historian, author, film producer

Category: social experience (page 1 of 4)

Railroad Site Collection Updated with Rare New Documents

The Railroads and the Making of Modern America site has updated its collection with a range of new and rare documents on railroad history. The Railroads database includes letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, court documents, photographs, illustrations, and other materials related to the expansion of railroad technology in American society. The latest update of new materials features a number of rare objects.

Some of these rare objects came to the project through the 2010 History Harvest held at NET Television in Lincoln, Nebraska. Dozens of participants brought their railroad history materials to the Harvest, and the project digitized hundreds of objects, including a rare 1880s map of Adams County produced by the Union Pacific Railroad, timetables from the 1880s and 1890s, and letters regarding the incorporation and operation of several historic Nebraska railroads.

In particular, we have included four stereoscopic photographs of the aftermath of the Strike of 1877 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The photograph images of the destruction of Pittsburgh were taken by S. V. Albee, and are almost entirely unavailable on the Web. Although the University of Pittsburgh has indexed the images, the size and quality of these reproductions are limited. We have released four of these important images on Railroads and the Making of Modern America, with the support of a generous private collector. We have placed these images in Zoomify, to give readers the opportunity to zoom in on specific high resolution views.

For example, here is the image of “28th St. and Upper Round House, citizens shot here.”

Other documents brought into the collection include letters and accounts of the Strike of 1888 on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad transcribed from the original archival materials in the Newberry Library. Few histories have examined the Strike of 1888 on the Burlington lines, but the strike spread quickly and prompted the Burlington to recruit laborers from the East. The “Great Burlington Strike,” as it was called, reveals in these documents the ways the Burlington’s “blacklist” system operated, and how it was used by management. The records of dismissal from the Burlington and from the Union Pacific Railroad have also been added in easily searchable maps and timelines.

A Visit to “Menokin”

On Thursday, my family took a drive over to “Menokin,” the historic home of Francis Lightfoot Lee in Richmond County, Virginia. Lee was a signer of the Declaration of the Independence, a slaveholder, and a leading figure in the Virginia gentry at the time of the Revolution. Our tour was led by Sarah Pope, the Executive Director of the Menokin Foundation. The foundation aims to preserve the historic home and develop a teaching program around the site.

What’s remarkable is first, that we know so little about Francis Lightfoot Lee, and second that the home sat unoccupied for as long as it did. Martin Kirwan King has generously donated support to restore the home and begin conservation work. Any scholar working on the Revolutionary period looking for a dissertation topic or a Master’s thesis topic might consider writing about Francis Lee. The archaeological dig in and around the home have revealed important details of 18th century Virginia life. The slave quarters and other outbuildings have yet to be fully documented and uncovered.

Lee held 47 people in bondage and his will offers us a small window into the gentry world and into slavery. It provided that after his wife’s death, “all the said negroes, furniture and what my remain of the other articles mentioned in this clause to my nephew Ludwell Lee, second son of my Brother Richard Henry Lee, forever.” But Lee went further, holding that if Rebecca Lee removed herself from Menokin, then the sale of “the negroes” would follow. In other words, Lee contemplated without question or concern the breakup of slave families and lives–what Walter Johnson has called “the chattel principle.” He also mentioned only one slave by name: Cate, the maid of his wife Rebecca. But he did so, only because his will provided that Rebecca might choose to take her dower, rather than the 250 British pounds sterling a year his will provided for her, and if so, then Cate could be exempted from the estate and held in the dower. This was common, but it never ceases to amaze us on cold (re)reading–the clutch of the slavery system, the grip on the future lives of the enslaved through such legal documents. The Foundation will need more research to discover the material, social, and religious lives of all the people working at and around Menokin, and the history of this gentry world. The recent book by Melvyn Patrick Ely, Israel on the Appomattox , tells the story of a Virginia gentry Richard Randolph and his remarkable will which freed his slaves after the Revolution and set them up on a 400-acre piece of land. Comparing the will of Richard Randolph and Francis Lightfoot Lee, one wonders how we can reconcile them, the former inspired by the ideals of the Revolution freed the slaves he inherited, the latter a signer of the Declaration of Independence bound slaves even more tightly in enslavement to his kinsmen.

The house is a beautiful structure and a thoroughly pleasing architectural design. The original plans, amazingly, were discovered only recently. They included two buildings–an office and a kitchen–now utterly collapsed. The overall project is of unquestioned importance, and I expect we will be learning more about Lee in the coming years.

The Foundation has already developed an architectural conservation program and an environmental conservation program, as well as a solid set of web resources for further research.

