From where we stand today, it’s hard to understand how prominent railroads used to be in the public imagination. But starting in the 1820s and for at least a century thereafter, railroads both enabled and symbolized a multitude of transformations in American society. Those changes were wrought in politics, business, labor, and leisure, and they were felt everywhere from major cities to the smallest of towns.
For anyone interested in this sliver of the past, the Arizona Historical Society is a great place to start. I discovered this myself during my recent stint as an intern at AHS Tucson, adding items to the Railways of Arizona Digital Collection. Funded by the Union Pacific Foundation and begun in 2021, the collection of digitized images, documents, and audio recordings provides an online gateway to the multifaceted influence of railroads in Arizona.
Railroads were a fixture of American life well before they arrived in Arizona, but in the 1880s, two main lines were built across the territory: a southern route operated by the Southern Pacific and a northern route run by the Atlantic & Pacific (which was eventually taken over by its better-known parent company, the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe). While these railroads were originally just a means of connecting California and the East, they quickly impacted Arizona as well, facilitating the rapid movement of people and resources in and out of what eventually became the 48th state.
The railroad material in AHS collections covers an array of experiences from this era and beyond. For instance, there are many collections from early photography enthusiasts who documented their everyday surroundings and the places they traveled. Particularly in collections from the early decades of the twentieth century, it seems like every set of pictures from a trip includes at least one of the destination’s train depot. In addition, several collections feature photographs by people who worked for the Southern Pacific. Some have a slice of life quality, depicting office spaces or work on the rails and trains themselves. One I found especially interesting (above) was car inspector Robert Kealy’s 1911 photo of his wife Annie outside of the boxcar where they lived in Cochise. Other photos were striking simply on an aesthetic level, like the image below of a Santa Fe steam engine hurtling through a winter landscape, taken in 1937 by Arizona Highway Department engineer (and former Southern Pacific surveyor) Norman G. Wallace.
AHS collections also include personal papers and a wide variety of print ephemera. These items present a wealth of information on railroad companies and employees, but they are a treasure trove for fans of graphic design as well. The 1940s promotional brochure for the Arizona Limited route at the top of this post exemplifies the artistic work that can be found across the archives in media such as maps, stationery, and advertisements.
Finally, I was often astounded by the details and anecdotes shared by interviewees in AHS’s two railroad-focused oral history collections. These audio recordings, which are also available as print transcripts, were created from 1984-1985 and 2006-2007. They feature many former employees of Arizona railroads relating information about workplace culture, safety precautions, and on-the-job incidents like encounters with hobos and spills of unusual cargo. Many interviews, too, are filled with details about the area near Southern Pacific’s downtown Tucson station through the middle of the twentieth century.
Like railroads themselves, the Railways of Arizona Digital Collection can lead to a lot of interesting places. Hop onboard to have a look—and if there’s something that makes you want to explore the original materials, we invite you to make an appointment to visit in person!
Lane Van Ham, Archival Intern
Lane is pursuing a Masters Degree in Library and Information Science at the University of Arizona. He worked as an intern in the archives at the Arizona History Museum during the Spring of 2023. Visit the Library and Archives page to learn more about our collections or schedule an appointment to visit in person.