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The Railroad Families of Utah

Prior to the railroads coming to the Western United States, the Utah Territory was a vast, inhospitable desert, difficult to travel to, and with limited ability to receive information and good from the rest of the country. However, when the Union and Central Pacific lined joined in 1869, cities, and towns in Utah developed more quickly and more people were able to work on the railroads. In fact, entire families moved and traveled with the construction of the railroads, often living in boxcars and living a nomadic lifestyle to follow the work.

George Edward Anderson, Section Foreman at Price, Joe Barton

One such family is the family of Joe Barton, pictured here. This 1902 photograph, taken by George Edward Anderson, shows Joe Barton and his entire family near Price, Utah. Photographer George Edward Anderson settled in Springville, Utah, but traveled with his tent studio to photograph residents of towns in central and eastern Utah. He captured this unique view of railroad life while doing portrait work near Price, Utah.

In this photograph, Joe Barton and his family stand outside a railroad boxcar—their makeshift home while Joe worked for the Rio Grande Western. Many families of railroad employees lived in similar unconventional conditions, as railroad work often took place on undeveloped land. Some companies allowed for temporary camps where laborers and their families lived until it was time to move to a new location.

Another photograph by George Edward Anderson shows John Sylvester Perry camped near Maple Mountain (Utah) with his wife and five children while working for the railroad around 1896. John worked on a crew cutting down trees to created railroad ties, the rectangular beams used to support the railroad tracks. These handmade rail ties, nicknamed 'Mormon ties,' looked distinctive from the more streamlined wooden beams manufactured in factories.

Discover the Utah families of the railroads in the current exhibition After Promontory, now on display at the BYU Museum of Art through October 5, 2019.