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Monday, April 22, 2019

Curating Overland to California: Commemorating the Transcontinental Railroad

When I set out to curate a visual history of the railroads in California, the majority of the materials I found had been produced by the railroad companies themselves. From brochures and guidebooks to stereographs and playing cards, it would seem that the visuals of the railroad infiltrated every corner of American life in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. As it happens, the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific—the two largest railroad companies in California at this time—were expert self-promoters, relying on images to publicize their companies and promote their growing lines.

California for the Tourist, Southern Pacific Company, 1910
But if using images for marketing seems like an obvious move today, it was a novel one in the nineteenth century. In 1865, the Central Pacific Railroad Company became the first US corporation to hire a full time staff photographer, purchase negatives, and build a corporate photographic archive—practices that are ubiquitous today. In Overland to California, I wanted to show how companies like the Central Pacific used images to obscure their corporate corruption and use of violent labor practices, instead projecting a vision of their company as ethical, stable, and modern. In so doing, they set a precedent for corporate marketing that continues in the present.

Poetry and Prose, Scene at Monument Point, North end of Salt Lake, Alfred Hart, 1869
At the same time, I didn’t want to give these companies the last word. As such, I made sure to include images made by the people who worked on or lived alongside the railroad, at a time when photography was becoming newly accessible and affordable for the average American. What follows is a sampling of works from the exhibition Overland to California, currently on view at the California Historical Society. Together, these images and objects tell a story of corporate corruption and promotion at the turn of the twentieth century, while also providing a visual history of those who resisted their hegemony.

Building the Loma Prieta Railroad, Photographer unknown, 1882
Railroad Bridge near Gold Run from The Central Pacific Railroad: A Trip Across the North American Continent from Ogden to San Francisco, Nelson's Pictorial Guide-Books, 1870
Indian Viewing R.R. from top of Palisades, 435 miles from Sacramento, Alfred Hart, c. 1869
Great trans-continental tourist's guide, George A. Crofutt and Company Publishers, 1871
Loading Boxes of Sylmar Brand Olive Oil onto Freight Cars at the Olive Growers Association, Putnam & Valentine, c. 1905
Central Pacific Rail Company Stock Certificate, Central Pacific Rail Road Company, 1861
Men at Site of Rail Car Accident, Photographer unknown, c. 1900

Man and Dog Sitting in Front of Railroad Stop Crossing Sign, Photographer unknown, c. 1900

Overland to California: Commemorating the Transcontinental Railroad and Mark Ruwedel: Westward the Course of Empire will be on view through September 8, 2019.
Written by Natalie Pellolio, Assistant Curator at California Historical Society 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Children’s Voices from the Archives: Remembering the 1906 Earthquake and Fire

The 1906 earthquake and fire was a defining moment in San Francisco history. It was a disaster that changed the city’s social, economic, and cultural fabric, and to this day we often think of its history as divided into pre-earthquake and post-earthquake eras.

Photography, including the technology to produce outdoor shots, was gaining popularity by 1906, and CHS is fortunate to have a number of surviving images that document both the destruction and reconstruction of the city. Of equal importance are surviving personal diaries, journals, and letters that describe how residents coped with the aftermath of the disaster. One such document is the correspondence of Elsie Cross, a 12-year-old girl living in the Western Addition of San Francisco when, on April 18th 1906 at 5:12 a.m., an earthquake of massive force shook the city. Two letters to her friend Ruth, dated May 17-18 and May 28, give us a rarely explored child’s perspective of this event. The letters provide a firsthand account of the quake itself, the family’s escape from the house to the Sunset, and their eventual relocation to Oakland

Elsie’s description of the earthquake is notably poetic: “Things fell right & left, brick-a-brack flew around, furniture danced a jig,” and her strength and sense of humor shines through: “My brother could not stand so my brother had to hold him and, Ruth, I laughed when it knocked our beautiful Regina down and it played “Whistling Rufus” all the way through the earthquake.”

