 150 years ago.

As for the fourth spike, the other gold one, some say it was given to Gen. Dodge, although his papers indicate nothing to corroborate that.

Others theorize that a split-second Gold Rush ensued — in the crush of the crowd following the ceremony, an opportunistic bystander pried it loose.

LaBounty admits its whereabouts remain an enduring mystery.

“It’s probably in someone’s attic.”

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