The Transcontinental Railroad: Interpreting Images

by Ron Nash

Objectives

Students will be able to

  • apply the distinction between inferring (inference) and implying (implication).
  • analyze primary source illustrations, including paintings, political cartoons, and promotional posters.

Essential Questions for the Transcontinental Railroad

  • How did notions of “progress” shape Americans’ vision of western settlement?
  • How did railroads shape western economic development?

Materials

  • Missouri Pacific Railway System Map, Rand McNally and Company, Chicago, 1888. Source: kansamemory.org, Kansas State Historical Society (You can access it online here to display it in more detail.)
  • Illustration Packet
    • “Does Not Such a Meeting Make Amends?” Source: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, May 29, 1869 (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZC2-747)
    • “A Good Square American Smile” Source: Source: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 5, 1869 (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-124424)
    • “Work on the Last Mile of the Pacific Railroad—Mingling of European with Asiatic laborers,” sketched by Alfred R. Waud, Harper’s Weekly, May 29, 1869. Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, GLC01733.11.
    • “The Great Link-the Completion of the Pacific Railroad,” Harper’s Weekly, May 29, 1869. Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, GLC01733.11.
  • Painting Packet
    • “American Progress: Westward the Course of Destiny,” original painting by John Gast, lithograph published by George A. Crofutt, 1873. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-668
    • Westward the Star of Empire, painting by Theodore Kaufmann, 1867. Source: From the Collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri-St. Louis
  • Cartoon Packet
    • Cover illustration for The Octopus, by Frank Norris (1901). Source: Special Collections, University of Virginia Library
    • “The Curse of California,” by G. Frederick Keller, The Wasp, August 19, 1882. Source: The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
  • Poster Packet
    • “A Majority of the People,” Union Pacific Railway ad, Omaha, Nebraska. Source: kansasmemory.org, Kansas State Historical Society
    • “California—Cornucopia of the World.” Source: This item is reproduced by permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California
    • “If You Want a Farm or House,” Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad ad. Source: kansasmemory.org, Kansas State Historical Society
    • “Westward the Star of Empire Takes Its Way,” Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad ad. Source: kansasmemory.org, Kansas State Historical Society
  • Guide Chart

Introduction

This lesson provides an opportunity to analyze paintings, illustrations, editorial cartoons, and promotional posters in order to both understand the events related to the development of the railroad in the late nineteenth century and sharpen literacy skills related to the distinction between imply and infer. An essential skill tied to both historical thinking and literacy involves knowing and applying the distinction between inferring (inference) and implying (implication).The terms are often confused. A writer or speaker implies something and conversely a reader or listener infers from something by drawing conclusions that are not explicit. To imply is to put the suggestion into the message (the sender implies).To infer is to take the suggestion out of the message (receiver infers).Thus implication is what the sender has implied and inference is what the receiver has inferred.

The timing of the lesson is one or two 45-minute instructional periods. The lesson is a “drill-down” exercise into primary source documents. Students will have to apply previous knowledge of the events and context of the transportation revolution and western expansion.

Historical Context

Ralph Waldo Emerson commented in his 1844 lecture “The Young Americans” that “railroad iron is a magician’s rod in its power to evoke the sleeping energies of land and water.” He suggested that the railroad had the ability to transform the potential of America into actual greatness.

By 1890 the United States had 164,000 miles of railroad track and the most extensive transportation system in the world. The “magician’s rod” was connected to the development of nationwide markets, had facilitated the growth of the West, and had provided the organizational model for new large-scale industries. Moreover, railroads were intimately tied to the major transformations associated with urbanization, suburbanization, and immigration. Lastly, railroad development had a profound social and cultural impact on diverse groups of people to include laborers, farmers, western settlers, and Native Americans.

Procedure

  1. Engage the students on the concepts of inference (infer) and implication (imply).It is best to start with simple examples such as the meaning of a stop sign or images. You can also have students bring newspaper headlines to class or you can provide headlines using the “Today’s Front Pages” section of the Newseum website to gauge initial student understanding of the concepts (http://www.newseum.org).
  2. Present the class with the 1888 map of the Missouri Pacific Railway System. This will allow students to apply their skills to a visual source. Ask students what they can infer from the map. What does the map imply? (http://www.kansasmemory.org/item/210181/page/1) Call attention to the towns that are adjacent to the railroad. How many towns are not located near the rails? What does this imply? What can you infer from this information?
  3. Break the class into small groups and distribute copies of four illustrations in the Illustration Packet: “Does Not Such a Meeting Make Amends?”; “A Good Square American Smile”; ” Work on the Last Mile of the Pacific Railroad”; and “The Great Link-the Completion of the Pacific Railroad.” Distribute the guide chart concerning imply and infer in order to record their findings.
  4. Reassemble the class and lead a discussion of their responses. Ensure that everyone has demonstrated an understanding of the concepts.
  5. Assign and distribute copies of two paintings in the Painting Packet—John Gast’s American Progress (as a lithograph) and Theodore Kaufmann’s Westward the Star of Empire—for homework. Students will be provided with a guide chart concerning imply and infer in order to record their findings.
  6. Start the second day with a debrief of the homework assignment. Next present the class with two political cartoons in the Cartoon Packet that relate to railroads through the metaphor of an octopus (cover illustration for the Frank Norris novel The Octopus and a political cartoon from The Wasp entitled “The Curse of California”).This part of the exercise might be best accomplished as a direct teaching exercise framed around the following questions:
    • Are the images positive or negative? Why or why not?
    • Who is grasped in each of the tentacles?
    • What words are inscribed around the frame of the cartoon?
    • Do the images imply a message?
    • What do you infer from the images?
  7. Have the students reassemble into the small groups from the previous day. They will work with four promotional posters in the Poster Packet that were developed by nineteenth-century railroads: “A Majority of the People”; “California—Cornucopia of the World”; “If You Want a Farm or House”; and “Westward the Star of Empire Takes Its Way.” Ask students to discuss whether the posters imply a message. What do you infer from the images? The answers to these questions can be provided in a written essay or through classroom discussion.
  8. Have the students choose one of the essential questions and write a response paragraph that specifically cites evidence from the illustrations, cartoons, paintings, and promotional posters.
    • How did notions of “progress” shape Americans’ vision of western settlement?
    • How did railroads shape western economic development?

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