A Century of Cable Cars

Magnificently impractical and obsolete almost as soon as they were built, the cable lines briefly dominated urban transportation throughout the country

Beloved of San Franciscans for more than a century now, the sturdy cable cars cling tenaciously to the hills of their birth. They are fiercely protected as one of the crown jewels of Bay Area tourism—a columnist in the Chronicle once went so far as to say that, without them, San Francisco would only be a lumpy Los Angeles—but they are a good deal more than that. Read more »

Chicago Transit

During the 1920s the city spurred local rail traffic with an unparalleled run of superb and stylish posters

Surprisingly little is known about the posters shown on these pages. Springing up practically overnight in the mid-1920s, they bloomed for a short while, four or five years at most, and then their season, was over. Who was behind them and the reason for their demise is mostly a matter of conjecture. But one thing is certain: they rank with the best commercial art ever produced in this country, distinguished by their simple, vigorous shapes, subtle colors, and bold typography.Read more »

Dawn Of The Railroad

A pioneer locomotive builder used pen and ink, watercolor, and near-total recall to re-create the birth of a titanic enterprise

TOWARD THE END of his life, in the 1880s, David Matthew could go across the bay from his San Francisco home and see the long transcontinental trains rolling into Oakland. Behind them to the east lay more than a hundred and fifty thousand miles of track and a nation that had, in the past half-century, been entirely transformed by the railroads.Read more »

The Suburbs

Today more Americans live in them than in city and country combined. How did we get there?

ABOUT SUBURBS, ONLY COMMUTERS know for sure. For single-family houses, lawns, off-street parking, and gardens they endure harrowing round trips by train, bus, and automobile, certain that life in the suburbs amply repays the time and money lost in transit. And they endure the smug jibes of residents of city and country, jibes as old as commuting.Read more »

Mr. Harriman Requests The Pleasure Of Your Company

Was it science, sport, or the prospect of a round-the-world railroad that sent the tycoon off on his costly Alaskan excursion?

The railroad tycoon Edward Harriman was a man of large vision and mysterious ways. When, on a day in March of 1899, he strode into the Washington office of Dr. C. Hart Merriam, chief of the U.S. Biological Survey, and proposed sponsoring a grand scientific exploring expedition to Alaska, Merriam thought he was just another lunatic. He put his strange visitor off until the next day while he checked him out. To his surprise Merriam found the man to be exactly what he said he was—president of the Union Pacific Railroad.Read more »

Merci, America

How a Whole Nation Said Thank You

They arrived in America chocked and chained, deep in the hold of a French merchant ship early in February of 1949. During two wars they had served France as dual-purpose railroad boxcars hauling the military cargoes stenciled on their sides: “ Hommes 40—Chevaux 8 .” But now the cars held neither men nor horses. All had been repaired, freshly painted, and decorated with plaques bearing the coats of arms of the forty provinces of France.Read more »


The John Bull Steams Again

In early September of 1831, Isaac Dripps, master mechanic of the nascent Camden and I Amboy Railroad, stood staring at a miscellaneous assortment of bolts, levers, and pipes I that he was expected to assemble into a working locomotive. The engine had been ordered by the New Jersey line from Robert Stephenson of Newcastle, England, then the world’s leading locomotive builder, who had shipped it across the Atlantic in parts, accompanied by nothing much in the way of instructions.Read more »

The Transcontinental Railroad

What it was like for the first travelers

I see over my own continent the Pacific railroad surmounting every barrier, I see continual trains of cars winding along the Platte carrying freight and passengers, I hear the locomotives rushing and roaring, and the shrill steamwhistle, I hear the echoes reverberate through the grandest scenery in the world… BridginRead more »

The Great Locomotive Chase

It was called “the most extraordinary and astounding adventure of the Civil War”

On the pleasant Sunday evening of April 6, 1862, the men of Company H, 33rd Ohio Infantry, were relaxing around their campfires near Shelbyville, Tennessee, admiring the Southern springtime and trading the latest army rumors. They were joined by the company commander, Lieutenant A. L. Waddle, who announced that he wanted a volunteer for a secret and highly important expedition behind Confederate lines.Read more »

Steam Road To El Dorado

Mile for mile, it cost more in dollars—and lives—than any railroad ever built

It was not long after the completion of the Panama Railroad in 1855 that Bedford Clapperton Pirn declared with perfect composure that of all the world’s wonders none could surpass this one as a demonstration of man’s capacity to do great things against impossible odds. Read more »