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The Railroad Photographs


Alfred A. Hart, Artist


Edited by Peter E. Palmquist

The California State Library Foundation Sacramento, California

Copyright © 1995 by California State Library Foundation
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher.

ISBN 0-929722-85-X

Printed in the United States of America

Kibbey Cover

Alfred A. Hart, Artist

Kibbey Figure

Alfred A. Hart: Central Pacific Trestle at Newcastle, 1865

A rare example of Hart producing a single lens image of the Central Pacific Railroad, probably using his stereo camera modified for panoramic work as shown on the first frontispiece. The first car in this view is an inspection/excursion type and the second is an early passenger car borrowed from the recently purchased Sacramento Valley Railroad. This mounted print, published by Whitney and Paradise from a Hart negative was probably taken in mid-1865. See also Appendix A, No.145 for a view of this same trestle under construction. Highway 80 now passes under the center of its modern steel replacement.

Kibbey Frontspiece


The author gives particular thanks to Peter Palmquist and James Holliday for their continuous advice, suggestions, and enthusiastic support regarding photographic history, California history and the general layout of this book.

Thanks are also due to Gary Kurutz, curator of special collections at the California State Library; Jennifer Watts, associate curator of photographs at The Huntington Library, for her numerous letters and assistance in identifying persons in the Hart photographs; Tony Troncale, photography collection, New York Public Library; Kathryn Totten, Special Collections, University of Nevada Library; Maja Keech, Prints and Photographs division, Library of Congress; KD Kurutz, curator of education, Crocker Art Museum; Walter Gray, director, and Ellen Halteman, librarian, California State Railroad Museum for providing information on early California railroad construction; James Henley, manager, Sacramento Archives and Museum Collection Center for information on Sacramento history and access to the extensive photographic collection at the Archives.

Special thanks to Pauline Grenbeaux Spear who did so much early research on the life of Alfred Hart and who was the first to plan a history of his life. To Glen Willumson who completed Pauline's work and shared much of his research on Hart's railroad years; to Benjamin Biaggini, former president of the Southern Pacific Railroad who generously provided my first Hart views (on glass lantern slides) and many facts on the early history of the railroad; to Jeneane Crawford who worked tirelessly with me in taking, developing and printing the hundreds of photographs appearing here, as well as taking field notes and identifying locations on numerous trips along the CPRR route.

Barry Swackhamer permitted the photographing of many of his rare Hart stereographs appearing in Appendix A, and later proofread parts of the text and provided many of the correct railroad terms needed.


To my wife, Nancy, for her untiring assistance in checking wording and grammar, for the long hours spent at her computer, for providing help on innumerable photographic excursions, and the inspiration to continue when the whole effort just seemed too difficult.
To Alfred A. Hart who, although he died fourteen years before I was born, I think of as my respected friend.

Kibbey Figure 1

(Fig. 1.) Alfred A. Hart (1816 1908). While not the first to take pictures in the state, he was born years before the other great early California photographers. Born in Norwich, Connecticut and died in Alameda California. ( Photo from private collection.)

