Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

It is perfectly safe in saying the amateur, and even the professional, will have much to learn from the results of this photo­graphic expedition, fitted out some months ago by the Pennsylvania Railroad with as much care and almost the expense of an Arctic one, and which is still in the field of exploration, daily sending in remarkable illustrations of choice picture finds and showing that which the regular traveler flying by on a fast express cannot see­ – some daring feats of engineering in bridge building, skillful cuts, road construction and road beds, with their even, solid stone ballast looking like a floor, while views of surpassing artistic beauty make the entranced looker-on want to capture the entire collection and create a private gallery of his own.

So wrote Philadelphia photographer William Herman Rau (1855-1920) from the field in September 1891, a few months after he had begun the enormous task of photographi­cally documenting the routes of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Rau’s photographs – for the most part large-format eighteen by twenty-two inch albumen prints, but some even larger panoramas measuring eighteen by forty-seven and a half inches – depicted sites in the states of the mid-Atlantic and the Midwest where the Pennsylvania Railroad and its affiliated lines operated. Rau’s prodigious effort resulted in the creation of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of negatives, none of which is known to have survived to this day. However, six albums containing more than six hundred and fifty prints are only now coming to public notice after more than a century. These shinning photographs, which open a window onto turn-of-the-century Pennsylvania, are owned by American Premier Underwriters, Inc., successor to the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, and are on deposit at the Library Company of Philadelphia. And now the questions only begin.

Just who was William H. Rau? What lay behind this historic commission? How did he accomplish such a seemingly Herculean feat?

William H. Rau was born in Philadelphia to German immi­grant parents. He grew up in a home in which an older brother, George, had opened a photography studio. His career began when, at age thirteen, he became an assistant to William Bell, an experienced professional photographer (and his future father-in-law). It was Bell who in 1874 recommended that Rau join a photographic expedition to Chatham Island, off New Zealand, dispatched to document the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. Poor weather prevented the team from successfully pho­tographing the event, but Rau nonetheless acquired some valuable experience in expedition photography, and before he reached his twenty-first birthday he had circumnavigated the globe.

Upon returning to Philadelphia, Rau pursued photography . 111 earnest, working first for the Centennial Photographic Company, then in a succession of business relationships with others and, finally, on his own beginning in 1887. By 1891, the year the Pennsylvania Railroad appointed him its official photographer, Rau had traveled the world taking photographs in the American West, Egypt, Arabia, Palestine, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, England, the Netherlands, and Mexico, and had established himself as one of Philadelphia’s preeminent photog­raphers with a reputation for both his commercial and his artistic photography. After the Pennsylvania Railroad commissions of the early 1890s, Rau’s reputation grew greater still, and he served as the official photographer of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, and the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon.

Rau was not the first photographer to survey a railroad’s lines. Indeed, he was not even the first photographer to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad. He had predecessors, both foreign and domestic, and was working within a tradition more than thirty years old when he undertook the Pennsylvania Railroad assignment.

The Pennsylvania Railroad was not yet fifty years old when officials com.missioned Rau to begin his survey. The railroad had been incorporated by an act of the state legislature on April 13, 1846, with a capitalization of ten million dollars. Its purpose was to build a road from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh that would secure for Pennsylvania the western trade which was being diverted to New York by the recently completed Erie Canal. By December 1852, the first train had traversed the entire distance from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh over a combination of the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad, and Allegheny Portage Railroad. in July 1858, the first Pennsylvania Railroad train made the trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh entirely over its own tracks. By the time Rau had begun his work, the Pennsylvania Railroad network owned or controlled more than twenty-five hundred miles of track east of Pittsburgh. The railroad was the largest corporation in America and had no equal in the carriage of freight.

The catalyst for Rau’s commission was the forthcoming World’s Columbian Exposition, which opened in Chicago in May 1893. The Pennsylvania Railroad had its own building, at which hundreds of exhibits – both inside and out – showcased rail cars, models, maps, charts, switches, signals, documents, and artifacts. The company wanted to include Rau’s work in its exhibition, and so it sent him out, beginning in 1891, to create a pictorial record of its routes.

The Pennsylvania Railroad’s motive in hiring Rau to docu­ment its routes is not difficult to fathom. Rau himself revealed much of the reason when he explained that he had been commissioned by Francis Nelson Barksdale, who was in charge of the company’s advertising department. Advertising photog­raphy was a relatively new concept before the opening of the twentieth century, but for the Pennsy it offered one means of increasing passenger traffic, of enticing sedentary Americans (and Europeans as well) to take to the rails for leisure travel. Rau’s photographs were intended to show prospective travelers what marvelous and unusual sights awaited them if they would only embark for points west. Rau later waxed eloquent when he wrote that his series constituted “the most striking and beautiful views to be had on the lines of the Pennsylvania Railroad in this state, the subjects being specially selected because of their picturesque quality and interest. Taken as a whole they form the most complete and thorough survey of the railroad scenery of the State that has ever been attempted. Pennsylvania comprises within its borders a greater variety of wild and picturesque scenery than almost any other State of the Union,” he continued, “and these negatives form an invaluable series, both for their art value and their scientific interest.”

The Pennsylvania Railroad, with its vast network of track and its vast store of rolling stock, sought to capitalize on such fixed assets by creating an entirely new kind of customer: the leisure traveler. Because the railroad sought to promote tourism and the increased use of the rails by paying passengers, the images display a harmony between the railroad and the natural and industrial landscape through which it passed. Rau made striking views not just of rail cars, tracks, and stations, but also of cities and towns, bridges, ferryboats, rivers, islands, canals, tunnels, piers, industrial regions, residences, hotels, and inns along the line, in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Maryland.