To give a sense of the project and its scope:

Stone recovered from the Menokin foundation, 2011.

The view of the front entrance to Menokin, 2011.

In front of the main house, 2011.

For more photographs and materials visit the Foundation’s photographic collections.

Place History: A conversation with Phil Ethington and Eric Sanderson

On March 10th and 11th, Philip Ethington (Hypercities) and Eric Sanderston (Mannahatta Project) visited the University of Nebraska, guests of the Plains Humanities Alliance and the Department of History.

Sanderson explained the remarkable and detailed mapping of Manhattan by the British, and the ecological and geological structures underlying the city. He argues that these forms and forces continue to have meaning and relevance in our lives, even if they remain distinctly out of sight. Sanderson has undertaken a massive project to map the layers of Manhattan’s ecology and infrastructure successively through four centuries. He’s been featured at TED, in The New Yorker, and in National Geographic. And the project is indeed exciting, especially the idea of reconstructing the rivers and islands of the region in 1609 as Henry Hudson would have encountered them.

But it is his long duration outlook that I find most appealing. A 400-year history of a region, a river, a place, and all that it contains.

Ethington, for his part, has undertaken a 12,000 year digital history of Los Angeles and does so by describing the way people have “inscribed” their beliefs, institutions, technologies, and ideas on the landscape. Ethington’s “deep historical regionalism” emphasizes the continuing influence of past “inscriptions” in the land, leading him to term his brand of urban history, a “ghost metropolis.” Both Ethington and Sanderson suggest the many ways that spaces places have, create, and perpetuate meaning, the many cracks and crevasses where places hold history. If want to know about the past, we should look at the ground beneath our feet.

Reflections on James Agee and “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”

It has been seventy years since James Agee and Walker Evans published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and yet their work speaks across the decades, powerful, moving, poignant, gripping, exhausting, blazingly brilliant. I taught this book again last week for the first time in a long while in a graduate seminar. And I was struck by how much historians have to learn from Agee still. It may be at first glance that Agee’s obsession with being a “spy” is the stuff of drama, comical in its overreach or pathetic in its self-absorption. Certainly, some of my students saw it this way.

But Agee, “a spy traveling as a journalist,” brings us into the world of cotton tenancy in such vivid detail and with such excruciating emotion and with such fidelity and honor and care and love, that we have to pay attention. We have to sit still and listen, to every sentence, every colon, every comma, every gesture. What can we learn as historians from Agee now? Certainly, we can aspire to the hyper-awareness of power and the drama of power relations in his opening scenes “Late Sunday Morning,” “At the Forks,” and “Near a Church.” He was “sick in the knowledge that they felt they were here at our demand, mine and Walker’s, and that I could communicate nothing otherwise; and now, in a perversion of self-torture, I played my part through. I gave their leader fifty cents, trying at the same time through my eyes, to communicate much more.” (31) Agee tells us about his “impulse” to “throw myself flat on my face and embrace and kiss their feet” until he realizes that such a demonstration of love or allegiance or forgiveness or repentance would only terrify the black couple he was asking directions.

The book is in its way a hypertext–arranged in ways for the reader to move across and within it, shifting time, event, impression, and voice. But at the center of all of it is Agee’s struggle to tell about the past. “It seems likely at this stage,” he writes about in the middle of the book, “that the truest way to treat a piece of the past is as such: as if it were no longer the present.” Instead of “chronological progression,” Agee decides that the “‘truest’ thing about the experience” is “rather as it turns up in recall, in no such order, casting its lights and associations forward and backward upon the then past and the then future, across that expanse of experience.” (244)

More than anything, Agee was deeply aware of his own presence in the lives of his subjects, and he was ashamed of his complicity in their exploitation. It is a humbling lesson for any historian. We traffic in stories, in lives, and in histories, and we carry out our work often unaware of the potential for misperception, misjudgment, and mistake. Agee considered the camera “a weapon, a stealer of images and souls, a gun, an evil-eye.” (362) When he meets Annie Mae Gudger for the first time, Agee is painfully aware of her: “you, Annie Mae, whose name I do not yet know, and whom I have never yet seen, and who I gather, are George’s wife (though there has been no foolishness of ‘introductions,’ nor any word spoken, of any such kind): it is you I was first aware of from when I first came into this room, before you were yet a shadow out of the darkness, and you I have had on my mind while we have sat here, and so much cared toward.” (398)

Seventy years later we still need Agee: his precision, his language, his poetic rendering, his documentary methods, his passionate care for his subjects, and his soul searching introspection. We need his honesty. And we need his humility.