Table of Contents

Editor's Foreword IX

Author's Preface XI

Introduction and Brief History of the Construction

of the Central Pacific Railroad 15

Starting The Railroad 18

Judah's Death at 37 22

CPRR Tunneling Methods 25

Nitroglycerin Adventures 28

Building the World's Longest Barn 33

Racing to Utah 35

Crocker's Bet to Lay Ten Miles in One Day 36

A Day of National Rejoicing 39

The Problem of Local Time 43

Photographing at Promontory 44

Notes on railroad books and appendixes 45

Alfred Hart: Photographer, Author and Publisher 51

Dating Hart's RR Construction Stereos 54

Dating Stereos with Tax Stamps 60

Dates the CPRR reached various points 62

The Fate of Hart's CPRR Negatives 69

Hart's years after 1869 73

Hart's Photographic and Production Methods 79

Methods in the Field 79

Light Sensitive Materials 80

The Wet Collodion Process 81

Necessary Ingrediants 82

Preparing The Plates for Exposure 84

Developing and Fixing the Negative 85

Hart's Camera and Equipment 89

Shutters 95

Stereograph Production 96

Making Stereo Prints 96

Sensitizing the Paper and

Printing the Negative 99

Masking 100

Toning, and Fixing the Prints 102

Transposing 103

Title Strips 104

Viewing Stereographs 105

Looking for the Photographer 109

Hart's Non-Railroad Photographs 111


A Reproductions of Hart's CPRR Stereo Views 113

B Numerical List of Hart's CPRR Stereo Views 153

C Geographical List of Hart's CPRR Stereos 167

D Public Sources of Hart's CPRR Stereo Views 177

E Glenn Willumson's Article on Hart 187

F Transposing and some Stereo Camera Details 203

G Replicas of somePages of Hart's Travel Book 213

Reading List and Short Bibliography 231

Index 233

List of Illustrations 238

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Kibbey Figure

(Fig. 2) Central Pacific track workers on the Utah desert. From a stereograph published by E. & H. T. Anthony & Co., New York.


Mead Kibbey has been fascinated with the photographs of Alfred A. Hart for at least two decades. He has seldom, if ever, passed up an opportunity to champion Hart as an artist whose life and work should be better known today. Happily for us, this obsession has culminated in this remarkable, and highly personalized tribute to the man who documented the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad during the years 1864-1869.

Although The Railroad Photographs of Alfred A. Hart, Artist contains a great deal about railroading, this is far from a typical "train" book. Instead the author has chosen to focus on the events and circumstances of railroading that are often over-looked or only briefly discussed. Among these are the vicissitudes of tunneling--with both nitroglycerin and black-powder techniques--in the brutally dense granite of the rugged California mountains. He has also addressed the question of how the workers were able to keep tunnels on a perfectly straight course while working from both sides of a mountain.

Moreover, The Railroad Photographs of Alfred A. Hart, Artist is not just a "photographer's monograph." Rather it stands as an excellent primer on the general practices and problems attendant to wet-plate photography. Especially interesting is Mead's discourse on the ins-and-outs of commercial stereography in the American West during the 1860s.

To study Hart's photography has been to concentrate on the numerous minute details to be gleaned from a wide variety of diverse and scattered evidence. Mead, for example, has successfully collected nearly every known photograph ever taken by Hart of the Central Pacific Railroad. Moreover, he has made a special point to visit most of the sites photographed by Hart, and has placed his own tripod in the precise same spot as Hart's, some one hundred thirty years later. (Many of these locations were amazingly difficult to reach today and must have been far harder during the time of wet-collodion photography.)

In order to more fully understand Hart's stereography, Mead experimented with, and produced, actual stereoscopic negatives with a camera dating from Hart's own era. Through such personal investigation, he has come to intimately understand the "how-to" of different focal length lenses in field photography. He quickly discovered just how hard it is to adjust an 1860s-style tripod to the rough mountain terrain and jumbles of broken granite that were still present from the original CPRR blasting.

Mead has meticulously traced each step of commercial stereograph production, ranging from optical spacing of the prints to labelling the finished card, Driven by his near-obsessive need to understand the process Mead even manufactured his own salted paper.

Mead has been particularly conscientious in his attempt to date each photograph, to provide insight into why they were taken, and wherever possible to place himself "on the scene." (Compare, for example, Fig. 39 showing Hart's shadow taken in the 1860s and Fig. 78 of the author's shadow taken in September 1994.)

Bottom line? History, biography, great photographs, and seven super appendices (including a catalogue raisonne of every known Hart CPRR stereograph).... Anyone who has ever wondered about the exact origins of the 364 stereographs which Alfred A. Hart took to document the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad will find this book an indispensable reference.

P. E. P.

Arcata, California, June 10, 1995


In 1962, to illustrate a talk on the centennial of the start of the Pacific Railroad at Sacramento, I obtained a set of old glass lantern slides from a friend at the Southern Pacific Railroad. My talk received a modest reception, but members of the audience kept coming up to the podium with the identical question, "Where did you get those incredible pictures?." Clearly the photographer had reached across nearly a century with a powerful proof of the old adage "A picture is worth a thousand words," at least my words.

