Baltimore Conquers the Alleghenies

November 30, 1993|By JAMES D. DILTS

The train in the photograph was not the first to cross the Allegheny Mountains, but it may have been the first to have its picture taken while doing so. The view was made in June 1858 on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and it says a lot. The opening of the West and the romance between the railroad and the camera are two of the themes implied by this faded image of an engine in the hills of Western Maryland. The scene is near Altamont, Garrett County, elevation 2,629 feet, the highest main-line crossing of the Alleghenies.

The trip itself, however, was a first: the earliest artists' tour on an American railroad. (The people seated on the engine are the artists and their consorts.) It was organized by William Prescott Smith, the B&O's master of transportation, to publicize its route. The concept proved popular later on, especially in the West, as a way for railroad companies to attract passengers. Albert Bierstadt and William Henry Jackson, Western landscape painter and photographer, respectively, were two well-known artists who toured the West by rail in the 1870s and 1880s and produced some of their most dramatic works.

The Baltimore and Ohio had a further reason for this early venture in public relations, which took place about five years after the railroad opened its line to Wheeling. A few months after that event, there was a bad accident in the Cheat River Valley in which eight people were killed and about twice as many injured when two coaches left the track, rolled down a 100-foot incline, and caught fire. It was the worst accident in the B&O's 25-year history and received a good deal of publicity. The company then had to counter the propaganda of rival railroads about ''the dangers of the Cheat.''

It did so by dispatching Smith, who had just written (anonymously), the nation's first railroad history on the B&O, to Wheeling and points west in an attempt to win customers by announcing that the railroad was safe for travel and capable of handling freight efficiently. Smith was an effective PR man and he worked hard to placate shippers and reduce public apprehensions. George Rawlings, the conductor of the train involved in the accident, who worked for three hours with a badly cut hand to help the injured back up the hill and into Cumberland, was also evidently a good railroad diplomat, because he was assigned to be the conductor of the artists' train.

Many of the leading landscape and portrait artists in the country were among the passengers on the train that left Camden Station at 6:30 a.m., June 1, 1858. They included Asher B. Durand, head of the Hudson River school, the first school of American painting, John W. Kensett, an important member of the Luminists, a group of artists that emerged from that school and made atmosphere and light almost a physical presence in their work, and Thomas P. Rossiter, another Luminist painter.

Altogether, there were 14 artists, four photographers, four journalists and a professor from the University of Pennsylvania. Among the journalists was Henry J. Raymond, founding editor of the New York Times, and David Hunter Strother (Porte Crayon), who wrote and illustrated the article on the Artists' Excursion that appeared a year later in Harpers Magazine. The photographers were William E. Bartlett, G.W. Dobbin, amateur, Charles Guillon of Philadelphia and Robert O'Neill from Washington. They made more than 100 images, 18 of which are held by the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, including the one reproduced here.

The glass-plate photographic process, developed in 1851, had started to free photographers from the daguerreotype studio and allow them greater freedom to take their cameras out into the countryside. For the painters, new intense colors available in magenta, cobalt, yellow and violet, inspired the Luminists to attempt to capture directly in oils the effects of outdoor light and air. Many pencil sketches and oil paintings were made on the trip, including Rossiter's ''Opening of the Wilderness,'' showing the locomotives that had mastered the mountain grades against a brilliant western sunset at Piedmont, West Virginia.

There were six cars in the train. The first was a rolling studio for the photographers and their equipment, the next was a dining car, the third was for smoking, the fourth a parlor car with a piano, and the last two were sleeping cars normally used by the railroad executives in their inspection trips over the line.

The artists and their entourage stopped to eat at Harpers Ferry, where they visited the federal arsenal and took pictures, and Kensett admired the picturesque scenery, a little over a year before John Brown captured the arsenal and the town during his famous raid (October, 1859). They spent the night at Berkeley Springs (West Virginia), a stagecoach ride over the hill from the nearest station.

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