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Transportation as Media: The Epistemology of Train Culture

                                California [1916]
A pictorial guide to California circa 1916

This webpage and digital archive of fifteen artifacts display the California History Research Seminar (History 279) class research with the John Lloyd-Butler Railroadiana Collection during the spring of 2008.  Their research demonstrates an ideal of railroad transportation as a “spatial concept.”  More specifically, this “spatial concept” perceives the railcar not only as a means of transportation but a cultural space unto itself.

It is important to note railroad culture as a whole in terms of two distinct spheres: Life outside the railroad institution versus life inside it.  More specifically, one side of this theme involves the “outside” impact of the railroad on surrounding communities in California as well as their disappearance after the decline of the railroad.  The other side investigates the “inner” presentation of the railroad and how companies advertised their trains as spaces of comfort, safety and luxury, even after the rise of the automobile which consequently lead to the railroad’s decreasing popularity.

Transportation as Media:  The Epistemology of Train Culture

To view and learn more about the actual documents, click on an image or linked text. Titles and student names are links to their documents.
View all the documents and their descriptions in the Digital Archive

   First train in Porterville, Tulare
                                Co. Cal. May 10th, 1888
First train in Porterville, Tulare, 1888

Life Outside the Cars

     The railroad was instrumental in shaping California. It changed the landscape of the state in bringing in new towns and cities, while killing others that were not along their lines. It brought people to the state to view its many wonders, such as Yosemite, which were made readily available to tourists by these same railroads. The speed of the trains changed the way people viewed the state in terms of travel. Travel across the state was considered a trip of a few days instead of weeks. This further changed the landscape of California, especially when looking at an early map of the state. Most towns are along the lines, and these all prosper even to this day. Life outside the cars of the train was drastically changed when the iron horse came to California.  --Aaron Stanton

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Southern Pacific Keeler Branch
Keeler Branch, 1951

Dots on a Map: The Rise and Fall of Railroad Towns

     The three documents that I selected for inclusion in this database are maps that I found particularly interesting due to their age and their representation of California in the days when the railroad ruled.  One map is a 1950s pictorial map of the Southern Pacific Keeler Branch, a narrow-gauge railroad in the Owens Valley.  The other two are large fold-out maps from the late nineteenth century—one of the Union Pacific’s routes in the Pacific and Rocky Mountain states, and one of the Southern Pacific and its routes in the Pacific and Southwest.  These maps are part of the basis for my research project of the same name, which uses several towns as case studies to divine the effect of the railroad on growth (and decay) of towns.
--Charles Bennett

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  Along the Right of Way, circa
Along the Right of Way guide to towns, circa 1950s
A Descriptive Look on Railroad Rhetoric and Propaganda

    Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, a collective mass effort in order to revitalize the railroad institution had been implemented to combat the then recent successes of the automobile industry. Many railroad companies subsequently advertised themselves to a sought after loyal populace through many distinct forms of media. Portrayal of railroad transportation through this media gives an interesting view on corporate visions of advertising campaigns as well as propaganda techniques. These propaganda techniques emphasized the promotion of many central spatial ideals characteristic of railroads over the automobile. Moreover, the conjunction of railroad self-advertising with this theme of a spatial sphere inside the railcar gives an impression for the luxury, comfort, and reliability of a long standing institution. This sphere inside the railcar was promoted as comfortable and luxurious to attract prospective customers to a classy alternative from the average automobile lifestyle. The media also manifested a reliable vision of railway travel as withstanding the test of time to be held as an enduring institution. -- Daniel Drugan

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Photo Excerpt from Broadway Limited
Photo from Broadway Limited 1902-1927

"Inside Story" of the
                              Broadway Limited circa 1961
"Inside Story" of the Broadway Limited circa 1961

View all the documents in the Digital Archive.

Getting to Know George: An Analysis of the African Americans' Contributions to the Railroad

    In order to keep up the image of luxury, safety, comfort, and quality service associated with their trains, railroad corporations depended heavily upon their porters and dining car waiters to provide kind and courteous assistance to passengers. These exclusively Black servicemen who occupied the train’s "inner" community represented the face of railcar service and thus were put under heavy pressure. Specifically, they were required to follow strict guidelines posted in detailed rule books while using their own quick wits and judgment. Moreover there existed a clear status and racial divide between the upper and middle-class White customers and the struggling middle-class Black servers who were expected to conform to this division. Despite the stress and degradation, Black porters and dining car servers continued to diligently serve passengers for decades and though the face of the railcar serviceman has been blurred and transformed over the years, it is vital to recognize and remember who originally established that image of luxury, safety, comfort, and quality service. --Lauren Watanabe



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About this Project / Acknowledgements

Occidental College's "Transportation as Media" Research Seminar was developed by Dr. Jeremiah B.C. Axelrod, Adjunct Assistant Professor of History and made possible through a grant by the Pacific Railroad Society. The library project is developed in collaboration with the Special Collections Department:
Dale Ann Stieber, Special Collections Librarian, and Ashlie Mildfelt, Cataloging Assistant, with student staff Chris Jackson and Sarah Hunt.

The John Lloyd-Butler Railroadiana Collection

     John Lloyd-Butler, a rancher from Saticoy, California, took an interest in American railroading, but was never able to devote himself to the hobby until he retired from ranching. He and his wife spent the last ten years of his life traveling the American railroads and collecting whatever he could on the subject. The result is the John Lloyd-Butler Railroadiana Collections covering the history and development of the American Railroad from 1846 to the early 1970's. Lloyd-Butler donated his collection to Occidental College in 1972. Throughout the years, the collection has expanded to include titles from other rail fans including, Oxy alumni, David Kearns Todd, and Carlton E. Byrne. Currently, the collection contains over a thousand published books, rare government reports, railroad periodicals, and ephemeral materials, including time-tables, advertising brochures, postcards, and tickets. 

Page last edited by on 03/06/2013.
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