American Studies Home Site Map Gallery of Prints Writing Across the Curriculum Currier & Ives Introduction Currier & Ives Opening


Trains at night.
"The 'Lightning Express' Trains. Leaving the Junction."

Colorful train, real train.
"American Express Train."

The nearly fifty lithographs of trains in the Currier and Ives portfolio show the fascination Americans had with the "Iron Horse" that was helping to tame, populate, and build the West. Surprisingly, except for the coloring and the presence of lush green fields, many of them are quite realistic. As with all Currier and Ives prints, the hand-tinting of the lithographs served to soften the picture and erase the grime of the real thing.

Between 1840 (when N. Currier had been a sole proprietor for five years) and 1869 (when Ives had been with him for twelve), the nation had laid rails across the continent. The meeting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads in that year signified that the means for "conquering" the West were in place. The eastern leg, the Union Pacific, was built largely by Irish immigrants. The western leg, the Central Pacific, competed fiercely with the eastern for laying a greater number of rails each dail. Nearly all the Central Pacific workers were Chinese, who were not allowed in the photographs heralding the meeting of the railroads with the hammering in of the "Golden Spike."

Railroads connected—and created—markets throughout the country. They were, in effect, the earliest of America's giant corporations. As explained by Alan Trachtenberg in The Incorporation of America, the railroads were a:

field of enterprise in which first appeared a new breed of men—the Cookes, Stanfords, Huntingtons, and Hills—of unprecedented personal wealth and untrammeled power. Not only did the railroad system make modern technology visible, intruding it as a physical presence in daily life, but it also offered means of exercising unexampled ruthlessness of economic power. In railroad monopolies, combinations, conspiracies to set rates and control traffic, lobbies to bribe public officials and buy legislatures, the nation had its first taste of robber barons on a grand scale (57-58).

Farmers believed that the railroad companies manipulated their profits. Businessmen in small towns saw the railroads as destroying the chance to do well locally by offering cheaper goods and controlling supply. City entrepreneurs viewed the railroad companies as aiding their competitors, and labor saw them as uncaring, demanding employers. True gentlemen—those with scruples—believed them to be the source of ill-gotten wealth and guilty of political corruption (Wiebe 53). The hazy, popular ideal of the West as the basket of plenty that Currier and Ives brought to their train prints via color and composition was vital to promoting expansionism and countering the suspicions that the means to that expansion—the railroad—raised.

For more information about trains and the West at the end of the 19th century, view All aboard! The Role of Railroads in Protecting, Promoting, and Selling Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks.

American Studies Home Site Map Gallery of Prints Writing Across the Curriculum Currier & Ives Introduction Currier & Ives Opening

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