With California’s high speed rail project—a proposed bullet train promising travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes—now in jeopardy, it may be time to look at why this may not have been a great idea to begin with.
If past is indeed prologue, there’s considerable evidence that this could be the engineering boondoggle of the 21st century.
Coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, the California Historical Society presents two concurrent exhibitions: Mark Ruwedel: Westward the Course of Empire and Overland to California: Commemorating the Transcontinental Railroad.
In his series Westward the Course of Empire (1994–2008), photographer Mark Ruwedel (born 1954) documents the physical traces of abandoned or never completed railroads throughout the American and Canadian West. Built in the name of progress as early as one hundred and fifty years ago, these now defunct rail lines are marked by visible alterations to the landscape. Ruwedel catalogues eroding cuts, disconnected wooden trestles, decaying tunnels, and lonely water towers in quietly powerful images that point to the contest between technology and the natural world. Using a large-format view camera, Ruwedel treads the same territory as nineteenth century survey photographers, but his contemporary perspective brings a sense of loss to landscapes once viewed as exploitable resources.
Overland to California draws from the California Historical Society’s vast archival and photographic collections to consider the railroad’s impact on the industry and culture of California. Featuring photographs, stereocards, historical objects, and ephemera, this exhibition explores how rail access to California contributed not only to population growth and industrial development, but also to the construction of the state’s enduring mythology as a tourist destination and land of opportunity. Overland to California will also examine the railroad’s complex labor history, taking into consideration the immigrant populations who built its infrastructure, as well as the scandals surrounding the monopolistic practices of the so-called “Big Four”: Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins.