Photographs & History

Photographs and History

Continuing A Legacy | Photographing the Pennsylvania Railroad

The Rockville Bridge, circa 1875, from the album entitled, "Scenery of the Pennsylvania Railroad" by Frederick Gutekunst. Collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia

The Rockville Bridge, circa 1875, from the album entitled, "Scenery of the Pennsylvania Railroad" by Frederick Gutekunst. Collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia

At the dawn of the industrial revolution the American railroad became the vehicle at which life’s pace was set. Growing in the east and expanding across the western frontier the railroad was responsible for America’s success. Engineering such a system at such a rapid speed was no small task, the men who ran these companies understood the value of their accomplishments and wanted to share it with the world. To tout their new transportation systems, luring travellers to ride this modern marvel and experience the American landscape railroads turned to another new product of the industrial age; photography. Employing some the most preeminent photographers of the time, railroads outfitted special cars placed under the direction of senior passenger agents to see that their photographer had the best accommodations to illustrate their pride and joy. By no coincidence was the Pennsylvania Railroad one of the biggest supporters of this endeavor being their corporate headquarters of Philadelphia also happened to be the epicenter of photography in the US in the 19th Century. The PRR employed photographers for a multitude of tasks including the glamorous commissions to illustratate the railroad and its destinations for the Centennial and Columbian Expositions to the more mundane day-to-day documentation of massive engineering projects taking place all over the system. 

Horseshoe Curve, William T Purviance, Circa late 1860's. Collection of the New York Public Library. 

Horseshoe Curve, William T Purviance, Circa late 1860's. Collection of the New York Public Library. 

While photography and the railroads redefined the 19th century’s perception of space and time, surviving imagery leaves us a rich visual legacy to derive tremendous amounts of information about the railroad, the landscape and the energy of the industrial age. It’s this imagery that feeds my creativity and imagination, that allows me to visualize the prominent role the Pennsylvania Railroad played in developing the United States and the continual improvements they made to better themselves in the process.  These volumes of visual assets are the foundation of what inspires my work; the photographer’s technical and aesthetic ability, the conceptual ideals and the resulting images rich with information foster a continued dialogue with my own image making, inspiring new works from images of the past.

This is a brief excerpt form the upcoming lecture “Continuing a Legacy, Photographing the Pennsylvania Railroad” which I will present on February 13th for the Philadelphia Chapter of the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society

 

Preserving the legacy of the Pennsylvania Railroad

At the close of 2014 the Greer Family donated a remarkable piece of Pennsylvania Railroad history in the form of an oversized album of large format photographs made by Frederick Gutekunst (1831-1917) a native of the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Operating out of a studio at 7th and Arch Streets for more than 50 years Gutekunst was considered one of the preeminent photographers in the post-Civil War era. Some of his subjects included noteworthy people like Thomas Eakins and Walt Whitman but also extended beyond portraiture to include architecture and the built environment of the PRR. Before this album surfaced most examples of his work were in the form of stereo views, making this collection of 16x12” large format prints incredibly rare.

Plate 61, Allegheny Tunnel, Galitzen, Pennsylvania. One of 91 beautiful images from the Album of Frederick Gutekunst's photographs recently donated to the Library Company of Philadelphia by the Greer family. Image collection of Library Company of Philadelphia

Plate 61, Allegheny Tunnel, Galitzen, Pennsylvania. One of 91 beautiful images from the Album of Frederick Gutekunst's photographs recently donated to the Library Company of Philadelphia by the Greer family. Image collection of Library Company of Philadelphia

The portfolio, dating from ca. 1875, titled simple “Scenery of the Pennsylvania Railroad” represents one in a series of campaigns the PRR embarked on to celebrate the railroad as a destination, touting the freshly manicured railroad dissecting the wilds of Pennsylvania, following serpentine rivers, paralleling the canals the road made obsolete; a symbol of modern engineering and progress in America. Fittingly the railroad chose photography over traditional illustrations and paintings, providing a tangible image which potential travelers could connect to, a portal into the world of the PRR and the landscape it traveled. Like his contemporary William H. Rau, Gutekunst utilized the large plate view camera to portray the growing railroad as the country recovered from the American Civil War. This remarkable portfolio illustrates the Pennsylvania Railroad before the grand system improvements started under Chief Engineer William H. Brown and his successors, which would last from the late 1870’s well into the first decade of the 20th Century.

On the Conemaugh at Lockport, Pennsylvania, by Frederick Gutekunst. Up until the PRR portfolio surfaced, much of Gutekunst's work for the PRR was only known to exist in stereo views like this. Image collection of Library Company of Philadelphia.

