Photographing the Dawn of Amtrak

Charles O'Rear takes us back to the early days of America's passenger rail service.

In the summer of 1974, a young photographer named Charles O'Rear spent a month or so riding the young intercity train system named Amtrak. "I probably rode it 5,000 miles," says O'Rear, now 71. The project was one of many O'Rear did for Documerica, a program initiated in 1971 by the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency to document American life at the time, from people to wildlife to landscapes.

O'Rear, who'd just started shooting for National Geographic, wasn't particularly impressed with the service. The cars were hot, the ride was slow, and the public relations staff didn't seem to exist, he recalls. Compared to Japan's new bullet trains, which he'd photographed a few years earlier, Amtrak left much to be desired. "I'd ridden on the fastest, most elegant train on the planet," says O'Rear. "I think: my god, there's a better way to do this."

Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal - May 1974

Nevertheless his photographs stand as a unique window onto the early life of Amtrak, which began operations in 1971. We see conductors running bingo games, passengers staring out through clear dome cars, ticket agents punching keys at primitive computers, arrival information appearing in chalk. Documerica ended abruptly in 1974 and the images sat around for years — that explains their muted color, says O'Rear — before the National Archives recently made 15,000 shots available.

"When I looked at the originals a couple years ago, I was in the archives out in Maryland. I'd never seen most of them," he says. "I sent film in from out in the field. I was looking at a lot of it for the very first time."

Why did you pitch Amtrak as a Documerica subject?

They were asking for ideas from photographers of anything that had to do with lifestyle, environment — anything we see changing over the years. There had been virtually no photography made of Amtrak for national distribution. Major magazines had not done a story. So I proposed riding Amtrak for a month, I think it was. "Let's see what Amtrak's all about."

Amtrak wasn't even created until right about that time.

Maybe that was one of the reasons. You bring that up, it does ring a bell. "It's new: let's see what it's all about."

Conductor at the Bloomington, Illinois, stop on the Turboliner - June 1974

Did you have some sense at the time that you were documenting something that would become a national icon?

No, not any more than anything else I was photographing at that point. A lot of us can be naïve at that age. You get a job or an assignment or a project and you go out and photograph it, not realizing that 40 years later whatever we photograph has become historical. We were documenting something at the time — that's why they called it Documerica. Let's document what something is so that down the road, maybe 40 years from now, you'll get a call from Eric Jaffe.

Did you go into the project with a specific approach, or did that evolve once things got going?

I think it evolved as we photographed. "Let's see what Amtrak is today. Let's look inside the cars. Let's ride the dome cars through Arizona. Let's take aerial photographs of the trains. Let's photograph some of the stations." They furnished me with a helicopter at one point. I thought a train going through the flatlands of Kansas or Oklahoma would be a good place for aerial photographs. I spent a day or two doing that.

The Lone Star, from Chicago to Houston, through rural Oklahoma - June 1974

A lot of your images capture the scenery surrounding the train.

Much like anything we'd do at National Geographic, we wanted to show the environment behind people, behind trains. We wanted to show more than just a picture of a train. "This is what it looks like, folks, in the country it goes through."

Did you have any memorable interactions?

One of the days in the helicopter there was a funny experience. We are in central Oklahoma. We're in the helicopter and we get down eye level with the train, and we're looking into the kitchen. I'm taking pictures and I wave at the guys in the kitchen and they wave back at me. We're that close. Then we land down in the next town where the train stops and I get on the train and walk into the kitchen and to the surprise of these guys in the kitchen — their eyes are the size of silver dollars. Like, oh my god, where did you come from? Did you land on the train?

Dining car of the Southwest Limited - June 1974

Whatever happened to the photos once the project was done?

I don't know I've ever seen a photograph published from it. I remember Documerica lasted only a couple of years. So now I've sent in all this film and then I hear, uh oh, they're closing out the program. The film, I understand, got buried in some damp basement in Washington, some government building, and that’s why the colors have eroded on this film. There's a lot of Kodachrome — it should have been beautiful color — but it was poorly managed. The colors had faded because of poor handling. Now they're in a perfect place at the National Archives.

When was the last time you rode Amtrak?

The last time was probably about the late Eighties. Nearly 25 years ago. My memory is it hadn't changed in those 15 years. As somebody remarked, riding on Amtrak felt like being in a washing machine on the agitation cycle.

Maybe somebody else will be out there doing it again. Let's get somebody on Amtrak and update it.

Amtrak's Southwest Limited crossing central avenue in downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico - June 1974
Chicago's Union Station - June 1974
The lounge car of the Empire Builder to Seattle - June 1974

All images by Charles O'Rear and courtesy of the National Archives.

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