PICTURING THE RAILROAD
Photography and railroads were invented
at about the same time
By Bill Dobbins
Imagine this: for all of human history until the railroad was invented the fastest a human being could travel was the pace of a fast horse. And the distance that could be traveled was limited by the endurance of horses. Hence the idea of relay riders for the Pony Express. Use up one horse and switch to another. But speed was still limited to about 40 mph and that only for sprints.
The modern railroad was made possible by the invention of the steam engine by James Watt in 1789. The first full-scale working railway steam locomotive was built in the United Kingdom in 1804 by Richard Trevithick, Railroads gradually developed over the next few decades and by the 1830s they were becoming a favored means of transporting people and goods in an increasing number of countries around the world.
As locomotive began to go faster than a horse, there were widespread beliefs that the human body could not endure speed of 60 mph or greater. A woman’s uterus might fall out of her body, many feared. It was thought the body might melt as speeds increased. The fastest steam locomotive was clocked at 126 mph in 1938. For the record, nobody melted and women’s bodies remained intact.
As railroad locomotives got bigger and faster and tracks continued to proliferate, early photographs quickly discovered them as a great subject. We have railroad photos from the 1840s on and even today many photographers and videographers still focus on railroads, locomotives and rolling stock. For thousands of years, humans relied on the horse for transportation. More much of a century, until the invention of the automobile, the railroad came to serve this function and is still and important means of travel and transport.
We have many photographs from the 19th century of railroads, trains, railroad workers and such. Of course, most of these images are of trains not moving because of the long exposure times necessary back then to make photos. But there are many photos because steam locomotives back then were like space shuttles are today – wonderful pieces of extremely complex technology.
By the way, one of the greatest photographers of railroads was a friend of my family named O. Winston Link. He did magnificent images of steam railroads in the 1950s, capturing them must as they being rendered obsolete by the use of diesel-electric locomotives. This was pretty much pre-strobe, so Link would set up arrays of dozens of flashbulbs to illuminate trains and buildings and even a drive-in movie. The result was both photos that were both technical and artistic masterpieces.
For copyright reasons I can share his photos with you, but please click the link and see how wonderful they are.
One thing people have forgotten about early railroads was how dangerous they were. Trains crashed and killed people on a regular basis. The story goes that John D. Rockefeller, early in his career. was supposed to take a train from Pennsylvania to New York. He missed his train, it then crashed and he might well have been killed – potentially altering history to a great degree.
As more safety innovations were introduced over the course of the 19th century the railroads were very slow to make use of them. Mostly for reasons of cost. Just as has been happening with tragic consequences in more recent years.
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:
The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)
BILL DOBBINS PHOTOGRAPHY
BILL DOBBINS ART
FEMALE PHYSIQUE SITES
CASEY JONES – JOHNNY CASH
The Most Famous Train Crash
JOHN HENRY – HARRY BELLAFONTE
A Steel Driving Man
OLD 97 – FLATT AND SCRUGGS
Going Downgrade at 90 Miles Per Hour.
WAITING FOR A TRAIN – JIMMY RODGERS
Early Movie Clip
FREIGHT TRAIN BLUES – FRED MCDOWELL
FREIGHT TRAIN – ELIZABETH COTTON
This finger-picking style was enormously influential.
BIG STEEL RAIL – GORDON LIGHTFOOT
Carry Me Home To The One I Love
DOWN ON ME – BILL DOBBINS
Freight Train Gonna Take Me Anywhere I Wanna Be