In Part One we left off at Cotton Hill, West Virginia. As we move track east we soon come to Hawk’s Nest, only a couple of miles upriver from Cotton Hill. At Hawk’s Nest you step into the rich coal mining history of the Gorge. The 30 track miles from Hawk’s Nest to Quinnimont contain almost the entire history of New River coal. In the peak years early in the last century the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway (C&O) serviced 75 mines along this stretch of river including the various branch lines that crawled up the several side canyons.
In the forward to his new book, The Railroad and the Art of Place, David Kahler writes ". . . I learned that photographs of moving trains were not everything. Some of the most evocative visual images could be made without rail activity." It is a theme that resonates with the mission of The Trackside Photographer.
Jeff Brouws, in his essay which appears in the book (and is reprinted below), discusses Kahler's work in relation to the depression era work of the Farm Security Administration photographers, particularly Marion Post Wolcott, as well as the photographers of the more recent New Topographics movement. With its focus on the visual and cultural landscape shaped by the railroad, The Railroad and the Art of Place holds a unique place in the context of railroad photography, and indeed, transcends the genre.
With a broad appeal not only to railfans, but to anyone who loves great photography, this book will find a place in the library of railfans, artists, photographers and historians alike.
David has been generous to share his work on The Trackside Photographer in the past, and we are pleased to recommend his new book to our readers.
In 1872 Collis P. Huntington took an overnight float trip down the New River from Hinton to Hawk’s Nest to see where his railroad was going. By 1873 the line was finished. By 1874 the first branch line (Laurel Creek, Quinnemont) was open as was the first mine (Laurel Creek, Joseph Beury). Cutting ever deeper through the mountains, the New River exposed four coal seams world famous for high quality, high BTU coal. Read more
In 1938, a little know photographer landed a job with the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Marion Post Wolcott (who was just Marion Post at the time) was 28 years old when she quit her job as a photographer with the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin and moved to Washington to work for Roy Stryker, who headed up the photographic division of the FSA. During the Depression, photographers employed and directed by Stryker fanned out across the United States to record the effects of the economic crisis on the lives of Americans, particularly in the rural south. The resulting photographs documented the depression, and helped galvanize support for Federal programs to assist those in need.
Marion Post’s first assignment with the FSA was in the coal fields of West Virginia, and in September, 1938, she set out alone to work in coal country. Her travels took her through some of the hardest hit areas of the country, a region that had come to symbolize the poverty and despair of those years. She was not the first to photograph here. Other notable photographers including Lewis Hine, Walker Evans and Ben Shahn had also worked in the area.
She was not there to photograph trains, but the coal miner’s life revolved around the railroad. Not only did the railroad provide transportation of the coal to market, but railroad technology was employed in the actual mining operations. The railroad ran right through the middle of life in coal country, and her photographs, perhaps unintentionaly, reflect that.
After a little over three weeks in West Virginia, Marion Post returned to Washington with an extraordinary collection of photographs that were warmly human without sentimentality, compassionate without condescension. Those qualities came to define her work for the FSA over the next three years. She left the FSA, and her career as a photographer in 1941.
The Trackside Photographer is proud to present a collection of Marion Post Wolcott’s images in a new Gallery where you will find over 60 photographs of life in Coal Country.