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THE CENTURY MAGAZINE

APRIL, 1908

THE RAILWAY BEAUTIFUL

BY SYLVESTER BAXTER

WITH PICTURES BY HARRY FENN

 

OUGHT not one of the greatest factors in modern civilization, one of the chief instrumentalities in the wonderful progress of the age, to present an aspect that in itself should stand for the glory of what it has helped mankind to achieve? The gracious beauty of the ship typifies the commerce that is knitting all nations together, developing the bonds of sympathy and mutual understanding between remote peoples that arouse them to a realizing sense of the world's unity. But the ship's complement on land has long been synonymous with ugliness, noise, dust, dirt, and general discomfort. The railway, however, is not necessarily characterized by these ills. Possibly they will vanish at no distant day, to leave it as smooth-running, as quiet, as cleanly, and in every way as agreeable, as the gliding of a boat over tranquil waters. Mechanical achievement may accomplish much of this. For the rest, we may depend upon the growing demand that functions of utility shall be given beautiful expression not only because of the heightened pleasure there from, but since thereby their very end of utility is the better fulfilled. Some of the ways in which these tendencies are already realized under enlightened policies will here be indicated.

The railway, no more than its Prototype, the common highway, is not essentially an evil element in natural scenery. It is true that all too frequently it cuts savage gashes in the landscape. These are usually, however, wounds that time may heal and efface. The marks that a railway makes upon the face of nature are seldom more considerable than the lines described by ordinary roads. If we look from a height over a broad reach of country where for years a railway has been built, it is only here and there, as a rule, that it makes itself evident. Often, too, as the line loops itself among the hills, there is a fascination in tracing its course, an impressiveness in what it suggests: a thing of minor account—a mere thread laid across the face of nature, but of immense significance in betokening the dominance of the world by the creature man.

There is also something to say for the railway as positively an esthetic factor. At times it contributes pleasing elements to the scene. Certain marks of the early days of railway construction in this country stand as monuments, picturesquely architectural, and comparable, in their graceful massiveness of form, with the ancient aqueducts and bridges of Europe. Such, for instance, are the noble viaducts at Starrucca, Pennsylvania, and at Canton, Massachusetts. Works like these form notable accents in a landscape. Their number is all too few at present; for the most part they belong to the first period of railway-building in this country, before the development of metal bridgework had wrought its horrors upon the land. But works like the great new stone bridge across the Susquehanna, and various. other structures lately undertaken for leading railway lines, indicate an ultimate replacement of steel-trestle-work, and the like, by masonry bridges throughout the country-works that should endure for ages. Things like these are magnificent contributions of the railway to the landscape at large.

Chestnut Hill Station, Boston & Albany

The modern development of concrete construction has done much to improve the esthetic quality of railway engineering. Substantial appearance and architectural character tend to take the place of much ugliness of wood and steel along the right of way. Colossal examples of reinforced concrete construction are the several miles of viaduct built across the salt water between many of the islands to carry the railway from the Florida mainland to Key West. As impressive as a Roman viaduct is the rhythmic order of these great monolithic arches—about six miles of them, altogether. In one stretch alone are nearly three miles, in another two, Fancy the ugliness of piles or steel trestles in contrast with this gigantic work, which declares that modern engineering, like that of antique days, can be not only strong, but beautiful!

Great railway companies, as a rule, very naturally lay stress upon the attractiveness of the scenery along their lines; they spend enormous sums in the production and circulation of illustrated literature to make it known. Incidental to this attractiveness, in no small degree, are the improvements carried out in many parts of the country by various companies under policies of enlightened self-interest. Indeed, few things can make a more agreeable impression upon the traveler than glimpses of well-ordered and beautiful surroundings at the way-stations, caught perhaps only for a flashing instant in passing, or satisfying the eye during pauses that otherwise would be tedious.

Wellesley Farms Station, Boston & Albany

Where a railway passes through a town, the community commonly presents its least attractive aspect. The noise, the smoke, the dust, and the cinders make property that borders a railway line undesirable for residential purposes. Consequently it is left to the poorest sort of occupancy. A railway is customarily lined, if not by ugly factories, by squalid tenements, or by the shabby little houses of the poorer classes, with unkempt back yards, and outbuildings en déshabille. Aspects of this sort commonly convey about the only feature of a place obtained by passers-through. There are thousands of towns and villages in the United States that for hundreds of thousands of persons are associated only with scenes of this sort. In truth, however, the impressions made by these strips of shabbiness along the railway are as erroneous, as those which might be derived from a trip through the main sewer of a town. Just beyond, they might behold pleasant, tree-shaded streets, attractive homes, and a community well equipped with good public and business buildings; in short, a place where prosperity abides and good civic standards obtain.