Through her words, however, the reader can also sense the fear and worry of Elsie’s parents as they flee, holding their children tight, wondering if the fire will reach them or if the earth will shake again:

“Wednesday afternoon with a few blankets, a canvas, and an eiderdown we went way out in the Sunset where the fire could never reach & slept part of the night on the front doorsteps. It was bright as day & you could have read a book in the house it was so light. About ten o’clock, the fire having died down, my brother & I both slept on one side of my mother. Both my mother & father did not sleep. The next day in the morning my mother & father & I packed in a steamer trunk old family laces, miniatures, & clothing. In the afternoon my father drove us in his buggy & we put the silver, jewelry, family pictures, & blankets in & went out into the Sunset…I felt very sorry to leave this and my piano, but as nothing else could be done I did not say anything.”

Elsie Cross’s letters and other earthquake material can be accessed at the North Baker Research Library at the California Historical Society during public hours, Wednesday through Friday from 1PM to 5PM. Full transcript below. Additional photos of the 1906 earthquake and fire can be viewed on CHS’s digital library.


Oakland, May 11, 1906

Dear Ruth,

As you will see by the heading I am no longer in Frisco. I received your parcel the week after that “gentle zepher” struck us. Ahem! Ahem!!!
Wednesday morning I was awakened by a slight shaking. Now as earthquakes are usually gentle and mild I waited for it to pass away. Instead of that it began to wrench & by that time I was in my door way. (That being considered the safest place). Then it began to go just up & down as a cat shakes a rat and I (thinking the world was coming to an end) said a prayer & waited for results. I saw my father in the front room try to get to my mother and also saw him thrown twice across the floor. I could see my mother & brother standing in their doorway. My brother could not stand so my mother had to hold him. And, Ruth, I laughed when it knocked our beautiful Regina down and it played “Whistling Rufus” all through the earthquake. Our chimney went through to the basement, my [ ] was thrown on my table and the drawers & their contents thrown on the floor. Things fell right & left, brick-a-brack flew around, and [ ]  danced a jig. As soon as it was over (& it only lasted (? ) 48 seconds…

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…my father told us to dress as quick as we could and if another shake came to finish in the street.
Continued as I have to go downtown to get a Pineapple Smash & a library book. See “World [ ] Illustrations of Shock”


May 18, ‘06

After we got out of the house my father said that the only trouble now, was fire. All that day there were shocks and the sun was a ball of purply red from the smoke. It was very hot. You could hear building after building being blasted. People passed in all kinds of wagons and some on foot with what possessions they could take. I forgot to tell you that a house across the street was moved over 9 ft. and the house next to that went down into the earth 10 ft. I will send you the pictures my father took of them and also some other places. Wednesday afternoon with a few blankets, * a canvas & a eiderdown we went way out in the Sunset where the fire could never reach and slept part of the night on the front doorsteps. It was as bright as day and you could have read a book in the house it was so light. About ten o’clock, the fire having

[page 3]

died down after & Ill my brother and I each slept on one side of my mother. Both my mother and father did not sleep. The next day in the morning my mother and I packed in a steamer trunk old family laces, miniatures, and clothing. In the afternoon my father drove up in his buggy and we put the silver, jewelry, family pictures, & blankets in & went out in to the Sunset. My room is all old fashioned furniture of mahogany and my wall, bedspread, and other trimming is old rose. I felt very sorry to leave this & my piano, but as nothing else could be done I did not say anything.  Where we went was out by the park, & the place was a grocery store & saloon. They had their own cow and chickens and also liquors & grocery provisions, the latter being stored in the house. There were 4 little children and a baby one month old. The first night we slept outdoors and they did not stop blasting when night came on but blasted all through the night.  In the morning I was awakened by a dreadfully loud blast and heard my mother say that she had watched the fire all night and it was now, she thought, under control.

Written and transcribed by Frances Kaplan, Reference Librarian at California Historical Society.