It was not until thirteen years later, while beginning to collect nineteenth-century photographs, that I gradually realized those great pictures, and many more, had been taken by Alfred A. Hart (1816-1908) of Sacramento, during the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad from 1864 to 1869. I eventually learned that he had published 364 numbered titles of the entire project (plus many variations), that these images had been copied and republished for years, that they had sometimes been claimed by other photographers as their own works, and that since 1870 no single collection has held all 364 of his titles. Although some fine articles about Hart had appeared in magazines, I could not find a single book about him or his work.

Locating the exact sites from which Hart took many of his views in California was just difficult enough to make it fun, and it became a sort of hobby with me. In the process I came to deeply respect Hart, and to feel that although a century apart, he and I had photographed a work of giants. For nearly a century, the Sierra Nevada Mountains had been considered an impenetrable barrier by the Spanish settlers of California, and the Native Americans only ventured into those forbidding heights during the few summer months. In the winter wind gusts at the summit reach 100 miles per hour and the annual snowfall can exceed fifty feet. Starting in the 1850s, the lands of Northern California have been carefully surveyed into townships and sections by a succession of government agencies. The earliest surveys started with the most valuable and accessable areas; yet so remote were the Sierra summits that even in 1995, entire townships of 36 square miles are still waiting to be surveyed into sections. Clearly, those who drove the Central Pacific through the Sierra, as Herodotus said of the builders of the pyramids "seem a mightier race of men than now inhabit the earth."

As the official photographer of the Central Pacific, Hart was the only one to record scenes during the actual construction of the railroad over the mountains. He was permitted to stop trains and work crews for the time needed to set up his camera and to find the best location for his photographs. He was also allowed to have his small photo-darkroom-wagon hauled to the end-of-track on a railroad flat car where he pushed ahead to capture scenes of the early stages of excavation for the road bed. Because he was on site well before the completion of the famous snowsheds in 1869, and before the tracks were in such heavy use, Hart was able to take advantage of photographic opportunities not available to other photographers of that era. In addition, his photographs taken along this route during the actual process of building trestles, constructing enormous embankments, and digging tunnels can never be duplicated.

After the completion of the road to Promontory, Utah, Hart was followed by several famous contemporaries, such as Eadweard J. Muybridge (1830 1904), John James Reilly (1838-1894), and Charles R. Savage (1832-1909). A few local photographers operating from such places as Dutch Flat, Truckee, and Auburn also produced views of the railroad. Each of these photographers published in Hart's stereo-card format, and a surprising number of their images were taken from exactly the same camera locations previously selected by Hart.

Although they are very difficult to locate today, Hart did produce a few photographs in other formats such as the carte de visite and 5-by-8 inch formats, plus many half stereos (a single image) which were used for albums and catalogs. For reasons to be further explained in the text, these half stereos are somewhat larger in area than those printed for the standard-size stereographs and include additional scenery which better displays Hart's keen eye for composition.

In order to learn more of the operating details of Hart's photographic equipment, I recently obtained the use of a 5-by-8 inch wet-plate stereo camera and an 1860s-tripod. The absence of a shutter on the camera, as well as the difficulty of loading and unloading negatives in the field were not unexpected problems, but the tripod proved to be an unpleasant surprise. In using tripods for 60 years, I had never seen one having a head with no provision for turning or tipping the camera, no adjustment for height except by spreading the legs of the tripod, and legs of fixed length. The tripod only weighed four and a half pounds, but it proved quite difficult for camera aiming and composition. In re-photographing some of Hart's scenes, particularly in the Bloomer Cut and at Cape Horn, I didn't even attempt to use the old camera. Even with a light modern 6-by-7 cm. format camera, I found myself shooting with one arm wrapped around a small tree and hoping my rubber-soled shoes wouldn't slip on the rocks scattered by construction blasts over a century ago.