It is desirable for a community that it should make an agreeable first impression upon strangers. Through such impressions not a few are likely to form business or social connections with its people, and perhaps even be attracted to make the place their home. Particularly is this the case in the neighborhood of large cities, where home-seekers are constantly looking for the most attractive abiding-place. It is also evident that what is for the interest of a community is likewise for the interest of the railway company that serves it, and this fact is becoming increasingly recognized by the companies.

Wellesley Hills Station, Boston & Albany

The first impetus toward such improvements was received from examples across the Atlantic, where care in these things has long been the custom. The English railway lines are notable for trimly kept conditions, an attractive neatness prevailing by the wayside and about the stations. This care, however, seldom goes so far as really artistic development. Almost invariably the aspect is prosaic and commonplace; the railway-stations are without pretension to architectural design, and the managements almost without exception permit disfiguring advertisements for the sake of revenue.

Whatever example English precedents may have set, has therefore been far surpassed by not a few railways in this country. It is in Germany that the best work of this sort is to be seen. The plantations of shrubbery about the stations and elsewhere along the line are in admirable taste, the way-stations are often architectural in treatment, and in the large cities the terminal stations are of monumental character, as befits their commanding sites and their relation to public life.

In this country the first notable example of regard for the appearance of things along the line was furnished by a great railway company in the Middle States. Here the English idea was followed. In keeping with the exceptionally thorough organization of the company's service, the manifest aim in these improvements was to have everything along the line present what along the seaboard is known as a "shipshape" appearance—that is, to bear neat, trim, and well-groomed look, as on ship, where the decks are kept immaculately holystoned, the woodwork freshly scraped or painted, the brasses polished, the ropes coiled, etc. Such conditions on shipboard are marks of discipline, good repair, and general efficiency. So on a railway, where in similar ways attention is given to good appearance, public confidence in safe and competent management is promoted. Therefore, just as the good mechanic takes care to make his joints well fitting and his lines good, so on this model railway the nicest attention was given to a thoroughly well-ordered appearance of all the work about and near the tracks. For instance, the cross-ties are squarely cut at an exactly uniform distance from the rails, on the roadbed the ballast is bordered by clean and regular lines, the yards are kept scrupulously clean and clear of all rubbish, and about the stations and other buildings the turf is nicely maintained. In this case, however, until recently little attention has ever been given to really artistic character; the way-stations, as a rule, are not architectural; in the way of adornment some sparse flower-beds represent good intention rather than achievement.

Auburndale Station, Boston & Albany

Two diverse methods are exemplified in our forms of railway embellishment. One is governed by the principle that ornament should be developed from the character of the thing ornamented; that while general principles maybe laid down for guidance, their application must be modified according to the circumstances attending each particular problem. What would be admirable in one place might prove wholly out of keeping, and correspondingly bad, in another. The second method has found a wider acceptance. This proceeds with the assumption that ornament consists in something pretty, something decorative; that applying this prettiness to things makes them beautiful.

The former method was adopted for the first railway line in the United States where a comprehensive attempt at artistic treatment was made. The results have been so beautiful, so wholly admirable, and withal so truly economical in maintenance, that it seems remarkable that the example has not been more widely followed. This railway was a leading line in New England. One of the most influential directors was a gentleman who took a deep interest in all matters of outdoor art, and who himself was a recognized authority in certain aspects thereof. When the question of a new station for one of the Boston suburbs arose, a gentleman there resident, the editor of a daily newspaper, urged upon this director that, instead of the conventional, stereotyped kind, the station and its surroundings be given an artistic character commensurate with the standing of the suburb as a cultivated community. The director promised his cordial support. He laid the problem before two friends, one of them the leading architect of his day, the late Henry Hobson Richardson, and the other the great landscape-architect, the late Frederick Law Olmsted. Their cooperation produced results thoroughly delightful; after two decades the station stands as beautiful as when built, its surroundings increasing in beauty with every year that passes. So great was the satisfaction with this station that the two artists were commissioned with the development of a scheme of station -improvement for the entire line. Wherever a new station was to be built, it was designed according to the principles represented in this pioneer instance of the new departure. All along the line the station grounds were designed and improved in a similar way, not after one uniform pattern, but taking shape according to local circumstances.