Elsie H. Cross letters to Ruth, Oakland, California, May 17-28, 1906; MS 3469; California Historical Society

Photographing Disaster, Part 2: Notre Dame

“There can be no image that is not about destruction and survival...”
                                                           —Eduardo Cadava, “Lapsus Imaginis: The Image in Ruins”[1]

On Monday, I posted a blog entitled “Photographing Disaster: Depicting the Aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake,” in which I tried to imagine what it would be like to see the visual landscape of a city change so dramatically in a matter of minutes. Within the hour, news about the calamitous fire at Notre Dame began to spread throughout the office. It was in this moment that I found myself looking at two disparate images side by side—an experience familiar to the art historian. In this case, however, one of the images was from 1906 while the other was alive, mutating before my eyes as I traced the fire’s ebb and flow in real time on my screen.

Stockton Street between Geary and Post Streets. San Francisco Subjects, Photography Collection, PC-SF-EQ (1906), California Historical Society 
AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu
I find it hard to put into words how I feel about the cathedral and the fire, but that doesn’t surprise me. When I think about Notre Dame, I think mostly about its silence. Despite the throngs of noisy tourists that swarm around it, the outside of the building can feel as quiet as the chapels inside. Quiet like the Seine at night. Quiet like the gargoyle who rests his head in his hands as he gazes across the city, ignoring the statue of the bird who seemingly squawks in his ear. Quiet like stone.

When I studied abroad in Paris, I lived just three blocks from Notre Dame. I felt lucky to be in France but also lonely, having left the US for the first time to live in a place where I barely spoke the language. I loved walking to the park behind the cathedral and looking up at the strange flying buttresses that stretched up to support its body like lanky arms. I remember thinking how this was the oldest building I had ever seen, and feeling comforted by how small that made me feel. Quiet like the trees that grow up around it. Quiet like me, not speaking the language.

Writing for the New York Times in the wake of the fire, Michael Kimmelman called Notre Dame “a kind of palimpsest of French history,” referring to a manuscript page that has been washed so that it can be reused but where traces of older writing still remain. I like that description. What I think he means is that Notre Dame bears the physical traces of the religious, political, and social groups who have, throughout time, modified and coopted it for their various causes. For Kimmelman, Notre Dame is reflective of French history only insofar as its historical significance is always shifting. His description reminds me that written history is chatty, but physical histories—the objects, works of art, and buildings that endure—are eerily quiet. This makes historical objects and buildings susceptible to appropriation, as Kimmelman notes. But it also imbues them with a subtle poetic power. Their quiet humbles me.

Ultimately, though, I find the quiet power of Notre Dame to be a motivating, and not a silencing, force. Reflecting on photographs of ruins, the scholar Eduardo Cadava has described how such an image “shows and bears witness to what history has silenced, to what, no longer here…haunts us, and encourages us to remember the deaths and losses for which we remain, still today, responsible.”[1] Like the photographs taken in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, visuals of Notre Dame do not evoke permanence but instead remind us of just how precarious our world can be—and of the work we need to do to take responsibility for the violent histories these objects, images, buildings, and ruins represent.
I think many of us found the fire on Monday to be too pointed as a symbol for the rampant degradation of our cultural commitments to liberty and equality, or as reflective of the fact that these commitments were hollow to begin with. Many of us also felt dismayed as we realized that other such atrocities, including the catastrophic fire at the National Museum of Brazil in 2018, garnered less attention. I’m not sure what to make of it all. But I feel some small comfort knowing that so many eyes were focused on something ancient, and on the importance of preserving it. My hope is that the quiet power of such an event will encourage us to reflect on these losses, and to do what we can to prevent them in the future.

[1] Eduardo Cadava, “Lapsus Imaginis: The Image in Ruins,” October Vol. 96 (Spring 2001): 35.
[1] Cadava, 36.