There proved to be recurring problems in finding the precise locations where Hart had placed his camera, and then surprising difficulty in retaking the photograph. In the easy places, where the location still had the same name and a paved road was nearby, the problem was nearly always one of intervening trees. In Hart's day, photographers in the mountains could move around easily because the big trees had already been cut down for lumber and ties, and the smaller ones provided firewood for the locomotives and the steam engines which powered the local mines and sawmills. (In an 1854 report, Lt. George B. McClellan estimated that on heavy grades a locomotive burned about 8 cubic feet of firewood per mile, or a cord every 16 miles.) Trees grow rapidly on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, and during the intervening century they appear to have had a particular affinity for the areas directly in front of Hart's best camera locations.

Some of his finest photographs were taken from the tops of boxcars or locomotives and because of this, I carried a six-foot folding ladder on my truck, and by setting it up between the rails and standing on the top rung, I could get my camera at almost the same elevation Hart used. Unfortunately when I was on top of that trembling ladder (the ties were spaced so that only two of the ladder's four legs were resting on a tie), the sound of an approaching train greatly reduced my interest in perfectly duplicating Hart's composition. By using modern topographic maps, many isolated locations were quite apparent, but often proved to be more than a mile from even a four-wheel-drive road. In those instances several hours were needed to hike in and back out with my camera, a light tripod, the rolled map, 8-by-10 inch enlarged copies of the appropriate Hart prints, and a compass to measure the direction of the shadows in his photographs (to help establish the time of day when he had taken the original views).

After spending more than ten years looking at Alfred A. Hart's fascinating photographs and visiting over 50 of the sites where he placed his camera along the Central Pacific, I can say that it is quite disappointing that Hart is not better known today. When seen in a stereoscopic viewer, his magnified stereographs fill one's visual space with an exciting reproduction of the scene itself. An almost uncanny feeling of time-travel occurs when one views a Hart stereograph of a bustling railroad settlement as it appeared 130 years ago and compares it to the now deserted location.

Despite the unique clarity of spatial relationships in stereographs, it appears exceedingly difficult to excite today's art historians with 3-by-3 inch images, even when the results are quite beautiful. Beaumont Newhall, writing in the 1974 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, perhaps best sums up this perceptual problem with the words: "The aesthetics of two-dimensional picture making cannot be applied to these views. Indeed, many art critics hold that stereography is so rooted in illusion that such pictures can never be of lasting value." This is especially ironic when one considers that Hart's most famous contemporary, Carleton E. Watkins, whose mammoth prints have had almost endless reviews, thought enough of Hart's work to give it the ultimate compliment -- he later claimed it as his own.

Hart was the first person to photograph an entire construction project of this magnitude, a total of 742 miles from Sacramento to Omaha, and completed in six years and five months. For comparison, the Great Wall of China was constructed intermittently from 300 BC to 1500 AD and was 4,000 miles long with all its branches. If built at the same average rate as the CPRR, the Great Wall would have been completed in 38 years, that is to say, before 262 B.C. Conversely, if the Central Pacific had been built at the same rate as the Great Wall of China, the rails would just have reached Reno in 1932 in time to celebrate Franklin Roosevelt's first presidential election.

In photographing the building of the Central Pacific, Alfred A. Hart did perhaps as good a job as has ever been done. In the 1970s, Jimmy Durante had a television show which always ended as he moved across a darkened stage pausing momentarily in a series of small spot-lighted circles. Hart's views similarly give us ten-second circles of recall across the darkened stage of the history of the building of the Pacific Railroad.

In business matters, Hart seemed to be moderately successful and wrote good advertising copy for his various ventures. Because of the absence of available information

on his efforts to market the stereographs he published, it can be assumed his main sources of sales were in wholesale lots to the Central Pacific and through his store in Cleveland. Despite the longer period over which Hart took California photographs, the publishing efforts where he was identified as the photographer were apparently limited to the years 1865 through 1870. This short period and the relatively few such stereographs available today, may explain why photographic historians have tended to ignore him.

