William Rau and the Spirit of Transportation

When the Pennsylvania Railroad enlisted Philadelphia photographer William H. Rau to market the quality of the Railroad’s system by photographing its trackage, stations, and other facilities, photography was moving from the amateurist’s province to becoming an appendage of capitalism.  Photography, a medium that offered unpretentious and precise depiction of reality, was an ideal way to generate respect for the Railroad’s engineering expertise.  While some of Rau’s photos have recently fetched outrageous sums at New York auction; (four well-ballasted tracks converging at the horizon) creating in an artistic vein was secondary to Rau’s intent.  As Traveling the Pennsylvania Railroad argues, Rau’s use of large format glass negatives and the staff and resources provided by the Railroad made his successes technical and managerial. He considered himself a dutiful marketing agent of the Railroad and less a professional artist.  More importantly as documentary pieces his body of work represents the finest and fullest vision of the Pennsylvania Railroad at its height.


One of Rau’s more interesting photographs (a glass lantern slide in the possession of the National Canal Museum in Easton, Pa.) shows the immaculate interior of the Wilson Brothers’ and Frank Furness’ Broad Street Station.  For those who have wandered around 30th Street Station and observed Karl Bitter’s romantic allegory of American restlessness, Spirit of Transportation (1895) stashed ignominously in a vestibule, that relief is visible in the righthand portion of Rau’s photo.  The general view of the the crennelated interior is suggestive of the Railroad’s unwavering attention to detail as well as its national significance.  No trash is visible on the well-swept floors and the rail map of Pennsylvania seems less practical guide than an indulgent gesture of the Railroad’s self-importance.  The map in Philadelphia’s marquee terminal also alerts riders to their position within a major node in the Pennsy’s transnational system.

Karl Bitter’s connection of the average trip to Pittsburgh or Altoona to the greater American drama of manifest destiny would not resonate with passengers of today: many of whom would view train travel as plodding and tiresome.  That travel is sometimes arduous, and passengers sometimes need aesthetic uplift makes the case for moving the relief to a prominent place within 30th Street all that more compelling.



5 thoughts on “William Rau and the Spirit of Transportation

  1. This is not quite true. The exterior of Furness’s station did boast enormous terra cotta sculpture by Furness but the “Spirit of Transportation” is made of plaster, as you can see when you’re next in Thirtieth Street Station.

    For an account of the building of the station, you might refer to my biography: “Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind” (Norton, 2001).

  2. The Broad Street Station interior photo is reversed. Note that the horses in The Spirit of Transportation are walking in the opposite direction in the 30th Street Station photo (which is correct).

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