historian, author, film producer

Tag: railroads (page 1 of 2)

Railroad art exhibition at the Sheldon opens

On Friday, January 20, 2012, the “Railroads and the Making of Modern America” exhibition opened at the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, Nebraska. I was the guest curator for the exhibition. I have relied throughout on Leslie Working, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History and an expert on public history and museum curation and digital history. The Sheldon’s permanent collection holds excellent pieces related to railroads and railroad related themes. In addition, we have objects from the International Quilt Studies Center, the University Libraries, the Nebraska State Historical Society, and private collectors.

Press release from University of Nebraska, January 27, 2012

I visited the exhibition today with my family. Without question, one of the highlights for us was Michael Burton’s Grounding. This paintamation was composed of over 2,000 images on 2,700 frames of a 60 x 60 inch canvas. It’s a masterpiece. And everyone in the gallery today watched it.

The huge John Weaver painting of the Union Pacific engine (2004) also attracts immediate attention. Its pure realism, and its size, lead nearly every visitor to look more closely. In fact, the engine presents a strikingly life-like appearance, its rubber tubes, which protrude from the engine, seem to ask to be grabbed, as if you are looking at them in 3-D. Their little tips and nozzles look like hands. Here, the behemoth of the machine appears not only real but endowed with human features.

These works pick up on the main themes of the exhibition: the change in ideas of time and space that railroads inaugurated, the relationship of technology to society, the lives of railroad workers, and the place of nature and the pastoral in American identity in the machine age.

One of the Sheldon’s patrons, moreover, Jim Seacrest, has generously installed an electric train system in the Great Hall. The model features the Union Pacific and the Burlington lines as they run through eastern Nebraska–historic routes.

I could not be more pleased with the exhibition and the support I received in putting it together with the Sheldon’s curatorial staff. I hope that many visitors enjoy it as well. I will add the exhibition print guide and text to this post tomorrow. Here is the wall text for the exhibition:

“Railroads and the Making of Modern America”
Sheldon Museum of Art

Between 1840 and 1900, the railroad network in the United States expanded from a total length of about 5,000 miles to almost 200,000. Railroads touched nearly every aspect of society well into the twentieth century, and the disruption they seemed to cause was widely discussed and felt. Railroads brought changes in the fundamental elements of energy and production where for generations there had been nothing but continuity. The new technology seemed to indicate that people could control and direct much more than anyone ever anticipated, shaping cultures, economies, and landscapes in new and complex ways. These modern changes prompted anxiety and awe, apprehension and admiration. Historian Henry Adams, an astute observer of the period, wrote in the late 1890s that “the generation between 1865 and 1895 was already mortgaged to the railways, and no one knew it better than the generation itself.” Railroads, he continued,“absorbed the energies of some sixty million people to the exclusion of every other force, real or imaginary.”

Railroads have a prominent place in American history and in our world today, yet the global modernity they catalyzed remains difficult to convey in textual form. Visual art, however, gave expression to this modernity in a more accessible manner, and it is this that Railroads and the Making of Modern America seeks to explore. This exhibition unites objects from the Sheldon Museum of Art, the International Quilt Study Center and Museum, the Nebraska State Historical Society, the University of Nebraska Libraries, and private collections. Juxtaposing historical and contemporary representations in differing media, it demonstrates the many and diverse ways artists have imagined the railroad and its place in our world.

Exhibition support is provided by the Ethel S. Abbott Charitable Foundation,
the Nebraska Arts Council, and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment;
additional support is provided by the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Department of History.


In Houston, TX at the Organization of American Historians Conference, I have enjoyed catching with with friends and colleagues. I had a wonderful talk with Elizabeth R. Varon and heard about my friends at the University of Virginia, where she is now teaching Southern history. And she gave me some helpful advice on my next book project. I’m going to write about slavery and freedom in early Washington, D.C., and in particular at the case and family history of Mima Queen. The main focus will be on the Queens, and the case, which Francis Scott Key tried in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1813, and John Marshall decided. This was a petition for freedom case, and among other things established the “hearsay rule” in American law. I’ve found new documents on the case, and Liz, not surprisingly, had great suggestions for how to begin to uncover this story. The book will tell the story of early Washington, black and white, and through the lives of three generations of Queen women–Mary Queen, Mima Queen, and Louisa Queen.

