The Railway Panopticon

Large nineteenth-century urban train stations were a place for Americans to escape: African Americans fleeing north away from segregation, battered wives leaving their abusive husbands behind, or tramps looking for work at points further westward. They were also a legally private building that many Americans—commuting workers, businessmen, and other travelers—used as though they were public.

Zachary Nowak, a doctoral candidate in American Studies at Harvard University, spent the spring as a short-term fellow using the Newberry’s collections to re-create the social life of the train station.

Most railroad sources focus on rail routes. But here and there, Nowak found sources that referred not to the lines but to the stations. Rather than being simply a point at the end of a line, stations had enormous social gravity, pulling people and flows of goods to them.

The files Nowak looked through showed him how cities fought to have railroad companies build large “union” depots (so-called because they united various railroad companies’ lines) in their cities. These union stations not only allowed for easy switching for passengers, but became important monuments to the power and prestige of the city.

Though these stations were legally private—owned by the railroads whose lines ran into them—they were seen by many Americans in the 1800s as somewhat public. “The sheer size of these stations, with all their marshaling yards, repair shops, and freight yards, required eminent domain to build them,” Nowak explains. The municipalities where they were built were active partners of the railroads in the union stations’ construction. A document Nowak found in the Newberry’s Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy Railroad Company archives showed how the City of Keokuk, in Iowa, had turned over a valuable downtown lot to the railroads to build a large union station.

In addition to written documents, Nowak also drew on the Newberry’s extensive archive of visual evidence, like the Curt Teich Postcard Archives, which gave him new insight into the station environment. “The huge number of postcards showing these large urban train stations shows that they were not simply another big building in the landscape, but a place imbued with municipal pride,” said Nowak.

He was also able to get a close-up look at a rare 1875 bird’s-eye view of St. Louis with a contemporary map that showed some ways the city government could use the stations for civic purposes. The photograph-quality lithograph shows that despite huge rail yards, there were only a few exits to the station. By standing on the platforms when trains arrived, beat cops could surveil hundreds of people an hour, looking for people who they thought “didn’t look right.” Newspapers of the day are full of articles about municipal police doing what amounted to stop and frisk. This is what Nowak calls “the railway panopticon”: the train station was an exit, but an exceedingly narrow one.