On the Conemaugh at Lockport, Pennsylvania, by Frederick Gutekunst. Up until the PRR portfolio surfaced, much of Gutekunst's work for the PRR was only known to exist in stereo views like this. Image collection of Library Company of Philadelphia.

What makes this donation even more special, especially to PRR preservationists is that we owe a great debt of gratitude to a former Pennsylvania Railroad employee for having the foresight and pride in his employer to save the portfolio.

David St. John Greer, was born in Philadelphia in 1914, his father a laborer and his mother a seamstress. Settling in New Jersey, David completed high school in Pemberton, NJ and enrolled in a 4-year business administration program at Drexel University. Graduating from Drexel in 1937, Greer would begin a 32-year career with the Pennsylvania Railroad. Though the details of his early years with the company are limited, in 1943 despite being exempt as a railroad employee to serve during WWII, he felt compelled to serve his country and enlisted in the Navy. Greer was never deployed in active war but was appointed as the Assistant Supervisor of Exports for the PRR Port of Philadelphia and later served as the District Property Transportation Officer in the Port of Philadelphia Customs House while also acting on the Ports Conditions Committee. Greer was released from active duty in January of 1946 as a Lieutenant returning to his civilian job with the PRR. Over the next 11 years Greer worked all over the system as a Supervising Agent for important terminals like Williamsport, Harrisburg, the company piers of New York, and Philadelphia. In 1953 he was promoted to Superintendent of Stations in the Pittsburgh Region and later the Chicago area from 1955-57. By the end of 1957 Greer was promoted to Manager / Director of Freight Stations and Motor Service on the entire system, responsible for all stations and trucking companies owned by the PRR. In 1968, the fateful year long time rivals PRR and NYC merged Greer was appointed Director of Stations system wide where he served just one short year, deciding that he could no longer work for the merged railroads.

David St. John Greer, pictured here in the center of the middle row (dark suit) was a devoted Pennsylvania Railroad employee who purchased the Gutekunst album after the ill fated merger of the PRR and rival New York Central in 1968. After being in their possession for over 45 years the Greer family decided to donate the album to the Library Company of Philadelphia where it will  join a sizable collection of Gutekunst's work along side the William H. Rau commissions for the PRR. Image courtesy of the Greer Family. 

David St. John Greer, pictured here in the center of the middle row (dark suit) was a devoted Pennsylvania Railroad employee who purchased the Gutekunst album after the ill fated merger of the PRR and rival New York Central in 1968. After being in their possession for over 45 years the Greer family decided to donate the album to the Library Company of Philadelphia where it will  join a sizable collection of Gutekunst's work along side the William H. Rau commissions for the PRR. Image courtesy of the Greer Family. 

During that last year, the PC worked to wipe the slate of documents and ephemera from the PRR archives offering items for sale to employees and later holding public auctions. It was here that Greer purchased the Gutekunst Album along with a number of other pieces of PRR memorabilia. Greer’s son, David, recalls, “My father loved the PRR and hated the merger. He particularly loved freight operations. He worked in places that included many of the locations in Pennsylvania pictured in the [Gutekunst] photographs and felt a close kinship to the railroad and the state of Pennsylvania. He took good care of the album but would occasionally sit and look at the photos much as I have done for the past twenty years.” David’s father gifted many of the other items he purchased at auction after his retirement, but held on to the album of photographs. “I think it is telling he kept the photographs, clearly the most valuable piece of railroad memorabilia he had. He also kept things that I think reminded him of the good times on the railroad. As an example he kept and displayed the menu from his dinner on the last run of the all Pullman Broadway Limited. The train crew signed the menu and he kept it along with some of the serving pieces that were used for this dinner. I think he felt that the end of the Broadway Limited was the end of an era. He flew to Chicago on business so that he could ride home on the Limited’s last eastbound trip as an all Pullman train, disembarking at Paoli near his home.”

Survived by his daughter Ann Hiros and son David Greer, David St. John Greer passed in December of 1993, leaving the album among other items with the family. In late 2013 I had heard about the album surfacing through PRRT&HS archivist Charlie Horan and in March of 2014 had the pleasure of meeting David on a train trip to Pittsburgh riding the Juniata Terminal Company PRR 120 and the Warrior Ridge (A Ride on the Pennsylvania). Dave expressed his interest in donating the album to a place that not only could care for it properly but also make it accessible to the public. Given my experience with the Rau collection housed at the Library Company of Philadelphia I suggested that David consider the institution, not only because of Gutkunst’s Philadelphia connection but also because of the existing collection of his work already at the LCP. It would also bring together two very important collections of photography that focused on the Pennsylvania Railroad from the 19th Century. At the close of 2014 the Greer family ultimately decided the album belonged in LCP’s permanent collection, adding to an incredible archive of 19th Century prints and photographs. We are lucky to have this resource preserved where it will ultimately be digitized for many future generations to enjoy in the honor of David St John Greer and photographer Frederick Gutekunst.

