Dawn Of The Railroad

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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. Matthew took a certain personal pride in that change: fifty-odd years before, when there were just just ninety-five miles of track in the country, he had helped build the De Witt Clinton and had taken that renowned locomotive on her first run between Albany and Schenectady.

Matthew stayed with the railroads while they grew from promising infancy to prosperous adolescence. By 1833 he was master machinist with the Mohawk and Hudson, and in 1836 he signed on with the Utica and Schenectady. Six years later he abandoned his trains to manage an iron foundry, but he never did get railroading out of his system, and in the 1880s he set about making a record of what it had been like to be there at the creation.

Working with pen and ink and watercolor, he summoned up the landscape of his youth and populated it with all the early machinery he remembered. Matthew was not a highly literate man—he described himself on one of his scenes as “the drawer of this Picter”—but his engineer’s memory for mechanical detail was clear and fresh; and the four wonderfully crowded and ingenuous drawings that appear on the following pages really do provide a good picture of the seedtime of America’s mightiest industry.

—R.F.S.