The conditions overcome by the railroad builders as they pushed the road to an altitude of 7,000 feet in less than 90 miles were simply appalling. Their almost religious fervor carried them through rain, mud, snow, and terrible winds around thousand foot cliffs, across deep canyons, and through literally miles of solid granite. The thundering might of their assault on the Sierra, must have inspired Hart to continue his photography despite the difficulties and danger involved. His glass plates were heavy and fragile, his negatives had to be exposed while wet, sensitized and developed in a tiny dark tent in the presence of noxious fumes, and his chemicals were corrosive and poisonous. His minimum exposure was three to five seconds, and dozens of workmen and horses had to be induced to stand still for a single scene. The negative was developed on the spot, and if unacceptable, the whole process had to be repeated. Some of his finest views were taken from the roofs of locomotive cabs, from narrow ledges over the mouths of tunnels, or from rocky slopes over cliffs. Like the men he photographed, nothing seemed to stop him.

Because of their great clarity, unique subject matter, and lack of copyright protection, Hart's images were subsequently copied and recopied as woodcuts, engravings, and copy photographs; seldom if ever with attribution to him. For example, as recently as 1989, the Golden Spike National Historic Site Museum was still incorrectly identifying an enlargement of Hart's No. 358, "The Monarch from the West" as having been taken by Andrew J. Russell. As a result of these innumerable reproductions, the wide distribution of Hart's work provides future historians with hundreds of caches of information about the Central Pacific construction.

Based on the titles Hart used, one can observe that he never belittled the people depicted, as Muybridge and many others sometimes did, never complained about the conditions under which he worked, and consistently displayed respect and admiration for the accomplishments of the builders of the railroad. As an artist rather than an engineer, Hart did not record some details that would be fascinating now, such as the interior of a workers' dining room, the actual placement and subsequent detonation of a nitroglycerin or black powder charge, the setting up and use of a "portable" locomotive turntable, and close-in views of trestle and cliff workers. In these omissions he may well have been deterred by the railroad management, or by his own ideas of public interest.

Although we may never fully understand Hart's personality, he leaves the impression of a cheerful, kindly, innovative, and incredibly energetic person of whom his temporarily adopted city of Sacramento may be very proud.


Sacramento, May 10, 1995



Courtesy Mead B. Kibbey, Author, and a Director of the California State Library Foundation. Reproduced by permission.
This web page which is not for republication was generated from a revised version of the original manuscript file that according to the author, "contains all the text of the Hart book, corrected for the errors found after publication. The section on 'Location of Stereos' has been brought up to date in the K column and some corrections in the Swackhamer and Huntington Columns."


By Mead B. Kibbey. Edited by Peter Palmquist. 1996.
"This book represents the culmination of Mr. Kibbey's ground-breaking research on one of the great stories in the annals of American photography: the photographic record of the construction of the railroad that linked California with the nation in 1869. Much has been written on the Central Pacific Railroad Company's epic achievement in crossing the Sierra Nevada, but this book presents a wholly new approach. Between 1864 and the driving of the Golden Spike in 1869, A. A. Hart took 364 stereo photographs documenting every major phase of this extraordinary accomplishment. As the author points out, 'Hart was the first person to photograph an entire construction project of this magnitude, a total of 742 miles from Sacramento to Ogden, Utah.'
By combining his personal knowledge of engineering, lumbering, sculpture, 19th century photography, and California history, Mr. Kibbey thoroughly investigated not only Hart's photography but also the vicissitudes faced by the railroad builders. Such problems as tunneling through stubborn granite with nitroglycerin and black powder, keeping tunnels on course when boring from two sides of a mountain, laying track on the precipices of the Sierra, and building mile after mile of snowsheds are addressed with a thoroughness and understanding not often found in railroad and photography books.
Artfully designed and sumptuously illustrated with over 400 illustrations, this 12 x 9 inch, 240-page case bound book will be of interest to anyone interested in California history, railroads, and photography. Mr. Kibbey supplemented his well- researched text with several appendices, including reduced reproductions of a11 364 of Hart's views, a numerical list of Hart titles, public sources of his views, Glenn L. Willumson's scholarly article on the artist, and a lucid explanation of 19th century stereo photography. A bibliography and index support the volume."
ISBN 0-929722-85-X
238 pages. Hardcover. $75.00


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