A Ride on the Pennsylvania

Though I have spent some seven years documenting the former Pennsylvania Railroad I can count on one hand how many times I have actually rode the original Main Line between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. This past weekend I graduated to three fingers making the round trip to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia. This one however was no ordinary trip; in fact it was quite special, for it was made on two privately owned historic rail cars; Bennett and Eric Levin’s lovingly restored Warrior Ridge and the Pennsylvania 120 a former PRR business car. As an invited guest myself and several others were lucky enough to see the landscape that that PRR has traveled since its completion in 1852, traveling through places I was all to familiar with but not always from the perspective of the passenger.

"Storm lifting in the Packsaddle", William H. Rau photograph. The Packsaddle is one of several locations that were used during various illustration and photographic campaigns on the Pennsylvania Railroad in the 19th Century. Collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc. 

"Storm lifting in the Packsaddle", William H. Rau photograph. The Packsaddle is one of several locations that were used during various illustration and photographic campaigns on the Pennsylvania Railroad in the 19th Century. Collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc. 

It got me thinking as several of us discussed various facets of the PRR including illustrative and photographic campaigns undertaken over the years by the company. These campaigns were geared around flaunting the scenic vistas along this prolific engineered corridor; some are revisited several times, in particular during the second half of the 19th Century. Riding in a car that served PRR President Walter Franklin among other officials, I could imagine the conversations and acknowledgment of these beautiful locations that seemed to captivate railroad men whether it was because they conquered a particularly difficult pass there or because the beauty was just that breathtaking.

For over 160 years the PRR has traversed this natural landscape following the majestic Susquehanna, Juniata, Conemaugh and Allegheny Rivers among others. Throughout that time countless passengers gazed out the window at areas commanding names like Warrior Ridge, The Packsaddle, Mineral Point and Jacks Narrows. Let us not forget how many experience the westbound ascent of Horseshoe curve out of Altoona, entering the famous engineering landmark high above Burgoon Run one quickly gets a sense of the curve's purpose, watching an eastbound descend the mountain across the valley at a noticeably higher elevation. Places like this were engineered by brilliant and driven men on the backs of cheap labor wielding pick axes and shovels, they are a testament of what was possible in the by gone era of industrialization. But yet they still survive, moving countless trains on a given day, a refined version of J. Edgar Thomson’s engineering genius. Besides the trains themselves little has changed from when Frederick Gutekunst or William Rau left footprints in the cinders making the large format images that preserved this rugged beauty. I have always been fascinated by the undefined spaces the railroad travels, the areas in-between the towns, cities and villages that create a sort of rhythm that illustrates the growth and progress the railroads fostered along the line, watching the ever changing landscape from the window of train who’s predecessors we owe our Nation’s existence to.

"The Horse Shoe Curve, Pennsylvania Railroad" Illustration of the engineering landmark envisioned by  J. Edgar Thomson from an 1895 travel book which illustrates the scenic highlights of the Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line. Collection of the author. 

"The Horse Shoe Curve, Pennsylvania Railroad" Illustration of the engineering landmark envisioned by  J. Edgar Thomson from an 1895 travel book which illustrates the scenic highlights of the Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line. Collection of the author. 

Yes this weekend was a welcome distraction, a reminder of why I embarked on this project, to document and share a railroad so historic and massive that its reputation and design lasted longer the company itself. To spend time on the railroad with like minded folks on a pair of beautifully restored private cars was exactly what I needed to put into perspective the past, present and future of railroading on the Pennsylvania Railroad and the landscape it travels. In regard to preservation, I take off my hat to people like the Levin’s who share the legacy of railroad travel in style and take every opportunity to see to it their guests are comfortable and having a good time. And to my fellow travel mates, I made some new friends and shared some great stories about the very railroad that bought us all together. Though the Pennsylvania Railroad has been gone for quite some time it is experiences like this that reinforce that the spirit and pride of the former Standard Railroad of the World is still very much alive through so many people and their work to preserve our railroad heritage. This is a trip that will stick with me for quite a long time!