Newton Highlands Station, Boston & Albany

The architect held that rural way-stations were not for show, and hence should avoid ostentation ; that their design should primarily represent their purpose, which was that of shelters, made comfortable and pleasant for passengers waiting for their trains. Therefore they were designed with simple, wide, and low-descending roofs as the most conspicuous feature, frankly supported by pillars-the roof overhanging broad platforms on all sides of the structure, whose substantial walls of stone meant permanence and stability. These stations have a quiet picturesqueness, an ever-satisfying restfulness. Of one general type in each instance, they vary sufficiently for individual character. They have set an example of station construction that has furnished a style very widely followed in all parts of the country.

The beautiful effect is enhanced by the charm of admirably designed surroundings. Wherever possible, the stations were given ample grounds, laid out with pleasantly modulated surfaces of turf, ornamented with, diversified shrubbery disposed in masses and clumps to give the most pleasing impressions. Paths and driveways, studied carefully with reference to local conditions, provide convenient approaches. The shrubbery is selected with a view to agreeable effects not only throughout the growing part of the year, but so far as possible all through the inclement months. To relieve the season's bleakness, for instance, the varieties chosen bear berries that have a brilliant coloring and that remain on their stems until spring. In other varieties the color of branches and twigs make a pleasing effect when the ground is covered with snow. Such shrubberies are, moreover, of great service in permanently screening the unsightly objects that often abound in the neighborhood of a railway. Wherever practicable, this is done with the aid of trees, and also of embankments that simulate natural surface undulations.

Local circumstances often invite pleasing landscape features for such grounds. Close to one station, for instance, there was a piece of swampy surface. The excavation of this has created a charming little pond, with aquatic plants naturally disposed along its margin. At another station the dripping from a water-tank on a bank has been taken advantage of to promote a luxuriant growth of ferns and mosses in a natural looking grotto-like arrangement of rocks. After the first cost, the maintenance of these station surroundings is economical, the only expense being the care of turf, shrubbery, and paths. In the way of sights from a train nothing is pleasanter than glimpses caught at these way-stations: people arriving and departing over walks through the shrubbery with the effect of pleasuring in a park, carriages driving up to take persons to happy, prosperous homes from these gateways of rural beauty. For the casual beholder, incidents of everyday life are thus invested with picturesque interest and even with poetic charm.

Montserrat Station, Boston & Maine

On the same railway much attention is paid to the development of attractive conditions all along the line as well. The sides of cuts, for example, are either turfed, or are planted with native shrubs that mask the scars made by the exposure of bare gravel or rock. Ledges and retaining-walls are covered with climbing plants, as are the walls of buildings that otherwise would look bald and cheerless. In all this work an appearance of stiffness or fussiness is avoided. The aim is to produce an impression of neatness and order, combined with a pleasing simplicity made consistent with conditions that for the most part are those of rural or rustic informality.

The method that has grown up on another great New England railway that gives much attention to beautifying its stations exemplifies the other principle in adornment—the improvement of surroundings by the decorative application of pretty things. This railway company offers annually a number of prizes to station-agents for keeping their grounds in the most attractive shape. The agents take a great interest in the work, and delight themselves, as well as the public at large, by aiming at pleasing results.

The movement for the improvement of railway surroundings is wide-spread, and in many communities has made its influence felt far beyond the railway premises. While there are very many railway lines where it has not been considered at all, being regarded as outside the legitimate sphere of railway activity, on others a high value is rightly attached to it. This is the case in all parts of the country, West as well as East, South as well as North.

West Manchester Station, Boston & Maine

Much attention is given to the design of stations as well as to the improvement of their surroundings. One great company in the Mississippi Valley, for example, has a standard design for station buildings, with changes at many points to suit local conditions. The aim is to have plain, neat structures. At the larger stations, however, there are more elaborate buildings, thoroughly architectural in character. The company pursues a policy of improving its station grounds and adjacent right of way by the planting of trees, shrubbery, and flowers. A trained landscape-gardener is employed to travel over the various lines of the system and to make plans and estimates for such improvements. Station-agents are instructed to cooperate with him, and after he has mapped out the improvements and furnished the necessary material, they are expected to take care of the premises. The scheme of improvement also contemplates the erection of greenhouses and the establishment of nurseries at one or two central points to supply flowers and shrubbery. Various other companies have established landscape departments as a feature of their work.

