SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert declared 2019 the Year of the Train, and the Beehive State has taken that declaration to heart.
While May 10 will mark 150 years since the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads joined at Promontory Summit in Box Elder County to complete the transcontinental railroad, many locations across Utah — including the Museum of Art at Brigham Young University and the Rio Gallery in Salt Lake City — are already celebrating that monumental moment.
“We felt like it's such an important event that we wanted to have a chance to highlight how photography played into that and be a part of the larger Spike 150 plans for this year,” said Ashlee Whitaker, acting head curator at BYU’s Museum of Art.
A revolutionary presence
BYU's exhibit, “After Promontory,” commemorates the sesquicentennial of the transcontinental railroad and explores the lasting impact of railroads in America. Whitaker collaborated with the Center for Railroad Photography and Art and BYU’s library and special collections to choose photos that focus on the West.
“The railroad and the camera were both technologies that were developing simultaneously,” Whitaker said. “The novelty of the camera brought the novelty of the railroad to life.”
The exhibit has five sections: “First Transcontinental” looks at the construction of the lines; “Constructing the West” shows images of workers and how the rail shaped communities; “Utah and the Transcontinentals” focuses on stories that tie into the community; and two other sections feature contemporary photography and show how photographs were used in publicity to develop America’s idea of the West.
“Some scholars have compared the transcontinental railroad and the network that developed from that to the internet,” Whitaker said. “It revolutionized communication, how economies work, how people interact, how people traveled and the growth of communities. It had such a widespread effect.”
As Whitaker delved into the stories of the railroad and its construction, she gained a greater appreciation for the revolutionary presence it became in America, the engineering feats and the sheer grit that went into creating the railroad.
She was also inspired by stories of intrepid photographers like Charles Roscoe Savage (C.R. Savage), a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who was one of three photographers present at the linking of the transcontinental railroad in Promontory. Other exhibit images include indigenous people of the area and the Chinese men who worked on the railroad.
“To me, (those photos) are poignant and there is a kind of sadness as we reflect on the impact that (the railroad) had on the open ways of the West,” Whitaker said.
A total of 65 photographs, along with videos and educational components, are included in the “After Promontory” exhibit.
“We want people to come out with a greater appreciation for the role of the railroad in shaping America, in shaping the West and our communities and see how complex the story of the railroad is,” Whitaker said. “For those who want to, you can take it a step further and see how complex the discussion is in terms of (how) it built America in certain ways and it also impacted in ways that some people see as both negative and positive.”
'Telling the stories of those involved'
About 45 miles north of “After Promontory,” the Rio Gallery has also been celebrating the railroad's influence with its “Transcontinental: People, Place, Impact” exhibit.
Co-curated by Amanda Moore and Felicia Baca, who was recently named the director of the Salt Lake City Arts Council, the exhibit goes beyond the effects of transportation on the nation to look at the histories of the specific people who made it possible.
“Reflecting on a more complete picture and telling the stories of those involved was an important part of our mission,” Baca wrote in an email to the Deseret News. “Amongst many people that are part of the story, this exhibition includes members from the Shoshone, Paiute and other Native American tribes, as well as descendants of Chinese railroad workers. The work from artists from all across the state — both emerging and established — created a variety of conversations around many topics such as heritage, environment, myth, labor, indigenous communities, ingenuity, travel and the impacts, both positive and negative, of the construction of the railroad.”
David Koch, of Richmond, Cache County, is one of 35 artists featured at the Rio Gallery. Koch primarily paints in oils at his Logan studio. The textural quality and the versatility lend itself as a perfect medium for him to paint landscapes, figurative work, still life and historical scenes.
“I like to envision what it may have looked like,” Koch said of crafting historical works. Two of his murals interpreting historical events can be found in the House of Representatives Chamber in the Utah State Capitol Building.
His fascination with picturing historical events and the railroad came together in his work titled “The Golden Road.” The oil on canvas depicts workers laying down the Union Pacific line coming from Omaha and heading west. Its warm palette of yellow, orange and brown features telegraph lines along the banks of the Platte as the calm, golden river fades into the horizon.
Koch noted the life-sustaining Platte River served as a highway for animals and people. The Native Americans traveled the gentle waters. Mormon pioneers traveled the curves west to the Oregon Trail. And later the country’s first transcontinental highway, The Lincoln Highway, would follow the broad river across the Great Plains.
“That’s the epic quality of the piece,” Koch said of the large wall art. “I wanted to portray the vastness of the plains, the very obscure, maybe even dusty sky and the promise of what’s on the horizon and that golden road leading west.”
Both exhibits from the Rio Gallery and BYU's Museum of Art are part of the Spike 150 celebrations, an initiative of Utah’s Transcontinental Railroad 150th Celebration Commission that was established by Herbert and the Utah State Legislature in 2017, according to spike150.org.
“We hope (the exhibit) will bring (the railroad) to life in ways that people leave with new appreciation and excitement for this part of our history,” Whitaker said.
If you go …
What: “Transcontinental: People, Place, Impact”
Where: Rio Gallery, 300 S. Rio Grande, Salt Lake City
When: On display through June 14; artist reception, April 19, 6-9 p.m.; museum open Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
What: “After Promontory”1 comment on this story
Where: Brigham Young University Museum of Art, North Campus Drive, Provo
When: On display through Oct. 5.; museum hours through May 4: Monday, Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; museum hours May 6-Sept. 2: Monday-Thursday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 pm.; Friday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Other: Visit spike150.org for more events, including the sesquicentennial celebration at the Golden Spike National Historic Site, May 10-12.