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Fine Maps

Tracking America

Another fact which contributed to the production of advertising paper of all kinds was the often intense competition between railroads for prized passengers. No sooner was the Union Pacific complete in 1869 than it released a veritable deluge of promotional material, and especially maps, encouraging people to visit the now suddenly accessible West. The railroads, indeed, marked the beginning of the opening of the West to Tourism and the push to create National Parks to preserve the natural beauty for all to see. The Northern Pacific promoted Yellowstone National Park and even constructed a branch line to its boundary. The Great Northern promoted Glacier National park with beautiful and artistic bird’s-eye maps of the park, featuring, of course, the railroad’s line and stations in the foreground. These were published up to the Second World War in many forms and are available quite inexpensively.

The Santa Fe line encouraged tourists to come see Indian culture—often specially staged for railroad passengers.

Many transcontinental lines produced beautifully illustrated brochures and maps using specially commissioned artwork, some of which has become classic: that of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe for instance. The latter line exploited the “Indian” connection to its fullest, encouraging tourists to come west to see Indian culture—which, in reality, was often specially arranged and staged for railroad passengers. The railroad also built a string of hotels and restaurants—Harvey Houses—to facilitate the feeding and watering of its passenger tourists; in Canada, the Canadian Pacific did the same, building imposing chateaus in the mountains—all of which, of course, needing promotion and maps to show where they were.

One special case in which I recently became interested is that of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific, which completed one of the last transcontinental lines, to Puget Sound in 1909. The line, more commonly referred to by its trade name the Milwaukee Road, was unique in that from 1915 it used electric locomotives to haul its passenger expresses over the Rockies and the Cascade, a distance of 657 miles, though in two disconnected sections. Brochures and maps from the 1930s to 1950s, promoting this electrical luxury, show the electrified sections of track. And the art work, shown here, was absolutely stunning. Despite being a pioneering and innovative company in its use of electric power, and cheap hydro power at that, the line suffered from later poor management and in1974 made an inexplicable decision to replace its electric locomotives with diesel—twice as expensive to run and maintain—and went out of business in 1986. The line is now but a public trail in many places.

Railroads developed America, and are a worthwhile subject for any collector of historical memorabilia. Many maps are available for sale, online and elsewhere, but be sure that they are originals, for good reproductions, especially of rarer material, are quite commonly offered for sale to unwary buyers. The variety of offerings allows easy specialization to your own region, or to specific railroads. It is an interesting and inexpensive way to collect an important facet of American history.

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Derek HayesDerek Hayes is the author of a new book titled the Historical Atlas of the American West, which will be published by the University of California Press this fall.