Written by Natalie Pellolio, Assistant Curator at California Historical Society

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

A Phoenix Rises: Art Goes On

We are once again upon the anniversary of the Great Earthquake that erupted underneath San Francisco in the early morning hours of April 18, 1906, with an estimated 7.7 to 7.9 magnitude. Along with the earthquake, multiple fires ignited that destroyed much of the city over the next three days taking with them over 3,000 lives. The loss of cultural heritage was staggering: artists, photographers, and other craftsmen lost decades of work held within their studios, shops, and homes. Photographer Carleton Watkins, elderly and largely blind, was pictured being led away from a darkened, burning street, mere days before much of the contents of his studio would have shipped to Palo Alto for permanent transfer to the museum at Stanford University. Inestimable numbers of fine artworks, antiquities, and other objects of cultural, historic, and scientific value were also lost when the homes of patrons and residents, and other cultural institutions and libraries were reduced to ruins and ash.

And still, San Francisco was being creatively documented. Photographers, who largely captured the ongoing devastation, were joined by fellow artists who drew and painted the structural wreckage left behind and the subsequent reconstruction of a port town that had burgeoned to some 400,000 population by early 1906. In History’s Anteroom – Photography in San Francisco 1906-1909, by Rodger Birt and Marvin Nathan (2011), the intense transformation is surveyed.

Within their book is a photograph of a man quietly seated at his easel and painting the remains of City Hall. The artist, Charles Albert Rogers (American, 1848-1918), trained in New York and later in Europe. He arrived in San Francisco in the late 1870s where he began producing regional landscapes, portraits, and city scenes. Some 150 works were lost when his studio was destroyed in the fire, yet within a very short time he was already back at work. The canvas, shown here, is in the collection of the California Historical Society. While small in size it clearly delineates the distinctive entablature supported by two surviving columns and towering above the bulky ruins behind it. Though initially unknown, Rogers was ultimately identified within the photograph when CHS displayed this painting in the exhibition, A Century of Landscapes: Selections from the California Art Club (July-September, 2011).
Charles Albert Rogers (American, 1848-1918)
S.F. [San Francisco] – City Hall, May 1906
Oil on canvas, 20 x 11 -1/2 inches
The photographer who captured Rogers at work remains unidentified. A copy of History’s Anteroom is available for viewing in CHS’s Reference Library.

2. Photograph of Carleton E. Watkins [with cane, during aftermath of earthquake, April 18, 1906] is in the collection of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Please see:
3. Nickel, Douglas R. Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception. NY: Harry N. Abrams / SFMOMA, 1999. “The Art of Perception.” p. 33 (Note 1).
5. Birt, Rodger C., and Nathan, Marvin. History’s Anteroom – Photography in San Francisco 1906-1909. San Francisco: William Stout Publishers, 2011 (p.36). Image of [Charles Albert Rogers] painting the ruins of San Francisco City Hall is featured online by

Written by Cheryl Maslin, Registrar at California Historical Society

California Historical Society; accession 68-75-1-2

Monday, April 15, 2019

Photographing Disaster: Depicting the Aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake

This blog post originally appeared in California History Journal, Vol. 96 No. 1, Spring 2019

An earthquake is a visual event. Photographs taken in San Francisco in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake reveal an almost unrecognizable image of the young city, showing piles of rubble and coils of melted iron swirling serpent-like from the hollow frames of collapsed buildings. One such image shows the charred remains of the Dana Building—the first Art Nouveau building in San Francisco—juxtaposed against the steel skeleton of the unfinished Union League Building. The fa├žade of the Dana Building stands like a ghostly shell, its shattered windows and collapsed walls producing the effect of a building turned inside-out. The building’s sleek white surface is dappled not with light but with ash, a vestigial trace of the flames that had licked its walls and left the building in ruins. The building looks like it was destroyed in a flash.

