Group on cowcatcher of train, 1858, Artists’ Excursion Over the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Photograph Collection, PP262.36, MdHS.
On June 1, 1858 a motley group of artists, poets, journalists, business and railroad men, and photographers boarded a Baltimore and Ohio Railroad train at the Camden Street Station in South Baltimore bound for Wheeling, Virginia (today West Virginia). Their five day trip, across central and western Maryland and Virginia, was a unique event in the brief 30 year history of the steam locomotive in the United States—the “first known instance of a railroad using art to publicize itself.”(1)
The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was established in 1828 by a group of Baltimore businessmen with the vision of connecting Baltimore with the Ohio River through the rugged terrain of the Allegheny Mountains. Although it took nearly a quarter century to accomplish, on Christmas Eve, 1852, the last railroad spike was driven just outside Wheeling on the banks of the Ohio River, with service beginning the following January.
Competition was fierce among the the various new transportation routes that emerged in the first half of the 19th century. The Pennsylvania Railroad Company, in fact, had beaten the B&O to the Ohio River when it connected its line from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in early December 1852. In 1858, in an effort to gain publicity and attract tourists, William Prescott Smith—master of transportation for the B & O—had a novel idea. He invited artists, journalists, and practitioners of the relatively new field of photography to document and promote the virtues of the “pioneer of the American railway system” through a five day, round trip journey on the B & O’s Baltimore-Wheeling line. (2)
The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1853.
(click to enlarge)
On May 31, the travelers—hailing from Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and elsewhere—gathered at the Gilmore House at 108 North Calvert Street for an inaugural dinner. When the contingent departed Baltimore the next morning amid drenching rains there were some 50 members consisting of “a number of distinguished artists and literati.” Aboard the train were some of the major figures of the mid-19th century Hudson River School art movement, known for romanticized landscape paintings: Asher Durand, Louis Mignot, John Frederick Kensett, and James A. Suydam. Joined by poet and lyricist William Whiteman Fosdick, New York Times founder Henry Jarvis Raymond, five photographers, and other assorted excursionists, the assembled group was “to travel at their leisure, stopping at all the prominent points of interest long enough to examine the most notable productions of human science and labor; to enjoy the magnificent natural scenery for which the line is so famous; and, if so disposed, to exercise their talents.”(3)
David Hunter Strother’s drawings presented a highly romanticized view of the railroad. Some of the sketches were based on images taken by the accompanying photographers on the trip.
Artist’s Excusion over the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Porte Crayon (David Hunter Strother), Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1859.
Also along for the trip was David Hunter Strother (1816-1888), a Virginia magazine illustrator and writer. Known by his pseudonym, Porte Crayon (French for pencil or crayon carrier), Strother was commissioned by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine to document the trip. His account of the excursion, accompanied by his sketches, appeared in the June 1859 issue of the magazine.
The expedition made its way quickly through central Maryland, stopping at Washington Junction and admiring the “picturesque valley of the Patapsco to Ellicott’s shrouded in mist.” At Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, the sun finally broke through and the passengers were given four hours to stroll through the popular vacation spot and site of the National Armory. Between the wild and rugged landscape of Western Maryland and Virginia, the expedition made stops in Cumberland and the towns of Grafton, Piedmont, and Martinsburg in Virginia. The group also enjoyed a lengthy stay at Berkeley Springs, where the “sedative qualities” of the mineral springs provided the travelers with a “night of profound repose.” Along the journey, the train made frequent stops allowing the artists and photographers to set up their easels and equipment and draw, paint and photograph the surroundings.
After four days of leisurely travel, entertainment, and artistic renderings the train pulled into Wheeling on the afternoon of June 4. At the station they were welcomed by Wheeling’s Mayor, James Tanner, and after enjoying a magnificent feast and many rounds of drinks, the group departed for Baltimore at 11:00 that evening. Whereas the first leg of the trip was completed at an unhurried pace over four days , the travelers made the 379-mile return trip in 16 hours, arriving back at the Camden Street station without an “incident, jolt, or the slightest discomfort.”(4)
Within a few years of this cooperative effort between artist and industry, artists, photographers, and journalists would be boarding steam locomotives on far different excursions, training their pencils, and aiming their lenses at the death and destruction of the Civil War. Idealized visions of sweeping landscapes cut by the wood and steel of railroad lines were soon replaced by stark images that portrayed the grim brutality of the nation’s bloodiest conflict. (Damon Talbot)
Captions for the photographs below are taken from David Hunter Strother’s account of the excursion on the B&O that appeared in the June, 1859 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.
“At starting our party numbered about fifty souls, collected from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, besides several individuals from the country. All branches of the liberal arts were handsomely represented, and we will wager that it has never fallen to the lot of any other locomotive to draw so rich a freight of varied talent and accomplishment.”
Group portrait. Glover’s Gap, 1858, Artists’ Excursion Over the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Photograph Collection, PP262.13, MdHS.
“Before we start we must describe the magnificent train prepared for their accommodation. It was composed of six cars, drawn by engine No. 232—a miracle of power, speed, and beauty, and much such an animal as Job had in his eye when he described Leviathan. The forward compartment of car No. 1 was fitted up for the convenience of the photographers, and occupied by several skillful and zealous amateurs of that wonderful and charming art…Adjoining was the baggage and provision room, where heaps of square willow baskets gave promise of good cheer. Next came the dining-saloon, with a table running the whole length of the car; then the parlor, furnished with springy sofas and a handsome piano-forte. Following this were two cars with tables and desks for writing and drawing, also containing comfortable sleeping apartments. The last was the smoking-room, whose windows and rear platform afforded the best opportunity for seeing the country.”
