The Machine in the Garden
“....the dominance of the past in all aspects of the present, the
palpable sense of time as a presence, made me more fully aware
of what I was seeking in the transient ruins of my own culture.”
—Time Pieces, Wright Morris
This project began one afternoon as I stopped along a two-lane road three miles from my house at a place once called McIntyre—a spot where, years ago, two railroads had converged. Hidden in plain sight ten yards from the macadam, concealed by a wall of vegetation and an unlocked gate, was a scene I’d driven past hundreds of times but never really seen—the abandoned, former right-of-way of the Poughkeepsie and Eastern Railroad. A canopy of trees formed a verdant, cathedral-like passageway above; below, one could still discern the tracings of former tracks etched upon the landscape.
My awareness of the chasm in time between my present and the past while walking along a rail line built a century earlier proved revelatory. It was history beneath my feet. Experiencing first-hand this impress of the “machine in the garden” (to use Leo Marx’s phrase) called up associations from 19th century painting and literature. It wasn’t hard to conjure Asher Durand or Thomas Cole as they sketched out their early philosophies about aesthetics and a sanctified Hudson Valley landscape. Henry David Thoreau’s plaintive musings 160 years ago, warning of civilization’s encroachments running by Walden Pond—as represented by the Fitchburg Railroad—also came to mind. More contemporary questions simultaneously arose about land-use policy, rural development (or the lack thereof) and the region’s geography and ecology. In this landscape, on that afternoon, many “readings” were possible as I stared down the forested corridor that once housed the dominant mechanism of growth and progress in the 19th century: the railroad.
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Beginning in the spring of 2009—utilizing historic photographs, topographic maps, on-the-ground research, and Google Earth satellite imagery—I’ve been investigating the vestigial remnants of railroads constructed 120 years ago near my hometown of Stanfordville, New York. This series of photographs of abandoned railroad right-of-ways in Dutchess County is a continuation of my on-going interest in documenting the sociological, cultural, and historical within the contemporary everyday American landscape. Inextricable from these interests is my belief that every aesthetic decision a photographer makes concurrently expresses a political attitude. Therefore every project, every exposure and every print is potentially a social statement.
With those thoughts in mind I made an intentional decision to stay close to home as gasoline prices rose to four dollars-a-gallon—an act of resistance and protest on one hand, and an attempt at responsible consumption and citizenship on the other. Counter to my usual peripatetic photographic practice, characterized by long-distance drives exploring various out-backs of American culture, I decided to shrink my carbon footprint and challenge myself to work within a ten-mile radius. I also wanted to develop a broader understanding of the local cultural geography where I live vis-à-vis these legacy railroads that I had only a vague awareness of at the time.
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Dutchess County railroads raison d’être was to serve independent dairymen and the milk business, the chief industry of the agriculturally based, upstate economy from the late 19th century to the first third of the 20th. These railroads, many of which had their beginnings in the Gilded Age of the 1870s and 80s (an era of unfettered infrastructure build-out and rampant finance capitalism)—like the Poughkeepsie and Eastern, Newburgh, Dutchess and Connecticut, and the Rhinebeck and Connecticut—were competitors with mainlines often paralleling one another. Redundant routes proved problematic; there wasn’t enough freight or passenger traffic to insure profitability for each corporation. These lines consolidated into the Central New England Railroad in 1908, which later become part of the New Haven in the Twenties. Mergers couldn’t forestall the inevitable however. As America’s highway network improved and proliferated, railroads of the Northeast lost their competitive edge to local and regional trucking firms. The incursion of the private automobile and the independence it engendered also damaged the railroad’s passenger business: people could now choose when and where they went without being tied to schedules or pre-determined routes. The final leveling occurred during the Great Depression; ever toughening financial times saw prospects dwindle even further for marginal routes. The cessation of the railroad—once the principal social and economic lifeline to the outside world for small-towns and villages—became unavoidable. The New Haven filed for abandonment of these rural lines between 1935-1938. The railroad’s physical presence was erased soon thereafter: rails were torn up, ties removed, stations razed or repurposed. Train tracks that seventy years earlier had signaled hope and prosperity for settlements strung along their path were sold off as scrap to the Japanese in the late 1930s, only to be refashioned into enemy battleships during World War II.
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Why do so many former railroad right-of-ways in upstate New York remain untouched today? The reasons are myriad. First, economic activity and land-use policy shape the land where we live, dictating what remains and what doesn’t. “Poverty is a great preserver of history,” wrote Lucy Lippard. “Change,” according to cultural geographer John Stilgoe, “comes more slowly in rural areas because of this poverty.” Many working-class farming communities have a populace living near subsistence levels. Northern Dutchess and Columbia Counties are not that different. Small-farm agriculture has remained a component of the Pine Plains / Stanfordville local economy for the past century, with corn and hay the principal crops now under cultivation. However, alongside this agrarian-based culture exists an upper class that uses land as hunting preserves, to raise horses, or to tend “gentleman farms.” Much of the property they own is “alienated” from the surrounding landscape—a positive term indicating tracts of land removed from circulation by landowners who use it for recreational purposes, don’t commodify it, and then oftentimes donate it in the future to local or national land trusts via conservation easements. It’s easy to see this dichotomy between the local “modest means” economy and the wealth found in Dutchess County impact this “what remains” equation.
Secondly, the longevity of the right-of-ways within our localities is also due to a historic lack of other types of commercial enterprise besides farming; if no other business concerns are making demands upon the landscape—like new housing, or the mining of natural resources—most land remains unchanged and unencumbered.
Thirdly, I’d also like to believe that an appreciation (and awareness) of local history by some area inhabitants insures the right-of-ways intactness, allowing them to languish for posterity. A “letting things alone” philosophy becomes a benign act of preservation.
Fourth, on a physical level the fills or cuts the railroad once ran across or through are simply too hard to remove. Now permanent features embedded in the earth, local landowners or municipalities who inherited or purchased them have chosen adaptive reuse instead of destruction. Many now act as roadways or bridges across otherwise impassable wetlands into private residences. Many provide secluded passage for horseback riding, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling. Many have become pathways meant for a contemplative escape from the incessant distractions of daily life.
Fifth, various Dutchess County land conservancy groups over the past three decades have played an inadvertent role in saving these former transportation corridors with their preservation and conservation efforts too. Traces of the former mainlines of these legacy railroads remain in place because stewardship organizations have taken an active environmental interest in setting aside open space in the area for public use and habitat preservation. Undoubtedly, all the above factors have allowed much of our local landscape to lie relatively undisturbed for a long time, helping to preserve these relict railroad lanes.
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That remnants of the “garden” still exist in upstate New York—and that the machine still lingers within that garden decades after its corporeal disappearance—is fascinating to me. Having a lifelong interest in trains, which was the first subject I explored when I became a photographer 43 years ago, this project represents a return to origins. It affords me the opportunity to combine the disciplines of visual anthropology, history, and geography with a genuine curiosity about local railroads and their cultural and physical impact on the landscape where I live.
The photographs of Mark Ruwedel, Joel Sternfeld and Lothar Baumgarten helped inspire this work; I acknowledge and thank them all.
September 26, 2011
Stanfordville, New York