Alfred A. Hart (American, 1816–1908), Locomotive on Trestle, near American River, 1865, albumen stereograph, courtesy Union Pacific Railroad Museum.

The Race to Promontory: The Transcontinental Railroad and the American West Exhibition Premiere Celebration on January 31 is an event you won't want to miss! See the listing at the bottom of this page for more exhibition-related programming.

This major traveling exhibition celebrates the 150th anniversary of the “Meeting of the Rails” at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869, through the photographs and stereographs of Andrew Joseph Russell (1830–1902) and Alfred A. Hart (1816–1908). Drawn exclusively from the Union Pacific Historic Collection at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum, these images represent the largest collection in the world of original photographs documenting the construction of the transcontinental railroad between 1866 and 1869. 

Appropriately, this transformative endeavor was captured by the equally groundbreaking medium of photography, which was used to document the railroad’s arduous construction and then capture the moment of its completion and distribute it around the world. From east to west, the Union Pacific line was photographed by Russell, and west to east by Hart, for the Central Pacific.

The exhibition opens at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, where it will be on view October 6, 2018, to January 6, 2019. After the UMFA, the show will travel to the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California, where it will be on view June 23 to September 29, 2019. The exhibition is organized by Joslyn Art Museum and Union Pacific Railroad Museum.

The UMFA exhibition is part of the Spike 150 partnership of Utah organizations that are celebrating the anniversary of the Golden Spike ceremony.

The Race to Promontory features fifty framed Imperial plate albumen prints by Russell, including images from his album, The Great West Illustrated, as well as rare, unpublished prints from the Union Pacific Collection, including Russell’s famous image from Promontory Summit, East and West Shaking Hands. One hundred eight stereograph cards by Hart will be also be displayed, and two stereograph viewers will allow museum visitors to view Hart and Russell images in three dimensions. The exhibition will also include archival material from the Union Pacific Collection, commemorative objects relating to the events at Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869—including the original “Arizona Spike” from the celebration of the laying of the last rail—as well as artifacts and records from the construction of the railroad.

The UMFA exhibition will also include a selection of works from nineteenth-century Utah photographer Charles Savage, who composed scenes of the railroad and local landscapes to boost tourism and settlement.  

In the decade following the Civil War, Russell and Hart benefitted from an unprecedented wave of government and corporate patronage that supported a legion of photographers working in the American West. And while no endeavor caught the nation’s interest more readily than the construction of the transcontinental railroad, their images also helped to define the unfamiliar landscapes beyond the Missouri River, capturing not only the engineering triumphs of the railroad, but the vast resources available for an expanding nation, as well as its pictorial beauty. Russell and Hart’s photographs offer an extraordinary account of the United States at the moment of its transformation by the greatest industrial accomplishment of the nineteenth century, images that still resonate powerfully a century and a half after their making. 

The completion of the transcontinental railroad was as celebrated a national—and international—event as the first moon landing, exactly a century later in 1969. Forty-six months after they began construction, the two railroads came together and officially “united” the United States. Western Union offered coverage direct from the scene—the first major news event carried "live" from coast-to-coast. Telegraph wires were attached to one of the ceremonial spikes, and as it was gently tapped with a silver maul, the “strokes” were heard across the country. Whistles were blown in San Francisco, the Liberty Bell was rung in Philadelphia, and a ball was held in Washington, D.C. 

The transcontinental railroad had opened the heart of the continent, and within days of its completion, the country was transformed. Travel from New York to San Francisco was reduced from six months to ten days, and at ten percent of the cost. This new era witnessed the development of settlements for millions of Americans and an incredible surge in industrial growth. Agricultural products were transported east from California, changing how Americans filled their dinner tables. The railroad led to the creation of Standard Time, to allow trains to move safely along a single track. Communication flowed quickly and reliably across the country on mail cars and by telegraph lines along the track. The railroad also connected the United States to the world, carrying products from Asia and Europe—the first freight shipment across the new railroad included casks of tea from Japan—and building new markets for both imported and exported goods. 

Chinese and Irish immigrants made up the workforce for the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines, respectively. These newly minted Americans, joined by members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints in Utah, unified East and West only a few years after the Civil War, a political divide between North and South. On a larger scale, the railroad also obliterated the idea of the “frontier,” and forever changed the lives of indigenous Plains tribes, as new migration spurred by the railroad hastened the end of the Indian Wars and the beginning of the reservation era. The Pacific Railway and Homestead Act ensured the resettlement of new territories under the control of the federal government, reinforcing the 19th century ideal of Manifest Destiny as the United States expanded from sea to sea. 

Presenting Sponsor:
George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation

Golden Spike Sponsor:
Zions Bank

Programming & Lecture Sponsor:
The Hal R. and Naoma J. Tate Foundation

Additional funding provided by:
State of Utah, the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts, Spike150

Race to Promontory Public Programming

Discovering History through a Photograph: One Picture, Eight People, and the Unexpected Stories of American Life | Martha A. Sandweiss
Saturday, February 16 | 11 am | Katherine W. and Ezekiel R. Dumke Jr. Auditorium | 
Exhibition admission is free all day Saturday, February 16.

Third Saturday for Families: Drawing with Photographs
Saturday, February 16 | 1–4 pm | FREE | Emma Eccles Jones Education Center Classroom Exhibition admission is free all day Saturday, February 16.

Promontory Perspectives: A Faculty Conversation
Wednesday, March 6 | 7 pm | Katherine W. and Ezekiel R. Dumke Jr. Auditorium | 

Exhibition admission is free all day Wednesday, March 6.

ACME Session | Railroad Stories: Community Voices and Regional Perspectives
Wednesday, March 20 | 6:30 pm | FREE

Talks & Lectures | Charles Savage: Pioneer(ing) Photographer | Leslie Anderson, UMFA curator of European, American, and regional art
Wednesday, April 10 | 7 pm |
Katherine W. and Ezekiel R. Dumke Jr. Auditorium | FREE

Talks & Lectures | Working on the Railroad: Chinese Workers and America’s First Transcontinental Line | Gordon H. Chang
Wednesday, May 8 | 7 pm |
Katherine W. and Ezekiel R. Dumke Jr. Auditorium | FREE