The OAH session on Quantitative History revealed how historians are using new techniques of Social Network Analysis, ones that I plan to use in my next work on early Washington. Karen Wilson’s work on networks of Jewish business men and families in Los Angeles opened my eyes to how these techniques might be applied to my project on the Queens.

Melinda Miller (U.S.N.A.) explained why forty acres and a mule would indeed have made a difference in the lives of freedmen after the Civil War. Her brilliant analysis compares Cherokee Freedmen with Southern black freedmen.

And we had a mini-reunion of Valley of the Shadow folks, including Anne S. Rubin, Andrew Torget, and Amy Murrell Taylor. Missing Ed Ayers, but he was probably watching University of Richmond Spiders advance in the NCAAs.

The meeting also allowed my research team for our Railroads Digging into Data project to meet with Richard White and his Spatial History team from Stanford, including Erik Steiner and Kathy Harris. We hoped going into the meeting to drive “the golden spike” between our respective railroad data projects. No champagne, no worker strikes, no Thomas C. Durant. But we made major progress on how we might join our data and tools and collaborate on a future project. Our Aurora Engine framework for spatio-temporal visualization and analysis might be at least a common gauge–to use a railroad term.

And Oxford University Press put out The Old South’s Modern Worlds, with an excellent essay by Michael O’Brien among others.

First History Harvest Held–railroad materials gathered and digitized

On May 15, 2010 dozens of railroad history fans gathered at NET in Lincoln, Nebraska, to share their unique materials. Old maps, letters, photographs, and diaries were digitized at the event and will soon be up on Railroads and the Making of Modern America. For a radio broadcast of the event, go to NET Radio.

The History Harvest is

a joint project of



the University of Nebraska Department of History

The History Harvest seeks to create a popular and engaging movement to democratize and open the people’s and the nation’s history by allowing people to contribute their letters, photographs, objects, and stories for general educational use and study. This shared experience of giving will be at the heart of the History Harvest programming and movement: we seek nothing less than a public bestowal of our own history. In a time of increased privatization and commercialization of the sources necessary to do history, our project will raise visibility and public conversation about history and its meaning, as well as provide a new foundation of publicly available material for historical study.

In this way the History Harvest seeks to recover a public engagement with the past, much as did the New Deal did with the WPA history and writers programs. That public effort created the sources for a whole generation of scholars and teachers–from audio recordings of ex-slaves to photographs of migrant workers in the Dust Bowl. Our effort is public history with a similar spirit, making invisible archives and stories more visible, bringing them into the public realm for all to use, hear, and see.

The “harvest” of historical documents, sources, and materials will reveal large sets of important historical material that are currently buried in archives, attics, and basements. Both individuals and institutions can participate in this effort. A museum may wish to offer rarely seen items in its collection, or ones that often attract the most attention locally; a community history society may offer its materials; an individual or family may present their family letters or objects.

The History Harvest initially will take place in a series of communities across the Great Plains region and then the nation. Building interest and enthusiasm for the project through advertising and public awareness, we will run a major event in each community we select for the History Harvest program.

Because the History Harvest centers on the idea of asking the public to contribute to our understanding of the past, these community events would be celebratory and community building. Each would aim to explore our common heritage but recognize the real consequences of history for today. Some communities, especially native ones but also those of African Americans and immigrants, have had their histories expropriated and this program will seek to encourage dialog and preservation without appropriating the past or its material objects. The History Harvest will focus on the nature of the historical artifact and the stories that we tell from it. Much of what historians use in their scholarship comes from government or elite sources, but this program will seek to make other sources, especially family and local ones, more visible and accessible.

Individuals will be able to bring in their history, allow us to digitize it and make it available in digital form, and participate in a conversation about what these histories mean. The event will feature scanning and filming tables for print, art, and 3-dimensional objects, and the opportunity to follow up with on-site visits at other locations. We can imagine someone coming to the harvest with a homestead family letter collection, or a set of diaries from the first black principal of a school at the turn of the century, or a set of church records, or a Civil War uniform, or a railroad timetable.

