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A Day at the Museum

'Visions of Empire' at the Huntington Library looks at U.S. railroad

The exhibition puts the construction of railroad tracks and its connection of the coasts in context.

May 16, 2012|By Kelly Scott, Los Angeles Times
  • Alfred A. Hart, "Locomotive," circa 1865.
Alfred A. Hart, "Locomotive," circa 1865. (Huntington Library, Art…)

Culture Monster will occasionally visit museum exhibits dealing with history, anthropology, science or sociology.

The show: "Visions of Empire: The Quest for a Railroad Across America, 1840-1880" at theHuntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

The goods: The Huntington archives supply 98% of the exhibits, from the resolutions of eight Eastern states to build it, to a railway worker's letter home to his mother and the ledgers workers signed (one with Chinese characters) for their $30 a month pay. Striking photos of tunnels being carved out of the Rocky Mountains, many of them by Andrew J. Russell, are included as are actual picks and shovels.

Don't miss: An Omaha, Neb., newspaper from July 4, 1862, sets the priorities of the day: Front page: Classified ads. Page 2: The entire text of the Pacific Railroad Act — big news for Omaha, where construction began — which takes up most of the page, except for a story about Union Gen. George McClellan's failed attempt to take Richmond, Va.

In short: Curator Peter Blodgett puts the creation of a rail line connecting the coasts in context and big-picture terms: For example, the Railroad Pacific Act of 1862 was passed in the midst of the Civil War, the same year as the Homestead Act and the birth of the IRS. And for the first time, Americans could see the natural beauty between Kansas and California. "It has tremendous impact on how Americans experienced the landscape of their nation," he says.

Kid component: A separate room holds a stretch of track (on loan from the Autry), and a wall of the Huntington's stereograms of the project that can be viewed on an iPad and made three-dimensional.

Not surprising: Union Pacific is the "presenting sponsor."

Continuing ed: You might want to read Stanford professor Richard White's "Railroaded," a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, for a contrarian view of the transcontinental railroad. (W.W. Norton paperback, $18.95.)

At the Huntington through July 23.

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