Excursion to the 100th Meridian

Zoe Mays
May 8, 2015

The art and science of photography moved forward at an incredible pace in the 19th century, with photographers racing to come up with easier ways to take better photos. One of the most prominent and successful photographic pioneers was John Carbutt of Chicago, who made major advances in the materials used to create and develop film. But decades before he did that, Carbutt journeyed to Nebraska and the Platte Valley as the official photographer for an amazingly large publicity stunt by the Union Pacific Rail Company as it rushed to complete the transcontinental railroad.

A traditional Pawnee war dance and a huge staged battle. A massive fireworks show and a 15-mile-long prairie fire. Extravagant meal after extravagant meal, all while viewing the “wild and uncivilized west” in elegant comfort. These were just a few of the things experienced by the guests of the Union Pacific’s grand “Excursion to the 100th Meridian.”

John Carbutt was the official photographer for the Union Pacific Rail Company as it rushed to complete the transcontinental railroad. Photo by John Carbutt, Library of Congress.

The 100th meridian is often considered a rough border between the western and eastern United States. In Nebraska and the rest of the Great Plains, it serves as the marker between the arid west and the more humid east, crossing the Platte River Valley near Cozad, Neb. During the 1860s, the meridian also served as a significant goal for the Union Pacific Railroad as it stretched westward from Omaha and Council Bluffs to unite with the Central Pacific Railroad, building east from California. In order to remain eligible for the lucrative government land grants and money in support of the transcontinental project, the Union Pacific had to cross the 100th meridian, north of the Republican River and south of the Platte, by 1867.

The broad, wide and flat topography of the Platte River valley made it much easier to lay track. Following the route of the Oregon Trail and the Pony Express, the Union Pacific work pushed rapidly west. Construction reached the 100th meridian, almost 250 miles from the eastern terminus in Omaha, in October, 1866, a year ahead of schedule. This guaranteed them the right to continue advancing westward to meet the Central Pacific line. To advertise their incredible accomplishment to the public, particularly wealthy eastern financiers, Union Pacific organized an elaborate celebration in what was still very much the middle of nowhere.

Pawnee Camp in the central Platte Valley. Photo by John Carbutt, Library of Congress.

More than 200 guests were invited, along with their families, for the great “Excursion to the 100th Meridian.” The list included several foreign dignitaries, members of Congress, and other eastern elites, among them Robert Todd Lincoln, the only surviving son of Abraham Lincoln, and George Pullman, inventor of the sleeping car. John Carbutt, a well-known photographer from Chicago, was hired to document the journey, which got underway in late October 1866.

The train, consisting of two locomotives and nine cars, preceded across the eastern Nebraska plains at a slow pace so riders could better enjoy the sights of the Platte Valley. It stopped occasionally to give the guests a chance to inspect the new roads and bridges constructed by the railroad company. The first camp was set up outside of Columbus, and featured several cannon and a band as its welcoming committee. After a huge feast, guests were entertained by a large group of hired Pawnee braves performing a traditional war dance. The next morning, the Pawnees staged a fake battle, much to the excitement of the railroad’s guests.

More than 200 guests and their families were invited on the trip. Photo by John Carbutt, Library of Congress.

When the party next made camp, they had passed the 100th meridian but were still attempting to catch the construction crews, which were laying track at an incredible rate of almost two miles a day. They finally met them some 40 miles past the meridian, and celebrated with yet another lavish meal and an hour-long fireworks show. A buffalo hunt was arranged for the more adventurous riders, but they were forced to leave their prizes behind when they were intercepted on their way back to camp by Indians who allowed them to leave untouched only after they promised never to return to the hunting grounds they had trespassed upon. The next morning, as the train departed, the guests were treated to a staged prairie fire, intentionally set by Union Pacific along the tracks and stretching some 15 to 20 miles. On the way back east, the train was stopped at the 100th meridian so Carbutt could take pictures of various groups of riders in front of a specially-erected sign to commemorate the journey.

Two and a half years and almost 800 miles of track later, on May 10, 1869, Union Pacific reached Promontory Summit, Utah, and joined the Central Pacific with a ceremonial gold spike, completing the United States’ first transcontinental railroad and ushering in a new age of transportation.

The train stopped occasionally to give guests a chance to inspect the new roads and bridges constructed by the railroad company. Photo by John Carbutt, Library of Congress.

Today we have a sense of what this adventure must have been like for the participants largely through the photographic record made by Carbutt. During the course of the following three decades, Carbutt helped usher in a new age in photography.

Carbutt was born in Sheffield, England on December 2, 1832, and immigrated to Canada in 1853, taking a job photographing Canada’s Grand Trunk Railroad through 1859. For the next few years, Carbutt worked in Plymouth, Ind., for the Cosmopolitan Gallery. He set up a studio in Chicago in 1861, which became his headquarters for the rest of the decade. He was the first photographer in Chicago to produce carte de visite, small paper photographs that had first become popular in Europe and increased rapidly in popularity in the United States during and after the Civil War. Carbutt was extremely active during the 1860s, traveling all over the American Midwest to take photographs. Over the next few decades, his interest shifted from studio and landscape photography to experimental photographic pursuits, particularly concerning dry plate photography.

Thomas Durant, vice-president of Union Pacific Railroad, standing on the tracks. Photo by John Carbutt, Library of Congress.

Prior to the development and improvement of dry-plate techniques, photographers used wet-plates, which couldn’t be prepared very much in advance of the actual taking of the photograph and had to be developed almost immediately after exposure, requiring photographers to carry around portable dark rooms. Dry-plate photographs, developed in the 1870s and improved during the next several decades, could be prepared long before the actual picture was taken and developed long after exposure, cutting down considerably on the amount of bulky equipment that a photographer and his assistant had to carry around.

A group of travelers on the banks of the Platte River. Photo by John Carbutt, Library of Congress.

Carbutt replaced the traditional collodion albumen dry-plate mixture (which had very hard contrasts) with gelatin, and in 1879 he moved to Philadelphia to open the Keystone Dry Plate Works, introducing the first mass market dry-plate process in the United States. His competition with other dry-plate producers and innovators like partners Gustav “Papa” Cramer and Hermann Norden, and George Eastman pushed the technology forward at an extraordinary rate. In 1886, Carbutt introduced the first orthochromatic dry-plates, which helped to correct a color balance problem in earlier types of plates, in which yellow objects appeared very dark and blue objects appeared very light. He produced the first commercially successful celluloid photographic film in 1888, although was outpaced when George Eastman created a more flexible roll of celluloid film.

Still, Carbutt made important contributions to both still photography and motion picture technology. During the 1890s, he turned his expertise with dry-plates to adapt the method to make faster x-ray exposures. He produced the world’s first commercially available x-ray plates in February 1896.

In his later years, Carbutt experimented with color photography and returned to his love of landscape photography. He died of kidney disease in Philadelphia on July 26, 1905.


PBT team photo. Summer 2023

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We are a group of storytellers using timelapse photography and multimedia storytelling to explore watersheds. PBT has been in motion since 2011.

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