One of the great transcontinental systems pays particular attention to the architecture of its station buildings, and in many instances the designs are studied with special reference to local conditions. In California, for example, the Mission style has very appropriately been adapted to railway-station requirements. In another part of the Southwest an elaborate hotel and passenger-station combined was designed in the Spanish Colonial style, a choice most appropriate to the history and surroundings of the locality.

On another great system operating in the arid Southwest the local conditions are charmingly reflected in the grounds of one of the stations, where the agent has carried out an original scheme of a cactus garden with a rich representation of all the varieties obtainable in the neighborhood.

Scarsdale Station, Harlem Division of New York Central

One gratifying feature of railway conditions west of the Mississippi is the fact that the advertising nuisance, represented in gigantic bill-boards and the defacement of buildings by huge signs, which has grown to such an intolerable extent in the East, has taken but slight hold.

One of the most elaborate and comprehensive schemes of railway improvement ever undertaken is that adopted by a great company whose lines extend through several of the Southern States. Some of the features of this policy are of an extraordinary character. They transcend the limitations of embellishment and make the railway a great civilizing agent, with functions to that end exerted beyond its more immediate sphere as a common carrier. It thus comes in touch, socially and industrially, with the life of the people to an unusual degree, and is affecting that life profoundly and beneficently.

More than any other part of the United States, the South has been marked by a neglected aspect of things. This general behind-the-times effect has been one of the greatest drawbacks to the progress of the South. The management of this railway, aware how heavily its possibilities were handicapped by such conditions, set actively out to better them. It recognized that the value of the property was dependent upon the character of the tributary population; that increased popular intelligence meant increased prosperity, and consequently increased earning capacity for the railway. A broad scheme of development was therefore entered upon, and the work of lifting the population of six great States to higher levels of life, and consequently to vastly heightened productive efficiency, was undertaken along several important lines of coordinated effort. The office of Chief Industrial Agent was created, and the entire work was intrusted to a man of uncommon energy, breadth of view, and executive capacity. This official thoroughly appreciated the situation, and threw himself heart and soul into his task.

One of the first aims was to organize local improvement associations at all possible points. Sub-agents were appointed in each town whose duty was to advance local interests by cooperating with the plans of the company. The railway did its part by improving the surroundings of its stations with tree-planting and gardening, and entered upon the' remarkable work of bordering its road-bed with margins of grass for a length of a thousand miles or more.

Deal Beach Station, Central Railroad of New Jersey

The example thus set led to a very general improvement of home-surroundings. The schools were made a great instrumentality in the work. A general propaganda was instituted whereby the children were interested in improving the appearance of the school-houses, adorning the rooms with pictures, painting the exteriors, and beautifying the grounds. A great educational conference, composed of the State and county superintendents of instruction of all the States from Virginia to Florida inclusive, was held, and the main topic was the work of local improvement. The interest of women was enlisted. The company organized two special departments, and placed each in the charge of a prominent Southern lady, one as Superintendent of School-house Improvement and the other as Superintendent of Libraries. A system of traveling libraries was instituted, and Mr. Andrew Carnegie was so interested in the scheme that he contributed -liberally toward making it effective. Thirty-two libraries of well-selected books were thus formed; these the railway company sends to any point where they may be called for, stimulating and developing the rural regions by furnishing the farmers with good reading matter. Not only are books thus circulated, but every week a large number of papers and magazines are sent out by the railway to the people of the small towns and villages, as well as to the farmers. All this helps interest the people in improving the surroundings of their homes.

Starrucca Viaduct, Erie

To promote agricultural development, more than a hundred experimental farms were established at central points. Placed in charge of trained graduates of agricultural colleges, these furnish for the farmers invaluable object-lessons as to the things best to do and how best to do them. Yet another great feature of practical instruction was an industrial training-school on wheels—an exhibit train of twelve cars sent out along the line and announced well in advance to stop at certain places on certain dates. The coming of this train was a great event for the surrounding country, and the entire population gathered to welcome it. In the morning, addresses were made by prominent persons, and the afternoon was devoted to practical experiments with improved machinery, etc., conducted by experts. Road-rollers were put to work creating a section of good road, labor-saving agricultural machinery was operated, and the best processes for canning and preserving fruit, for picking, making butter and cheese, were demonstrated. Lessons in hygiene were also given, and the use of disinfectants was illustrated.