Stockton Street between Geary and Post Streets. San Francisco Subjects, Photography Collection, PC-SF-EQ (1906), California Historical Society 
What would it be like to wake up and find your city unrecognizable? To find unstable ground not only beneath your feet, but in front of your eyes? The philosopher William James described how in the aftermath of the earthquake, his students at Stanford University slept outdoors in order to “get the full unusualness out of the experience.”1 The photographer Arnold Genthe remarked that the streets “presented a weird appearance . . . many ludicrous sights met the eye: an old lady carrying a large bird cage with four kittens inside . . . a man tenderly holding a pot of calla lilies, muttering to himself; a scrub woman, in one hand a new broom and in the other a large black hat with ostrich plumes; a man in an old-fashioned nightshirt and swallow tails, being startled when a friendly policeman spoke to him, ‘Say, Mister, I guess you better put on some pants.’ ”2

But these “unusual” and “ludicrous” sights were not the visuals that San Francisco’s civic leaders sought to promote. Intent on rebuilding the city as quickly as possible, pol- iticians, boosters, and industrial magnates propagated an image of San Francisco as re- silient and organized—a phoenix worthy of modern development and international investment. Compare the photograph of the Dana Building to an image better aligned with this booster rhetoric, taken by the photographer George Lawrence. Entitled “San Francisco in Ruins,” it is an aerial view of the aftermath, taken from a kite suspended 2,000 feet above the city. Lawrence’s panorama is perhaps most impressive in its ability to show the fire’s devastation not as ruinous, but as a contained event. Buildings may be smoldering, but the city’s roads and ports—symbols of industrial potential—remain. In the upper righthand corner, the clouds part to reveal the sun shining brightly on the city below, symbolizing its ordained rebirth.

By contrast, the photograph of the Dana Building depicts the aftermath as a period of precariousness and uncertainty. If the intact frame of the Union League Building conveys the city’s industrial ambition, the crumbling remains of the Dana—with its Art Nouveau walls standing jagged like loose teeth, ready to fall at any moment—read as a humbling reminder of the city’s fragility. The piles of rubble, brush, and planks lining the street symbolically dis- mantle the city before our eyes. Even the man riding through on his cart evokes a sense of contingency, his blurred face reminding the viewer that this photograph, and the landscape that it depicts, could look completely different if it had been taken in any other moment. The photograph compels the viewer to conceptualize the earthquake not as a propelling and productive force of modernization, but as a harbinger of uncertainty and radical possibility.

San Francisco in Ruins from Lawrence Captive Airship, 2,000 feet above San Francisco Bay. PC-PANO_001
California Historical Society
Reflecting on the 1906 earthquake on its centennial, the writer Rebecca Solnit suggests that images of ruins and decay help us to remember that history is not teleological, but rather an ebb and flow of progress and decline. She writes: [Decay] is the negative image of history and a necessary aspect of it. To erase decay or consciousness of decay, decline, entropy, and ruin is to erase the understanding of the unfolding relation between all things, of darkness to light, of age to youth, of fall to rise.3 Read alongside this photograph of the ruins of the Dana Building, Solnits description allows us to see the structure as its own negative image of his- tory, its exterior melding visually with the interior to form a negative image of a building designed to symbolize modern progress and aesthetics.

In this way, the photograph also evokes a different sort of negative: a 35-millimeter film neg- ative, a technology that would be patented in America just two years later. Notice how the empty window frames are stacked neatly in rows resembling a film strip, as if to suggest the myriad ways in which the disaster could have been pictured and remembered. This photo- graph was likely taken by an amateur photographer, newly able to photograph their city after the first affordable snapshot camera was introduced by the Eastman Kodak Company just six years prior. It is through such amateur photographs that we are able to see a different view of the earthquake’s aftermath, one taken not from the point of view of a booster but from that of a citizen processing the realities of the disaster. Looking through the window frames—depicted within the frame of this forgotten photograph—we can crane our necks to imagine what it would have been like to experience the disaster as a citizen, the visual landscape of the city changing before our eyes.

