Thursday, June 22, 2017

Trains Settle the West

The theme of the 2017 Willa Cather Conference, held recently in Red Cloud, Nebraska, was "Picturing the American West, The Railroad and Popular Imagination."  Linked with the subject of railroads were the Opera Houses that were built in prairie towns served by railroad lines.  Not only did visitors coming to see performances in the Opera Houses sometimes arrive by train, more importantly, the trains allowed performers to travel from town to town, easily transporting their costumes and scenery. 

The image at left is from the County Capital in St. John to which Isaac Werner subscribed.  You will notice that the advertisement is dated June 4, 1890, but the railroad had arrived in St. John earlier than that date.

Sharing his stories about abandoned rail lines was James Reisdorff, who spoke to us from the Burlington Depot on the southern edge of Red Cloud.  His program was titled "Pulling Up Stakes:  When Trains Leave Town," and he shared the impact on towns that lose their railroads.  He also described how others like himself go in search of abandoned sites, some still having evidence of the old rails while others are discernible only from the elevated grade.

James Reisdorff at the Red Cloud Depot

The last morning of the conference a panel of Dr. Ann Tschetter, Dr. Elissa Sartwell, city planner and author Ann Satterthwaite, and Dr. Mark Facknitz discussed 'Railroads:  Myth & Metaphor.'  Dr. Sartwell addressed the tragic mistreatment of Chinese workers laying the transcontinental lines, using references from plays performed in the Opera Houses and cartoons belittling the Chinese to illustrate the era.  Particularly illuminating was the work of Dr. Facknitz, pointing out the significance of the railroad in Cather's writings.  I do hope their papers are published so that I can study them further.

Dining one evening at the Red Cloud Depot
A special treat was the performance of The Red Cloud Cannonball, a vaudeville-inspired performance of classic railroad tunes and humor.  Seated in the Red Cloud Opera House Auditorium, we felt as if we were experiencing exactly the sort of show Willa Cather might have seen.

For Isaac Werner and his contemporaries in Kansas, the railroads represented a love-hate relationship.  On the one hand, populists blamed the railroads for the unfair shipping costs charged struggling farmers to ship produce to the East, compounded by the distrust and resentment felt for the wealthy and powerful exerting unfair political influence concerning railroad regulation.  On the other hand, they sought railroad lines near their communities for transportation and shipping, and they desired the prestige of being a local director for the advancing railroads.  Isaac wrote in his journal about the stimulus to growth of the small prairie towns when the railroad arrived. 

I will never again take for granted the role of the railroad when I read a Willa Cather novel or short story, and I will reflect more closely on the role of the railroad in my manuscript about Isaac and the Populist Movement.   

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