SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — This is the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, a major milestone of the 19th century. A new museum exhibition brings focus to the dark side of what we often refer to as progress.
On display at the California Historical Society in downtown San Francisco is the transcontinental railroad’s final “Golden Spike” — a symbol of the taming of the West and the beginning of what has been called the “American Century.”
Assistant curator Natalie Pellolio says the exhibit shows how the railroad fractured the country socially and culturally.
“I mean that in terms of their exploitation of immigrant labor, the displacement of indigenous tribes along the lines (and) also their contribution to corporate corruption,” Pellolio said.
Images of the opulent lifestyles of wealthy railroad barons are contrasted with pictures of Chinese laborers who did the backbreaking work to make the railroad a reality.
“I think this is also an interesting period in the post-Civil War era of Americans learning what corporate culture is,” Pellolio said, “and learning to be a little more wary and cynical of its impact.”
The other half of the exhibit examines the impact of the railroad on the environment.
Photographer Mark Ruwedel captured images along the original path of the transcontinental railroad line. His photographs of scarred landscapes are stark and show the effects of unbridled technology on the natural world.
“I think it’s meant to make you look carefully and to scrutinize the details,” said managing curator Erin Garcia “and think very deeply about what technology means to us and how it changes our lives — sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.”
Whether in nature or the human landscape, these exhibits prompt questions about the value of industrial progress when it comes without much regard for consequences.
The “Overland to California” exhibition will be on display through September 8 at the California Historical Society on Mission Street in San Francisco.