Capturing The Transcontinental Landscape

Posted by Justin Franz
on Thursday, August 23, 2018

Abandoned Central Pacific Railroad roadbed crossing Nevada’s Forty-Mile Desert, as seen from south edge of Interstate 80. Photograph by Richard Koenig
The sesquicentennial of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad is just nine months away. For those of us born deep into the diesel era, the celebration of the golden spike anniversary will be the biggest railroad-related celebration in our lifetime and, if everything goes to plan, one big 4-8-8-4 steam locomotive will be the star attraction.

But when Richard Koenig thinks about the Transcontinental Railroad, something much bigger than a single locomotive comes to mind. Koenig, the Genevieve U. Gilmore Professor in Art at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, has spent the last few years capturing the massive landscape that the first Transcontinental Railroad conquered a century and a half ago. Photographing both operating and abandoned sections of the railroad, Koenig seeks to capture the one thing that hasn’t changed since rails first arrived in the American west.

Now he is presenting his fascinating collection of images — simply titled Contemporary Views Along the Transcontinental Railroad — at the Center for Railroad Photography and Art’s first ever conference on the west coast, dubbed Conversations West at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento on Sept. 22. Both the presentation and the conference are a kick-off of sorts for CRPA’s upcoming project After Promontory: 150 Years of Transcontinental Railroading, which will include a book and a traveling exhibit that focuses on the first cross-country railroad and the ones that followed.

Koenig has always had an interest in trains and spent a fair amount of his youth pursuing railroad photography, but it took a backseat to his career and other obligations as he got older. In 2010, he started looking for a long-term photo project and came back to railroading. “I still had an interest in railroading, I just hadn’t acted on that interest in a long time,” he said. Photographing the original route of the Transcontinental Railroad allowed Koenig the opportunity to combine his interest in landscape photography and railroads. In the last eight years, Koenig has made about a dozen trips west and gathered hundreds of images.

Koenig said his favorite images are the ones taken where the railroad has been abandoned and moved. While a rock cut or the right-of-way may remain, some scenes look as they did in the 1860s. “I really hope that these images conjures in the mind of the viewer the laborers who were there building the railroad,” he said. “I love being able to picture the landscape (as they saw it), the men who built the original railroad by hand.”

For so many, railroads are about locomotives and cars and other pieces of big moving equipment. But Koenig’s stark yet beautiful images remind us that the story of railroading is so much more than that. It’s about people and landscapes.

For more information about Conversations West 2018 and After Promontory, visit  

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