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[Detail] U.S.S. Alert. Photographer - W H Jackson, 1901 or 1902

Historical Comprehension: Nature and Industry in the United States

Artists such as William Henry Jackson joined expeditions to the western frontier and returned with beautiful and inspiring images. These efforts to document the nation's natural landscape often generated initiatives to both preserve it and to see it in person. The collection's Subject Index reflects a nation in transition, as photographers documented both the natural landscape and the industrial development that altered it. These images can be used in conjunction with other American Memory collections such as Railroad Maps: 1828-1900 and The Evolution of the Conservation Movement to examine the relationship between environmentalism and industrial growth.

Steam engines driving the late-eighteenth century Industrial Revolution propelled new forms of mass transportation in the nineteenth century. Locomotives were ideal for traveling across the dry and mountainous terrains stretching from the middle of the continent to the Pacific Ocean. Federal funding and land grants fueled the railroad industry, resulting in more than 200,000 miles of tracks, including five transcontinental routes, by the end of the century. A search on the term railroad produces over 1,000 images of locomotives, tracks, stations, tunnels, and bridges in a variety of environments across the U.S.

Meanwhile, searches on terms such as forest and park yield images of the natural world both in isolation and impacted by civilization.

  • What do you think was the environmental impact of the railroad industry?
  • In March 1872, over two million acres in Yellowstone became the world's first national park for "the benefit and enjoyment of the people." What do you think is the value of creating a national park?
  • Why do you think that people visit national parks?
  • Railroad lines and automobiles reached Yellowstone in the early-twentieth century and increased park attendance. Do you think that the arrival of locomotives and automobiles altered the potential "benefit and enjoyment" of the park?
  • Do you think that it is possible to maintain a balance between the demands of conservation and business? Preservation and tourism?