By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
The relationship between railroads and field collecting is a story of expediency and access. Prior to air travel and the interstate system, collectors often found the easiest way to travel within the vicinity of their home institutions or long distances was by train. When cataloging field books I learned that where trains went and even how railroad lines were constructed helped shape the collections of the Smithsonian.
I first saw this in the collection of Bohumil Shimek. He spent a lot of time collecting and observing along railroads in Iowa. Shimek had an unusual perspective on natural history. He studied a combination of geology, paleontology, and botany, often in reference to erosion. Railroad lines provided an ideal environment for his work. As the railroads were built in the countryside, engineers made cuts into the terrain, which gave Shimek easy access to study the geological structure alongside surrounding vegetation. When reading Shimek’s field books, one can often follow long portions of railroad lines.
Initially I thought the use of railroads was unique to the study of geology and paleontology; it fit with the trend I saw in geologists’ and paleontologists’ field books of looking for already exposed strata (they often observed and collected in mines and eroded banks of waterways). As I looked through catalog records and talked with some of the Smithsonian scientists, I learned that railroad lines affect many other disciplines because collecting often occurs enroute.
Selecting a collecting site is not always a formal process. Although official investigations or expeditions might be organized to target specific localities, frequently specimen collecting occurs when a collector finds an opportunity. What does this mean? Scientists collect during lunch breaks, at home, and enroute to major collecting sites. This informal collecting style is one reason the Smithsonian has such a strong collection of specimens from the Washington DC / Baltimore area, often along old railroads that have since been removed.
During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, railroads were a major form of transportation on the east coast. Many collectors from the Smithsonian traveled by rail. While traveling, they recorded observations of terrain and vegetation; when the train stopped at intermediate points, collectors exited to collect in the vicinity. Travel by rail influenced the collecting of plant, mammal, and bird specimens. Below is just a sample of some of the collectors who utilized railroad lines during their collecting.
- Charles D. Walcott recorded his observations of the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia and Alberta, Canada along the route of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, 1907-1916.
- Alexander Wetmore collected in Wyoming in 1910 along the Union Pacific Railroad line.
- Fielding Meek worked along railroads during 1862 in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
- Sheldon surveyed the plants, mineral deposits and other natural resources of the mountains of Oregon lying between the Snake River and the Oregon Short Line Railroad, 1897 for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
- Edmund Heller travelled by foot and collected along railroad tracks during the American Museum of Natural History China Expedition, 1916-1917.
- Harold Elmer Anthony collected birds and mammals, often found along railroads, for the USDA, while in Wyoming, 1911.
- Vernon Orlando Bailey collected mammal and bird specimens in 1890 through the western United States, frequently identifying collecting sites by railroad line.
Now that I see the trend, it makes sense. Railroad lines made travel across long distances much easier. It seems only logical that scientists would take advantage of the railway system by collecting along its established routes. It makes me wonder, will I be able to write a similar post someday about the birth of the US interstate system?