New Stone Bridge over Susquehanna River at Rockville, Pa., Pennsylvania Railroad

A great impetus for improvement was imparted by the institution of two annual festivals. On Arbor Day, observed on March 15, general tree-planting was encouraged all along the line. In preparation for "Painting Day," the people were called upon to paint, whitewash, clean up, and beautify generally, the company encouraging the work by the offer of special facilities. Yet another gala-day instituted by the company was a movable feast called "Work Day." On this occasion the people of a given locality were invited to meet the Chief Industrial Agent and his associates at a basket picnic. Circulars were sent out urging the people to come "prepared to do some work and see some fun." The people were taught how to do many little things to make home-surroundings pleasant. Farmers were invited to come in their wagons, bringing a few tools and also some poles of white oak, hickory, or cedar, to be made into attractive ornaments for the home. Everybody was urged to come in working clothes, so as to be able to lend a hand.

Stations on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fé

Another institution was a "Southern Carnival Association," organized to promote county and town fairs, street carnivals, and expositions, the railway cooperating in getting up local affairs of the kind, and offering premiums for the best agricultural and forest products, minerals, and manufactures.

Another line of effort was directed to the improving of the dirty and dilapidated negro-quarters in the towns, stimulating their denizens to better things by diverting their attention from politics to the improvement of their homes.

Many circulars were sent out, instructing people how to do things and how to make things,—among the latter, for instance, cheap and effective evaporators for fruit,—thus adding to the productivity of the community. Other circulars urged people to whitewash their fences and buildings. It was represented in such documents that the person looking for a place to settle in does not stop with the people who have unkempt front yards, broken-down fences, and unpainted or unwhitewashed outbuildings. Work of this sort, undertaken also by other great Southern railways, is making itself strongly felt. Hundreds of towns and villages in the South, lately slouchy of aspect, have awakened to new life, and are presenting an appearance as trim, well-kept, and prosperous as that of the typical New England community. The initiative taken by the railway company having very extensively realized its purpose in awakening a higher civic sense among the people in general, it later was decided that various activities above enumerated were no longer called for so far as the company's part was concerned. But others have been retained as permanent features.

Ocean Viaduct, Under Construction Between Long and Grassy Keys, Florida

One of the finest instances of recent railway progress in the appreciation of the traffic-promoting value of beauty is furnished by the history of the movement for the embellishment of the national capital. The chief feature of the plans, the magnificent Mall, would have been impossible had the railway line which until lately has had its station on Pennsylvania Avenue continued to occupy that location. The enlightened and public-spirited president of the company, however, the late A. J. Cassatt, declared himself heartily in agreement with the project. He looked at the question from the point of view of an American citizen, appreciating that if Congress intended to make of the Mall what the founders of Washington intended it to be, no railway should be allowed to cross it. His consent to a new location was also justified from a strictly railway point of view.

With the carrying out of these plans, Washington will be made the most beautiful capital city in the world, and will correspondingly attract increased travel thither, greatly to the profit of the railways. In architecture and in site the new station is one of the finest ever erected, even surpassing the splendid terminals that characterize the large cities in Germany. It stands on Massachusetts Avenue, facing the Capitol, and yet not too near it. Fronting upon a semicircular plaza six hundred feet wide, the building is nearly fifty feet wider than the Capitol. It is constructed of white marble, with a facade of classical style. The plaza before it is a fine feature in itself, and provides a place where bodies of troops or large organizations can be formed for Inauguration ceremonies or on other occasions. The railway-station thus forms the great vestibule of Washington, a fitting introduction to its attractions.

Kenilworth Station, Near Chicago, North Shore of Lake Michigan

The monumental treatment of railway terminals to express their functions as the modern gateways of a great city has received a remarkable impetus from the example set at Washington. Direct consequences are the two magnificent stations now under construction in New York, the Union Station in Cleveland, and the beautiful Atlanta terminal built in the style of the Spanish renaissance.


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