'Railroaders' at the Chicago History Museum offers a poignant snapshot of Chicago labor in the 40s | Bleader

'Railroaders' at the Chicago History Museum offers a poignant snapshot of Chicago labor in the 40s

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Throwing a switch; Proviso Yard; 1943
One of the standout images in "Railroaders: Jack Delano's Homefront Photography" is of a lone, faceless rail man—back to the camera, his all-denim outfit stamped with grime—as he leans over to throw a switch at Chicago's vast Proviso Yard, a couple dozen sets of vacant tracks stretching into the background. Then shot epitomizes the magnitude of Chicago's railway system in the mid-20th century, when its reputation as a crucial hub for the railroading industry was undeniable. But most importantly, it depicts the grind.

On assignment from the Farm Security Administration (whose photographic unit was later absorbed into the Office of War Information), Delano documented the nuts and bolts of the Chicagoland rail system in some 3,000 color and black-and-white images shot between 1942 and '43—a small part of the government's attempt to bolster support for the World War II effort by glorifying blue-collar American industriousness. Judging by the 60 shots cherry-picked for this exhibit, the drudgery of the rails offered little glamour.

Photos of Union Station and its giant, meticulously tended fare board, even pictures of actor Gary Sinise's railworking forebears are fascinating as historical curiosities, but it's the stark portraits in "Railroaders" that poignantly communicate the toll the job took on the men and women of the yards. In shots like that of an African-American repairman named Frank Williams toiling at the Illinois Central's Markham Yard, Delano captures not just caked-on soot and furrowed brows but also the weariness of duty in the eyes of these workers.

Also on view is an endearing series by Delano's son, Pablo, featuring the families of those rail workers holding his father's photographs. The exhibit's other displays—one of Delano's cameras, a reproduction of a ticket window, footage of rail yards from the 40s—are nice distractions too. But the real spirit that enlivens "Railroaders" is the gumption Chicago laborers summoned day in and day out to keep the trains thrumming—and keep the country from going off the rails.

Through 8/10: Mon-Sat 9:30 AM-4:30 PM, Sun noon-5 PM, Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark, 312-642-4600, chicagohistory.org, $14, $12 students and seniors.

Frank Williams, car repairman, Illinois Centrals Markham Yard, November 1942

Dorothy Lucke, engine wiper, C&NW yard, Clinton, Iowa, April 1943

Mike Evans, car repairman/welder, Proviso Yard, April 1943

Delano and his Speed Graphic camera, 1943

Union Station, 1943
  • Courtesy Library of Congress; The Crowley Company
  • Union Station, 1943

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