Nearly every major digital history project underway at research universities has experienced the interest, generosity, and enthusiasm of the public. For the Valley of the Shadow project at the University of Virginia, one of the first such endeavors, local community supporters sent the project in 1997 a series of original Civil War soldier’s letters as a gift. In 2001 local African American researchers contributed to another University of Virginia project on Race and Place, a digital history of Charlottesville, Virginia in the era of segregation. Construction workers, who had read press releases about the project, subsequently found hundreds of letters in house they were about to demolish–letters and correspondence over twenty years from the first black principal in the county in 1895 and his family through World War I. At the University of Nebraska anonymous supporters have sent the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities hundreds of railroad timetables to be digitized and contributed to a digital history project on the subject–Railroads and the Making of Modern America. And letters about Willa Cather, Lewis and Clark, and Walt Whitman, come in infrequently but steadily to these projects. The public will to participate in history, to contribute and engage, remains strong, and the History Harvest will support, encourage, and channel that energy for future research and teaching.

Beginning in Nebraska, our program will take advantage of the remarkably diverse communities in the state, the reach and audience for NET, the excellent graduate history program at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the deep public interest in history across the state. Nebraska Studies, one of NET’s leading digital resources, offers a platform for expanding and developing the program. Numerous local history centers and libraries can be found across Nebraska. The state includes rich and diverse history of immigration, settlement, railroading, Native history, literature, and politics. From William Jennings Bryan to Gerald Ford, from Willa Cather to Aaron Douglas, from Standing Bear to Malcolm X, Nebraska’s stories and histories remain vastly important to the nation’s experience. But broader social histories of local communities and their people will only grow more important to preserve and understand.

NET Interview with William Thomas and Leslie Working

LINCOLN, NE 1/9/10 (NET RADIO) NET Radio Interview with William Thomas and Leslie Working – By the end of the 1800’s, railroads connected the world. Now, the University of Nebraska is becoming a center for studying railroads with the support of a major international grant. Historian Dr. William Thomas is leading the project called Digging into Data. He and a group of UNL Historians, Computer Scientists, and Geographers will use the latest research techniques called Digital History. He explains a few of the details in an interview with NET Radio’s Jerry Johnston.

Did Railroads Transform the World?

British railroad journalist and historian, Christian Wolmar has just published a new book on the ways railroads transformed societies across the world: Blood, Iron, and Gold: How the Railways Transformed the World. The Guardian and the Times have given Wolmar’s book very favorable reviews. Wolmar tackles not only the many changes that accompanied the railroads but also suggests the possibility of a revitalized rail transportation movement. He is right to do so.

Tony Judt in this week’s New York Review of Books also suggests that the recent history of railways in Europe demonstrate the failures and inadequacies of privatization movements. Many leading European nations and the United States have privatized whole areas of previously public services, sometimes surrendering vast sums of capital in the process. Railroads, Judt points out, are a social service, and act as a social good. While it might be inefficient to run railroad to rural areas, he points out, their service indicates and enables a higher level of of social intercommunication.

On a recent train trip to Chicago I was struck again by the huge investment earlier generations made in the rail systems and infrastructure of the U.S. Americans poured their creative energies, talents, and capital into the railroads–building and designing landmark architecture, most visibly, and erecting and improving complex networks of rails, bridges, and warehouses. Americans also of course poured out their sweat and blood to build the railroads. Even a casual look, however, at the architecture of Chicago’s Union Station or a trip to see the Burlington Zephyr at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry will reveal something of the scale of the railroad investment made in American society. When we consider the reach of these investments–into places such as Livingston, Montana, or Roanoke, Virginia, where world leading architects designed railroad depots–we begin to see how far-reaching and important these developments were for communities. We have privatized much of this investment and turned to other public endeavors. Judt and Wolmar are not the only voices suggesting we revisit these social commitments, but their recent contributions are exceedingly important and useful.