Saturday, July 5, 2008

Washington State History Museum

Washington State History Museum - Railroad Exhibit 

We headed to Tacoma to have dinner with some friends and decided to first visit the Washington State History Museum. It is located near the Museum of Glass and the Tacoma Art Museum with plenty of ways to get there (bike, bus, street car, car), parking, and places to eat in the neighborhood. We spent almost all of our time at a temporary exhibition called The West the Railroads Made open from April 12, 2008 to January 24, 2009.

One aspect of the exhibit that was of interest to us is how the American perception of the western landscape was changed over the course of last half of the 1800s. At first, the perception of the landscape was hostile and a wasteland in some places, then, in time the perception was transformed to one of a land of opportunity and paradise. The change in perception seems to have come about by several factors. The railroad companies played a part in changing perceptions because it benefited them. The United States War Department played a part for “postal, military, and other purposes,” and passing the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 making large land grants to various railroad companies. (So I guess our great, great, great grandparents paid for it all really.)

What we didn’t really appreciate until seeing this exhibition was the rapid series of events: the Oregon Treaty of 1846 gave us the modern day northwest and the Mexican Cession in 1848 gave us the modern day southwest. As noted above, the government surveys commenced a few years later. Another point of reference is that the Sutter’s Mill gold discovery was also in 1848.

The Pacific Railway Act of 1862 was based on work by government surveying teams that produced a respected, comprehensive series of surveys called the Pacific Railroad Surveys (1853-1855) trying to figure out the best route to the Pacific ocean. These surveys are available in the Library of Congress (search for 'pacific railroad surveys'). Some of the examples in the exhibit showed interesting drawings of landscapes and plants like the Pinus Ponderosa shown below.

At the back of the exhibit at the museum (and we think a permanent exhibit) is a recreation of about 91 miles of railroad track in Washington state circa 1950 – 1959. The large setup (see photo) recreates the route from the shores of Commencement Bay in Tacoma to the Cascade Mountains in Central Washington. The model was assembled by the Puget Sound Model Railroad Engineers (

Pacific Railroad Survey DrawingPacific Railroad Survey DrawingNeighborhood Around Washington State MuseumModel Railway in Washington State Museum

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