Written by Natalie Pellolio, Assistant Curator at California Historical Society

Monday, April 1, 2019

Railroads Public Programs Preview: 5 Not-to-Miss Exhibition Related Events at CHS

With each new exhibition comes a flurry of public programs designed to help guests dive deeply into the core concepts within them.  Each exhibition provides new opportunities for conversation and interaction between our audiences and our organization, the exhibitions, and each other.  In order to better understand the final programmatic product let’s go back a bit and share how we design our exhibition-related public programs.

Around six to eight months before an exhibition opens, departments from across CHS sit down and discuss the exhibition and its core concepts. The curator(s) will present on the conceptual framework, key themes, and topics. Staff have the opportunity to pose questions as well as provide suggestions and insights. The Public Program Manager (me) then begins drafting program ideas to present to curators in a follow-up meeting. During that follow-up meeting, drafted ideas begin to harden and afterward I am able to begin reaching out to speakers and partners, further developing those ideas based on what the speakers’ expertise is and how they envision their place within the event. The collaborations between partners, speakers, and CHS staff are integral to the vibrant final product.

On March 21st, we opened two complimentary exhibitions, Mark Ruwedel: Westward the Course of Empire and Overland to California: Commemorating the Transcontinental Railroad. Below is a brief rundown of some of our upcoming exhibition-related programs. We hope that you mark them on your calendar, as they are not to be missed!

Thursday, April 4th, 6:00PM
Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the California Railroad

Professor of American Studies at Barnard University, Manu Karuka, will present on his new book Empire’s Tracks while focusing on indigenous experiences in relation to the transcontinental railroad. He and Professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University, Joanne Barker (Lenape), will be in conversation about indigenous history and counter sovereignty. A book signing will close the event. Learn more.

Thursday, April 18, 6:00PM
Chinese and Chinese American Genealogies and the California Railroads
Wednesday, July 24, 6:00PM
Labor Strikes and Fights and the Transcontinental Railroad

In 1969, during the 100th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad, Chinese American communities and descendants of railroad workers felt a disconnect and articulated that there was a lack of focus on their ancestors’ history and contributions. This year, during the railroad’s 150th anniversary, organizations and individuals from across California will be highlighting the important contributions of Chinese and Chinese Americans to the building and maintenance of the railroads.

CHS will be hosting several events to honor this important history, the first being on April 18th with presentations by Al Cheng, Grant Din, Sue Lee, and Paulette Liang. They will focus on how and why Chinese and Chinese Americans are seeking to find their connection to this work, examples of individuals who have found genealogical connections, as well as those who have sought out but did not find a connection. Learn more.

The second event will be held July 24th and focuses on key labor battles which involved Chinese railroad workers, including the historic eight-day strike in 1867. Gordon Chang and Lawrence Shoup will present on this event and other important labor battles in celebration of Laborfest, which occurs each July.

Wednesday, May 15th, 6:00PM
Exploring the Gilded Age in California and its Reverberations Today

On May 15th we will explore the Gilded Age in California and its relationship to the Big Four, labor, and the railroads. How has the Gilded Age influenced what California is today? Learn more with moderator, William Frances Deverell (USC), panelists Richard White (Stanford), Margarite Shaffer (Miami University), Barbara Berglund Sokolov (Presidio Historian), and Jack Kelly (historian and author of Edge of Anarchy). Learn more. 

Thursday, June 27th, 6:00PM
Women and Their Role on the Rails

On June 27th, we explore the role women played (or did not play) in the railroads. How did imagery of wealthy white women tell a particular story about the railroad? How were women of color and people of color generally excluded from the transportation system? Professor Amy Richter of Clark University and Julia H. Lee of U.C. Irvine will present on these questions and be available to discuss other related topics after their presentations. Learn more.

As we move deeper into the summer we will add additional programs, so continue to follow our Society Happenings e-newsletter and check out our online calendar at for more information.


Written by Patty Pforte, Programs & Visitor Experience Manager at CHS.