Railroads Build – and Destroy: Competing Narratives of the Birth of Los Angeles Union Station | Los Angeles | Food and discovery

Time passed, the shutters clicked. On May 3, 1939, when all manner of wheeled vehicles from Southern California’s past roamed the center of Alameda Street, photographers from Dick Whittington’s studio caught the spotlight on Kodak’s four-by-five-inch film: flats and covered wagons; wood burning locomotives and giant coal engines; Farthing pennies and safety bikes; horse-drawn trams and horseless carriages; A set of modern cars.

A family on a rickshaw takes to the parade to celebrate the opening of LA Union Station. | The Dick Whittington Collection, USC Digital Library

Men ride bicycles in a parade to celebrate the opening of Los Angeles Union Station.

Men ride bicycles in a parade to celebrate the opening of Los Angeles Union Station. | The Dick Whittington Collection, USC Digital Library

The procession was also marked by painted railroad floats that presented snippets of a romantically imagined past. In one, children dressed as Missionary Indians smiled with baskets of grapes, a sight that ruled out the realities of the exploitative labor and population destruction suffered by the native Californians. In another, a Mormon soldier was dead next to him, as a woman waved overhead celebrating the armed US invasion of Mexican California in 1847. Binding it all together – conquered past and victorious present – was Hollywood star Leo Carrillo, scion of a prominent California family, He walked the parade route and raised his horse for the Whittington photographers.

    Children dressed as Missionary Indians smile with baskets of grapes on this buoy.

Children dressed as Missionary Indians smile with baskets of grapes on this buoy. | The Dick Whittington Collection, USC Digital Library

    A Mormon soldier lay dead beside him as a woman waved old glory celebrating the armed US invasion of Mexican California in 1847.

A Mormon soldier lay dead beside him as a woman waved old glory celebrating the armed US invasion of Mexican California in 1847. | The Dick Whittington Collection, USC Digital Library

Hollywood star Leo Carrillo, scion of a prominent California family, walked the parade route during the opening of Union Station in Los Angeles.

Hollywood star Leo Carrillo, scion of a prominent California family, walked the parade route during the opening of Union Station in Los Angeles. | The Dick Whittington Collection, USC Digital Library

These images, long hidden as negatives inside envelopes, are now publicly visible for the first time thanks to the USC Libraries Digitization Project, funded by a grant from the National Historical Publishing and Recording Committee (NHPRC).

Attracting one of the city’s largest crowds ever, nearly half a million people, all of these festivals celebrated the grand opening that week of Los Angeles Union Station, the first passenger terminal serving all three of the city’s major rail lines. Even as we looked back in time, celebrating transportation technology already outdated, the show cemented the new facility as evidence of progress – something Union Station exemplified through its synthesis of Spanish Revival and Art Deco styles, all just a stone’s throw from Los Angeles. Historic Los Pueblo.

The official theme for the day was announced by a banner pinned to the side of Santa Fe’s mega locomotive No. 5006, made the thought explicit, and in the present tense: “Railways build the nation.”

A train carrying many flags rolls over the rails with a banner announcing, "Railroads build a nation" During a parade to celebrate the opening of LA Union Station.

A train carrying several flags rolls over the tracks with a sign proclaiming, “Railways Build the Nation” during a parade to celebrate the opening of LA Union Station. | The Dick Whittington Collection, USC Digital Library

At least one group of participants found this mantra to be very understandable. Among the buoys that day was one celebrating the construction of a transcontinental railway, and featured seven elderly Chinese men in ancient costume—most of whom, by appearances, were old enough to actually work on the railroad in the 1870s. The men carried heavy axes and hammers and sat or stood on a 20-foot stretch of the simulated path. A banner made a nice correction to the official theme of the show: “The railways built the nation; the Chinese helped build the railways.”

Seven elderly Chinese American men in vintage uniforms photograph the transcontinental railroad industry in procession to celebrate the opening of LA Union Station.

Seven elderly Chinese American men in vintage uniforms photograph the transcontinental railroad industry in procession to celebrate the opening of LA Union Station. | The Dick Whittington Collection, USC Digital Library

These men weren’t alone in the Los Angeles reminder whose appearance carried Los Angeles into the railroad age. Behind them floats, dozens of Chinese American men, women, and children—many presumably descendants of railroad construction workers—waved the stars, stripes, and white sun flag of the Republic of China. After decades of helping them open a railroad between Los Angeles and San Francisco (and thus the rest of the nation) in 1876, the Chinese community remained a part of the City of Angels.

Chinese American men, women and children hold the stars, ribbons, and white sun flag of the Republic of China.

Chinese American men, women and children hold the stars, ribbons, and white sun flag of the Republic of China. | The Dick Whittington Collection, USC Digital Library

The reminder was especially poignant that day, given the facts behind the construction of Union Station. Before this monument to the progress of the railroad rose from the eastern side of Alameda, about three thousand residents of what became known as “Old Chinatown” had to be relocated – some to the “New Chinatown” district just a few blocks to the north western. This was followed by bulldozers and wrecking balls. The homes, businesses, and gathering places that had served the Angeleno’s Chinese community for half a century were destroyed.

Railways build, railways destroy.

This loss cannot be recognized in photographs taken from the military parade on May 3, 1939. But Whittington’s photographers were aware of this. Sometime before the destruction, perhaps in the early 1930s, a Whittington worker identified in files only as “Jack” walked across the future site of Union Station with his 35mm camera. The 15 photos taken by Jack – digitized in 2010 by USC Libraries as part of an earlier NEH-funded project – offer a stark contrast to the triumph of later images. Grandparents walking with grandchildren. A man reading a poster in Chinese calligraphy. Lens cup for boys. No great scenery: only the soothing rhythms of everyday life in “Old Chinatown” that will soon be lost on the railways. The invisible price of progress.

    Old Chinatown picture with signs saying "chop together" And the "chow mein"

A look at Old Chinatown before it was demolished to make way for Union Station. | The Dick Whittington Collection, USC Digital Library

Elegantly dressed men read Chinese posters plastered on the walls around Old Chinatown.

Elegantly dressed men read Chinese posters plastered on the walls around Old Chinatown. | The Dick Whittington Collection, USC Digital Library

Men spending time outdoors with a sign that says "Cheng Dong" in Mandarin.

Men spend time outdoors in Old Chinatown. | The Dick Whittington Collection, USC Digital Library

A man walks through the streets of old Chinatown.

A man walks through the streets of old Chinatown. | The Dick Whittington Collection, USC Digital Library

    A young boy peeks outside an old Chinatown institution.

A young boy peeks outside an old Chinatown institution. | The Dick Whittington Collection, USC Digital Library

Two boys photographed in the old Chinatown.

Two boys photographed in the old Chinatown. | The Dick Whittington Collection, USC Digital Library

An old man and a young boy stand together outside The Farlow Chop Suey in Old Chinatown.

An old man and a young boy stand together outside The Farlow Chop Suey in Old Chinatown. | The Dick Whittington Collection, USC Digital Library

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