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August 15, 2021

A Native American Man (Shoshone) Looking at the Central Pacific Railroad, ca. 1860s

In this photograph by Alfred Hart taken between 1865–1869, a Native American man looks down upon a newly completed section of the Transcontinental Railroad, 435 miles from Sacramento, California.

As official photographer of the Central Pacific Railroad, Alfred A. Hart (1816–1908) spent five years documenting the construction of this legendary railroad from Sacramento, California, to Promontory Summit, Utah. Between 1864 and 1869, Hart accompanied the engineers and crews as they made their way across valleys, deserts, and mountains, building trestles, digging tunnels, and constructing enormous embankments. The Central Pacific Railroad maintained a high regard for Hart’s role as photographer, allowing him to stop trains and work crews for the time needed to set up his camera and make his photographs.

Hart was the official photographer of the western half of the first transcontinental railroad, for which he took 364 historic stereoviews of the railroad construction in the 1860s. Hart sold his negatives to Carleton Watkins, who continued to publish the CPRR stereoviews in the 1870s.

Though he is most known for his images of the first transcontinental railroad, Hart did not consider himself a photographer. He trained as a painter in New England and began his career painting portraits and religious panoramas. After his photographic work for the railroad ceased to be profitable, he returned to painting, though he seems not to have achieved critical success in this media. He spent his last years in poverty, receiving help from his son and daughter until his death, a few days before his ninety-second birthday.

Indian viewing railroad from top of Palisades. 435 miles from Sacramento. (Library of Congress)

For many, completing the Transcontinental Railroad symbolized achievement and national unity—yet it was built with mostly immigrant labor.

Building the Transcontinental Railroad presented both physical and monetary challenges. Even with huge government subsidies, the railroad companies had to raise millions of dollars to cover construction costs. Directors skimmed millions off the construction and became rich. Operating the enterprise was often less profitable.

The backbreaking work of grading the bed and laying the track required thousands of workers, who were poorly paid. Building west from Nebraska, the Union Pacific hired Irish immigrants and Civil War veterans. The Central Pacific Railroad Company, building from California, hired Chinese migrants. In the center, Mormon laborers worked for both lines.

Railroads provided employment for immigrant workers, opportunities for investors, and a means for farmers to seize new lands. But these new transportation routes also carried settlers. 

Lakota, Shoshone, Cheyenne and other tribes fiercely resisted the railroad as it encroached on indigenous communities. The Pawnee worked with the railroad, seeing benefits to the partnership. Farmer, miners, and even tourists changed the landscape, destroying wildlife and habitats.

The Shoshone were among some of the Native peoples who resisted as the Transcontinental Railroad, aided by U.S. Army troops, pressed into their lands. Both the railroad and the settlers who used it threatened Native peoples’ ways of life and sovereignty.


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