The Railroad Photographs of Alfred A. Hart, Artist

Meade  Kibby 1996  231 page

If you are a faithful reader of the Heirloom or even an infrequent reader, you have seen Alfred A. Hart photographs and stereographs.  They are a marvelous source of mid 19th century Donner Summit and railroad images.

If you like paging through historic photographs then you’ll like this book.  It has hundreds of photographs taken in the 1860’s and 70’s.  Since most are small you’ll also be enticed to look up larger versions in the many online sources (many are listed in the appendix).  Looking at enlarged versions will make detail visible which enhance their historical interest and importance.  Viewed as stereographs in a proper viewer, given the original intended 3d view of the photographs, and you’ll be even happier.

Alfred A. Hart took 364 photographs of the construction of the transcontinental railroad from 1864 to 1869 when the railroad was completed.  Those photographs were then published over and over, many times with other photographers’ names.

Hart was originally a portrait and panorama painter.  In 1857 he turned to photography and by 1863 he was in California in La Porte (now Plumas Co.) plying his new trade.   In 1865 he became the official photographer of the CPRR.  His initial photographs were used as public relations and to help bond sales, which was how the CPRR got paid for miles of track laid.

Many of Hart’s first photographs, and later ones not chosen by the CPRR, were sold by Lawrence and Houseworth.  Most of the negatives were retained by the CPRR which later allowed others to reprint them.  Hence many of Alfred Hart’s scenes have others’ names on them. In particular, Carleton Watkins republished many Hart photos as his own.  The CPRR retained rights to the negatives although they were never copyrighted. In 1906 they were all destroyed in San Francisco.

After working for the CPRR, Hart became an author, inventor, photographic materials supplier, and painter.  In 1872 he was back in California being presented with the gold medal in portraiture at the State Fair.  In 1874 he was in New York selling photographic materials.  In 1880 he was again back in California doing portraits and landscapes, In 1881 he was in New York patenting an invention and working as an artist.  In 1907 he came back to California to Alameda and he died there in 1908 at age 92.  His body was donated to U.C. Berkeley for dissection.

In addition to the photographs the book also has some history of the railroad, two indices of photographs sorted by number and distance from Sacramento, an article about Alfred A. Hart giving some more background, information about cameras and film processing, and some pages from his book, A Traveler’s Own Book.

The Railroad Photographs… is available on the internet.

Be sure to see our Then/Now web pages.  Art Clark has spent a lot of time with A.A. Hart’s photographs, developing many Then & Now’s that morph from the original Hart scenes to the save views today, and back.

Alfred A. Hart the Artist
Unless you are a railroad aficionado or an historian you have probably never heard of A.A. Hart.  He is unknown beside many other 19th century photographers like Muybridge, Brady, or Russell.  He is also unknown beside modern photographic artists too like Ansel Adams.  That’s a shame because Hart’s subjects and eye for composition and detail have left a remarkable body of work.  His contemporaries also valued his photographic work.  He received first prize at the California State Fair in 1869 for the best uncoloured [sic] photograph and it was his photographs, exhibited by Lawrence and Houseworth, that won the bronze medal at the Paris Exhibition of 1867.  This was the first international recognition of Western landscape photography (pg 73 “Alfred Hart: Photographer of the Central Pacific Railroad” by Glenn G. Willumson).