Railroad Train on Bollman Bridge. 1858, Artists’ Excursion Over the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Photograph Collection, PP262.02, MdHS.
“The morning of the 1st of June dawned most unpropitiously; the heavens were covered with damp, spongy clouds, that squeezed out drenching showers whenever they happened to jostle. But in spite of these unpromising appearances the excursionists were at the Camden Street depot at the appointed hour…At the Washington Junction the pretty landscape was completely befogged. The picturesque valley of the Patapsco to Ellicott’s shrouded in mist. As they progressed the external world of gray shadows was left to take care of itself, and the tourists were richly remunerated by the opportunity thus afforded of developing their internal resources. There was music, vocal and instrumental; there was wit, Champagne, and deviled crabs; there was humor, broad and jovial; conversation genial and intelligent.”
Railroad train at Relay, Maryland, 1858, Artists’ Excursion Over the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Photograph Collection, PP262.06, MdHS.
“At Harper’s Ferry the excursionists were informed that they would have four hours at their disposal; and thereupon, with commendable alacrity, they set about the business of sight-seeing, each taking the road that chance or preference suggested. Some climbed the steep and winding path that led to Jefferson’s Rock—a point of view made famous by the pen of the sage of Monticello; some visited the work-shops of the National Armory, where our weapons of war and glory are manufactured by thousands and hundreds of thousands; some strolled quietly along the river’s brink, preferring the contemplation of scenes less extended but more picturesque than those visible from the hill-tops. For our part-having been familiar with this romantic spot from boyhood—we went to sleep.”
United States Armory and Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), Artists’ Excursion over the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Photograph Collection, PP262.12, MdHS.
“At New Creek we laid by for the Western passenger train, which, in passing, left a brilliant addition to the artistic and literary material of the excursion in the persons of several guests from Cincinnati. A little after mid-day we arrived at Cumberland…The town of Cumberland is situated in a romantic basin, surrounded by lofty and picturesque mountains. It has been more fortunate than most of our American towns in its architectural embellishments, which seem to have been designed for their places, and, instead of marring, add to the effect of the surrounding scenery. Considering its position and circumstances, the Gothic chapel is one of the prettiest bits of architecture in the country.”
Railroad train No. 232 at Cumberland. Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, 1858, Artists’ Excursion Over the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Photograph Collection, PP262.05, MdHS.
“As the train commenced ascending the mountain a number of the excursionists, including the ladies, took their seats on the front of the engine and cow-catcher, for the purpose of obtaining a better view of the grand scenes which were opening before and around them. Such was the confidence felt in the steadiness and docility of the mighty steed that the gentlemen considered it a privilege to get a place; while their gentler companions reclined upon his iron shoulders and patted his brazen ribs as though he were a pet pony.”
Group on cowcatcher of train, beyond Piedmont, 1858, Artists’ Excursion Over the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Photograph Collection, PP262.15, MdHS.
“Resuming our westward course, with a number of ups and downs, over rivers and under mountains, passing the Kingwood Tunnel, four thousand one hundred feet in length, we arrived at Grafton a little before sunset. Immediately on landing, a small party of the excursionists, a dozen or fifteen in number, composed of the ladies and their immediate attendants, embarked on a miniature steamer for an episodical pleasure trip on the Tygart’s Valley River…At intervals several well-trained voices discoursed harmonious music in accordance with the spirit of the scene, that nothing might be wanting to complete the enchantment of the fairy voyage. Three consecutive days of activity and excitement had fatigued even the elephant; and after a short but brilliant musical entertainment in their own parlor, the excursionists went to bed.”
Landscape: West Grafton, Virginia (West Virginia), 1858, Artists’ Excursion Over the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Photograph Collection, PP262.08, MdHS.
“Write, paint, sketch, and chisel that when ten, and thrice ten, hundred years are gone, and our fires shall be quenched, our iron bodies heaps of rust, the noble archways that have borne us over rivers and mountain gorges shall have crumbled into ruin, the stranger (perhaps a winged tourist from some other sphere), finding a mossy stone carved with the letters B. & 0. R. R., may know that they stand for ‘Baltimore and Ohio Railroad,’ the grandest and most renowned work of its age!”
Finksburg Truss Bridge, Virginia(now West Virginia), Bridge over the Monongahala River, 1858, Artists’ Excursion over the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Photograph Collection, PP262.09, MdHS.
Sources and further reading:
Bell, Joseph Snowden, The early motive power of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (Angus Sinclair Company, 1912)
(1) Kirby, Lynn, Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema (Duke University Press, 1997) p. 21.
Local Matters, The Baltimore Sun, June 7, 1858.
(2)(3)(4) Strother, David Hunter (Porte Crayon), “Artists’ Excursion over the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1859.
Theriault, William D. “The Artists’ Excursion.” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 10 December 2010.
Thomas, William G. and Leslie Working, “The Civil War’s ‘Brother’s Artists’,” Opinionator, New York Times.com, November 17, 2012.