The significance of the Pennsylvania Railroad collection owes much to the large size of the photographs; roost were made with a “mammoth plate” camera that produced glass negatives measuring about eighteen by twenty-two inches, from which Rau made prints by direct contact and exposure rather than enlargement. This technique produced photographs of remarkable richness, depth, and detail.

In articles for the popular and technical press, Rau described the specially designed and equipped “photographic car” with which he was provided and described his working method.

To all appearance from the outside, car 1382, save an elevated platform on the top and the name, “Photographic Car, Pennsylvania Railroad,” is identical with the regulation coach. This elevation is half a foot high and covers an area of some six feet square; it is especially constructed for supporting the instruments and cameras, where a commanding view is desired, at points where n foot or tripod hold could not be found on the mountain’s steep side. In length, the car interior is 46 feet, in width 8 feet and from floor to ceiling in height about 10 feet. It is fitted with steam heating apparatus which is not a bit amiss in the mountains and air-brake appliances, with a precautionary measure taken, by having brake operated only from the interior of the car, whereby the deep laid design of tramp and small boy is often thwarted and a possible wreck prevented when the car stands alone on a heavy grade.

The forward part of the car for some 20 feet is furnished and decorated, with the exclusive end in view of promoting the comfortable living of the operator and his assistant, furnished as it is with comfort­able parlor car chairs and a commodious desk, well lighted. The walls are adorned with road schedules and maps, framed photographs and rare prints …. Two modern folding plush sofa berths extend their tempting softness to the men after a hard day’s mental and physical work, and add a decidedly finished appearance when made up into sofa seats during the day. In case of necessity, should a stop be compelled over night at a way station, a supply of cots can be brought into requisition for use of conductor, engineer and crew, but this is not likely to happen any more than a call for the use of the cooking stove and utensils, for the car is a “personally conducted” one and, running on the schedule of a special train, manages to stop over night where the hotels have a table record.

The dark room is in the centre of the car, running for a distance of 12 feet in length and 5 feet in width, equipped with ruby and orange windows, negative racks and all developing facilities, together with a tank holding a 300-gallon water supply. The system of perfect ventilation, without allowing light to penetrate the dark walls and ceiling of this jet black apartment, is accomplished by a four-inch opening where the side wall meets the floor and built out from this is a false side running to the roof and angled to an opening in the car, thus allowing a free passage of air, but not a ray of light. In this room may be seen the most complete batteries of lenses in active use in this country. …

Every precaution is taken far the careful transport of the very valuable plates, and the rear portion of the car is devoted to the trunks only and padded for carrying the immense store – of 300 – 18 x 22 and 30 panoramas.

Students and scholars of Pennsylvania history are, indeed, fortunate that after one hundred years the engaging views of the Keystone State that William H. Rau created with such consummate artistry and skill can still be fully enjoyed and savored. His long-hidden work deserves to be brought to the attention of individuals with a great range of interests – those concerned with the tradition of American landscape painting and photography; with the history of technology, industry, and transportation; with the cultural geography of the Commonwealth and the mid-Atlantic region; and with local history and the documentation of the American scene at the turn of the century. And, of course, Rau’s work will capture the imagination of legions of railroad history aficionados. For all these reasons, Pennsylvanians can enthusiastically join with William H. Rau as he traverses and photographs “the greatest highway to the West.”


To observe the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Pennsylvania Railroad the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania will conduct the Pennsylvania Railroad Sesquicentennial Symposium from Friday through Sunday, October 11-13 [1996], at the Historic Strasburg Inn. Speakers and panelists will discuss the company’s impact on both the Commonwealth and the country.


The Pennsylvania State Archives at Harrisburg safeguards more than three hundred and fifty thousand photographs, including original images by William H. Rau. The holdings feature at least eighty photographs made by Rau shortly after the completion of the State Capitol, probably in fall 1906. Individuals and institutions interested in learning more about such photographs should consult the award-winning Guide to Photographs at the Pennsylvania State Archives (1993) by Linda A. Ries.


For Further Reading

Archer, Robert F. A History of the Lehigh Valley Railroad: “The Route of the Black Diamond.” Berkeley, Calif.: Howell­0North Books, 1978.

Burgess, George H., and Miles C. Kennedy. Centennial History of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Railroad Corporation, 1949.

Gernsheim, Helmut. A Concise History of Photography. New York: Dover Publications, 1986.

Finn, David. How to Look at Photographs: Reflections on the Art of Seeing. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1994.

Jacobs, Timothy. The History of the Pennsylvania Railroad. New York: Bonanza Books, 1988.

Lemagny, Jean-Claude, and Andre Rouille. A History of Photography: Social and Cultural Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Stilgoe, John R. Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.

Swetnam, George. Pennsylvania Transportation. Gettysburg: Pennsylvania Historical Association, 1964.

Welling, William. Photography in America: The Formative Years, 1839-1900. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1978.

Withuhn, William L. Rails Across America: A History of Railroads in North America. London: Salamander, 1993.


The author is grateful to American Premier Underwriters, Inc., which owns the William H. Rau Pennsylvania Railroad Collection, to the Altoona Area Public Library for permission to publish the images which illustrate this article, and to James J.D. Lynch, Jr., an officer of the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society, who provided much of the information for captions.


The editor wishes to thank Matthew J. Kane, director of the Altoona Area Public Library, for his encouragement and support of the publication of the images by William H. Rau which accompany this article.


John C. Van Horne, a resident of Wynnewood, is librarian of the Library Company of Philadelphia. A graduate of Princeton University, he received his doctorate in early American history from the University of Virginia. Before becoming director of the Library Company in 1985, he was editor of The Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe and author of “Benjamin Henry Latrobe: The Artist as Commentator,” which appeared in the spring 1986 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage. He is currently editing a volume of William H. Rau’s photographs of the Pennsylvania Railroad and accompanying essays by several scholars.