Pacific Postcards

The Arrival of Railways: Transforming the Eastern Pacific Coast (Michael Groner)

The transcontinental railroad marked a new era of American dominance and economic prosperity, offering Americans the ability to experience the endless opportunities of the West – from the lucrative transpacific trade to breathtaking natural landmarks. It was the introduction of an extensive railway network that truly removed the limits of the American imagination. The Southern Pacific Railway attempts to capture America’s expansionist ambitions through a two-page advertisement titled, “The Taylor Family Pushed Back a Few American Horizons.” By introducing the Taylor family, the Southern Pacific Railway highlights the promise of traveling to the West – Hollywood, Chinatown, Santa Barbara, and more. The advertisement achieves this by including images of a family aboard a train and a map that highlights the different routes and connections between the West and major American cities. While the author does draw appeal to Americans by contextualizing the West as a place of fascination, the advertisement fails to acknowledge western America as part of the indigenous Pacific, favoring a more American perspective of Pacific history and geography. Although modernization and the rise of the transcontinental railroad led to more unification and opportunity, the rise in technology and the dominance of an American cultural identity caused the decline of the eastern Pacific, transforming the area into a western extension of a more ambitious America.

America’s desire of the West can be contextualized from their own beginnings as a nation when Americans attempted to claim their own nation as a republic abroad. Dane Morrison’s book True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity mentions how Americans wanted to assert themselves in the Asian market and highlight how they were different from a European monarchy. Morrison mentions, “[America’s] first encounters with the East were important, then, because Americans looked to them not only to establish the country’s reputation but also to define the character of the new nation” (xii). Morrison highlights that the desire for Americans to explore other parts of the world and compete with other European countries was the foundation of American pride. However, Americans gained part of their cultural identity and drive for superiority from Europeans: “Americans had largely joined Europeans in a common sense that they had the authority to force their will on less civilized peoples around the globe” (Morrison 192). The luxurious appeal of exploring abroad and the perception of Native Americans as “less civilized” demonstrates that Americans crafted their own views of superiority, shaping how they perceived the West in the early twentieth century. Not only does the advertisement suggest that the West has a lucrative appeal similar to Asia, but it also highlights that the West is helping to shape a new culture that belongs only to America. The Southern Pacific Railway’s promotion of America’s vast transportation network suggests how American control over geographic space is correlated to their own desire for being a leader on the global stage, disregarding Native Americans in the process.

The Southern Pacific Railway highlights the persuasive appeal of new territory as well as the connection of the West to the Pacific towards potential travelers. The advertisement emphasizes how western America is a land full of potential by continuing to name-drop important locations that aim to pique American curiosity. For example, the advertisement casually mentions locations such as “Davy Crocket’s Alamo at San Antonio; the old Missions of the heroic Padres; Ramona’s Marriage Place at San Diego; the land of the Forty-Niners; the Mark Twain and Bret Harte country; Monterey; Lewis and Clark’s might Columbia” (Southern Pacific Railway 1). Alongside these names however, the railway company includes a picture of Arizona’s Apache Trial and Southern Oregon’s Crater Lake. The beauty and the explorative nature behind these images hold significant value in attempting to capture America’s imagination in broadening its influence, territorial range, and power. The fact that the advertisement urges travelers to “see it all. No one city, no one sector is complete without the changing, blending, majestic background of this Pacific land” characterizes the West as a region that is enticing to its travelers, adding to America’s greatness as a nation and potential to exert a more dominant presence in the Pacific. (Southern Pacific Railway 2). By viewing the eastern Pacific coast as a tourist destination, the advertisement implies how the cultures and the people that live there geographically are also tourist attractions that belong to America. As Morrison highlights about America’s views about the East, the Southern Pacific Railway views the West as a necessary component in expanding America’s influence globally – in order to become “‘citizens of the world’” (Morrison 93). Yet, viewing the Pacific as a tourist destination and not as a home to indigenous societies, highlights the hypocrisy of America as a republic even as they attempt to carve the eastern Pacific into their own.

The decline of the eastern Pacific region and the rise of western America was triggered not only by the Americans’ desire to recontextualize geography, but also by their ambition to assert themselves on the global stage through technological advancements. For example, David Igler’s The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush discusses the changing geography: “For the expansionist United States, much of the eastern Pacific rapidly became the American West, while other areas around the ocean were now inextricable enmeshed in the broader world economy” (10). Igler’s acknowledgement of America viewing the eastern Pacific as the West is supported by how Americans utilized their power over technology in building a railroad network to destroy the boundaries preventing readily accessible long-range transportation. This connects both Igler’s argument and the advertisement by making sense of how the American West allowed America to become even more dominant in the Pacific, due to more access to the transpacific trade and the creation of economic and cultural hotspots in the West. In the advertisement, the Southern Pacific Railway points to the manifestation of America’s explorative desires by pointing to the success of connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific through four main routes. It includes an image of a family on a railway car, with a child looking out towards the window on the way to California, implying that the West was more of a tourist destination – appealing in its element of promise and having direct connection to the allure of the East. The Southern Pacific Railway also includes a map of the different routes available from each major city in America to destinations on the West and detailed descriptions of the possible routes one could take in touring the West. Interestingly, the map does not include any state boundaries, presenting the railroad routes as part of a single American network. By creating a railroad map from a macroscopic view and describing the allure of the West using different geographic locations, the railroad company hopes to gain economically by more tightly connecting America’s domestic interactions with the that of the Pacific and exciting Americans to transform their imagination of the West into a reality.