Source: all quotes from James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families, with an introduction to the new edition by John Hersey (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988)

On the Union Pacific Steam Excursion

We set off yesterday on the Union Pacific’s historic route from Omaha station to North Platte. We were pulled by Engine No. 844, built in 1944 and the last steam locomotive constructed for the Union Pacific. This special excursion benefitted the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Along the route to Elkhorn, Grand Island, Gibbon, and Kearney, spectators lined the nearby roads to watch the 844 steam past. Everyone waved, took pictures, and cheered. “Train chasers” followed along nearby highways and state route 30, racing ahead to shoot video over and over again.

In North Platte, the 844 was detached and several E-9 locomotives from the Streamliner era hauled us back home to Omaha. The 844 is a massive, black beast of a machine, and its steam power to this day remains awe-inspiring.

The locomotive, though the principal actor in this drama, was no more impressive that the Union Pacific’s fleet of lounge and dome cars, beautifully maintained and restored. We were in the City of San Francisco. Its burnished wood and etched glass suggest opulence and grace. The City of San Francisco’s lounge was arranged for conviviality, conversation, and exclusivity. Its beautifully appointed fixtures and upholstery speak of graceful restraint and sophistication.

On the Union Pacific's 50th Anniversary Special Excursion, November 13, 2010, near Elkhorn, Nebraska

One is struck immediately by these objects–the locomotives, the old depots, the gorgeous lounge cars, and the dining cars. Their designs were both functional and high modern. The U.P.’s old depot is now the Durham Museum, the Burlington’s old depot sits empty across the tracks from the Durham in Omaha.

The railroads created beautiful material objects across the landscape of the United States, often at great cost both to their owners and their builders. But the landscape of high modernism was carried in these cars too, moving with the City of San Francisco across the Great Plains through places such as North Platte, Nebraska.

This was especially apparent on the dining car, where the Union Pacific set a full service lunch and dinner with Union Pacific silver, china, and glass wear.

The Overland's bar and mural, Union Pacific 50th Anniversary Special Excursion, November 13, 2010

The mural here behind the bar on “The Overland” depicts the distinctive yellow of the Union Pacific passenger streamliner locomotive and its long line of cars, racing across the great West. But the mural in the “Walter Dean” showed an earlier era of excursion, one featuring Native Americans shooting bison from horseback and excursionists shooting bison from the train windows.

Such scenes were meant to be iconic, and they of course reduced the history of these events, ignoring the past in many cases. Yet, the iconic nature of these objects and their place in high modern architecture, art, design, and social life cannot be ignored. They worked in the 1930s and 40s, and earlier, to create a world of separation–the past from the present, the natural from human, the physical from social. The world of machinery and design did not compete with history, it suggested a history all of its own.

We might long for a resurgence in such graceful designs. We certainly today could not be blamed for wanting a less impoverished form of public transportation (compare airports with the grand depots). But we often mix up nostalgia and history.

The Overland Diner/Lounge Car on the Union Pacific's 50th Anniversary Special Excursion, November 13, 2010

Perhaps we can recover the high values of design represented so eloquently in the Union Pacific’s cars while at the same time not repeating the discriminations and inequities in some of modern America’s spaces. The restricted roles black Americans faced in the railroads of yesteryear are often forgotten in the soft glow of the dining car, its alluring silver setting, and its clubby bar meant to be manned.

We should be inspired by the elegance of the cars, and we are. We should be inspired by the steam locomotive, and we could not be otherwise. But we also should look at the empty spaces behind the bar, and think who stood there and what their world was like. Who built these objects and maintained them. And who traveled in them.

This trip was an adventure back in time, and truth be told a wonderful one. The Union Pacific could not have been better organized or helpful–the trip was a delight in every way. We passed through the great Platte valley, skirting along what is today highway 30. The bluffs visible in the distance gave everyone a subtle indication of this historic nature of the landscape and the journey.

One of the President’s of the old Louisville and Nashville once remarked that his railroad had not made a “d —– cent” out of passenger traffic. Indeed, many railroads in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries tolerated passenger traffic as a necessary part of the business in order the mollify the public while they made money on freight. One wonders why the railroads invested anything in passenger service.

But the earliest railroads in the 1840s and 1850s were envisioned and operated as passenger lines. They opened up a vastly important new mobility for Americans. And this idea persisted; despite many a railroad executive’s skepticism, passenger travel continued to mark the railroads as a key force in America’s modernity. It’s easy to see why this was so, when you are sitting in the lounge car of the Union Pacific’s City of San Francisco pulled by the massive steam-driven Engine No. 844, and flying across the broad prairie of Nebraska west into the sunset.