In photography, a panorama is an unbroken view of an area that has the capacity to exceed the field of vision of the human eye. It seems only fitting to feature here one of the most literally panoramic aspects of the CB&Q collection—photographs. From the early and mid-twentieth century they take us on a sprawling journey across the nation, from the farm country of America’s Heartland, to the top of Mt. Rainer’s snow-capped peaks, and everywhere in between. Photography has long functioned as an appropriate medium for bringing us face to face with bygone times and places. It does not just allow us to view moments taken out of distant historical pasts; it is also one of the few means by which we can most immediately inhabit and understand a world entirely different from our own. More than serving as a simply objective transcript of a visual experience, photography is by nature encoded with the contemporaneous socio-cultural and historical realities that have come to comprise its entire production. Providing us with an astonishingly comprehensive picture of those realities, the photographs contained within the CB&Q collection are highly eclectic in nature, embracing a wide range of dates, subjects, and locations, including every geographic region of the United States. This essay will highlight two major groupings that are captivating for the scope of their photographic content in addition to their crucial place within the collection as a whole.
Taking the central United States as its primary subject, the Granger Country photographs offer us a closer look into the economic and social impact of the CB&Q Railroad during a decisive moment in American history. In the agricultural states of the Middle West, the CB&Q was also known as “Granger Road,” just as granger was another term for a farmer. †With tracks straddling across the country’s “Breadbasket,” cattle ranges, and corn-and-hog country, it is little surprise that the nickname for such a wide-ranging railroad company was so closely tied to Midwestern farmers. But what exactly did the railroad mean to the families of Middle America? How did it influence both their daily lives as well as their relationship with a much larger American cultural identity?
The Granger Country photographs were taken in 1948 by two renowned documentary photojournalists—Esther Bubley (1921-98), whose clients included Standard Oil, Life, and Ladies’ Home Journal, and Russell Lee (1903-86), who did work for the Farm Security Administration. Although the majority of the photos were taken in Nebraska—the state where the Burlington Railroad had more miles of track than in any other—rapidly evolving cities and farming communities all across Mid-American states were captured as well. Focusing on the activities of regions that would have been directly influenced by the development of the CB&Q, Bubley’s and Lee’s photos detail the lives of rural residents through images of stations, trains, railroad and industrial workers, college campuses, and town street scenes. For instance, Bubley chose to document the everyday lives of the Rader family in Knoxville, IL. Serving as a sort of prototype for Middle-American farm families, the Raders demonstrated how a past sense of alienation from big cities could be easily remedied by the convenience, affordability, and efficiency of the Burlington railroad. One mini-series features Mrs. Scott Rader traveling 162 miles on the Hannibal-Quincy Zephyr to Chicago, emphasizing that she could journey to a far-off city, do four hours’ worth of shopping, and still be home in time for dinner. As the pioneering vehicle that would propel the nation into its future, the train was the means by which many Americans could break free from geographic restraints without losing access to their domestic roots.
In addition to the Granger Country photographs, the CB&Q collection also encompasses a vast array of pamphlets and photos dealing with the promotion of travel and tourism. When Americans, like Mrs. Rader, began to experience firsthand the accessibility and ease of transport by train, it was not long before the travel bug became contagious across the entire nation. People were no longer limited to local destinations, but could journey to the more mysterious corners of the country. The CB&Q took full advantage of this ubiquitous desire to experience new parts of the nation, as can be seen by their advertising campaign that started in the early 20th century. The company developed Burlington Escorted Tours that conveyed guests to such “unchartered” destinations as Glacier, Yellowstone, and Rocky Mountain National Parks, the California coast, and the Black Hills of South Dakota. At the heart of these vacation opportunities was the notion that the most astounding and adventuresome features of America could be found in its natural wonders. The photos advertising these regions depict both panoramic landscapes and tourists enjoying themselves while doing the very touristy things one does in such settings. It is little wonder that one travel brochure from the 1930s deemed Burlington Escorted Tours as “The Modern Road to Romance”—the means by which “travel refreshes the intellect, thrills the heart, gratifies longing eyes and imparts to life new reasons for living.” The appeal of such a romanticized frontier consciousness was that it could be feasibly brought to fruition in modern times.
Without demystifying the nostalgic aura associated with traveling to unfamiliar locations, the railroad also understood that travelers would not want to abandon any of the conveniences that they would expect in the comfort of their homes. In catering to that desire, a large portion of information in the travel brochures was directed at families in particular. In order to attract such a demographic, the company fully delivered on the campaign’s slogan of “Vacations without a Care.” The booklets advertising these tours emphasized that all-expense vacations included transportation, meals, hotel accommodations, escort services, and motor sightseeing trips, allowing vacationers to enjoy themselves without worrying about their everyday essentials. The company even designed the Burlington Family Fare Plan that allowed families who traveled together to get a cheaper rate. It is also evident by many of the advertising photographs, such as those accompanying this essay, that travel was a way for families to temporarily escape from the worries of their routine lives and be adventurous with those closest to them. Whether hiking through Glacier Park with baby in tow or soaking in the sun on the shores of California, families could rest even a little easier knowing that the Burlington was taking care of their needs. In true on-the-go fashion, the train itself was even a sort of mobile home away from home—a place where a family could easily enjoy a Sunday afternoon dinner while in transit to an exciting vacation destination.
In addition to the two photographic groupings discussed above, the CB&Q collection also contains a host of miscellaneous prints that more explicitly relate to what one would expect of the workings of a railroad company. These include earlier photos of train engines, equipment, and freight cars, as well as 19th-century portraits of CB&Q officials and employees (in which one can expect to find every variety of facial hair imaginable). Regardless of their precise historical moment or geographic location, however, what unites all the photographs considered in this essay is their capacity to immerse us into worlds that enchant us for their seeming foreignness, but also lead us to reflect on the values and systems of living that can still be found in our very own. Whether challenging us to consider the conflicts between tradition and modernity or the big and small impacts of transportation development on the construction of this nation, photography demonstrates how a single snapshot can inspire a multitude of other thought-provoking questions. At the forefront of that conversation between the past and present, the assembly of CB&Q photographs will be sure to peak a variety of both academic and personal interests, all while providing a truly one-of-a-kind visual splendor.