Igler illuminates how Americans created geographical boundaries to acquire the West in the conclusion of his book, discussing how the eastern Pacific coast in the context of indigenous societies were abandoned in the American narrative of history. Igler emphasizes that the “stretch of eastern Pacific coastline – previously oriented around the ocean’s maritime commerce – now became the American Far West, part of a ‘bordered’ and continental empire long predicted by US traders” (183). The idea of seeing America as a “bordered” empire directly ties to the perspective of the Southern Pacific Railway. Using a map to geographically define which areas belonged to America suggests how the advertisement attempts to present only American interests and disregard the interests of indigenous societies. The idea of presenting the eastern Pacific as distinctly American yet attractive highlights how the Southern Pacific Railway not only wants to describe the West as a tourist destination beyond one’s wildest imagination, but also as the beginning of America’s control in reconfiguring the layout of the Pacific. The advertisement implies how it was the railroad network, not just the western coast, that allowed America to become the leading force in globalizing the Pacific as part of a large continuous network with America at the center. The Southern Pacific Railway mentions “In the fast developing Pacific slope Sam had visioned the possibilities of a branch factory for his firm. And, somehow, he knew he had gained the poise and self-confidence to make the dream real” (1). The idea of creating a “factory” highlights that America continued to have economic ambitions in mind, viewing the West as both a vacationing site and a gateway to commercial gains via Pacific interactions. It is the idea of the Southern Pacific Railway promoting two visions of western America, while ignoring the value of indigenous communities, that helps readers understand America’s main intention – to reap the benefits of more tightly connecting the lucrative Pacific to American interests.

With Morrison and Igler pointing out America’s expansionist desires, the advertisement uses a key component in its persuasive appeal towards American travelers and businesses – the American family unit. By incorporating an imaginative family to tell the story of the West as both new and promising, the Southern Pacific Railway broadens its audience to common Americans fantasizing about the endless opportunities of the West. Using this approach suggests how tourism and the American imagination is a vision that acts as a façade over the hidden hunger for power and influence in the Pacific. Sam Taylor, the father in the imaginative family, “will tell you now that the excited pleasure of that evening was worth every cent the trip cost him. The Taylor family journeyed West many, many times before they actually boarded the train” (Southern Pacific Railway 1). The idea that the Taylor family traveled multiple times to the West highlights the wild imagination of Americans as well as the excitement the West pulls from American families. This excitement is similar to what Morrison depicts when Americans traveled to the East, further connecting America’s desire to act as a center piece for globalization. In the second page of the advertisement, the railway company targets the main audience of vacationing families by including examples of potential routes in the West: “you can go west by any northern United States […] line. You will take Shasta Route at Seattle, and thence down through the ‘Evergreen Playground of the Pacific Northwest’ to California” (Southern Pacific Railway 2). Part of a longer paragraph of possible routes, this illuminates how the advertisement characterizes the West as a popular tourist destination for satisfying explorative interests, with an ulterior motive of placing American interests at the forefront of the Pacific. Although the railway map in the advertisement makes it clear that America connects the Atlantic coast, the Pacific coast, and all the major cities together, including the American family unit suggests a larger effort to establish the importance of the Pacific to American culture and the national economy, whether it be in the small towns of California or in the metropolitan districts of New York. The Taylor family’s eagerness to travel westward, even via imagination, suggests that America is neither the Atlantic nor the Pacific, but rather its own promise land with the intention to carve the eastern Pacific into its own boundaries. 

Overall, the Southern Pacific Railway advertisement contextualizes the eastern Pacific as the American West by sparking American curiosity and realizing the desire of exploration through new innovative forms of technology. The importance of understanding the role of the family unit in American society helps shape the ideological foundations for why this advertisement succeeds in luring Americans to travel to the Pacific coast. It creates a single narrative of American history for how the West is built for tourism while playing a key component in unifying America as a nation and carving the Pacific into larger globalization efforts. By enabling railways to better connect trade networks and countries together, those in power are given the ability to dictate how the world is to be perceived. That is – western America is a hotspot for manifesting the American imagination, and railway networks are only the beginning for redefining global geography.

Works Cited
Igler, David. The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush. Oxford University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, Accessed 7 March 2021.

Morrison, Dane A. True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, Accessed 22 February 2021.

Southern Pacific Railway. “The Taylor Family Pushes Back a Few American Horizons.” [c. 1930]. California Historical Society Collection; USC Digital Library, Accessed 21 February 2021.

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