HAVE you ever ridden on a railroad train? Today we are not surprised if you answer no. Fifty years ago, your answer most likely would have been yes. One hundred and fifty years ago, you might have asked, what is a railroad train? On this page we have a painting celebrating the first passenger railroad train in the world, making its very first trip on Aug. 9, 1831, from the city of Albany to the next town, Schenectady, in the state of New York. Steam engines were already pulling freight in other parts of the country and in England.
The artist Edward Lamson Henry was born 10 years after that wonderful event, and he painted it many years later. He was very careful to reconstruct the scene as exactly as he could, checking railroad handbills and engravings.
It is possible that Henry talked to people who rode on the train as he painted in that area. He is called a genre painter because he liked to paint people in everyday activities. Although this is a historical painting, he achieves a very lively scene with each individual portraying his or her reaction to the strange, new way of travel.
The little steam engine, which was later named the DeWitt Clinton, was not even 12 feet long, shorter than most automobiles. An engineer crouches between it and the next car, which carries two barrels of wood for the steam-producing fire. He peers anxiously into the engine while another uniformed employee comes running up.
The man in uniform is the conductor and carries what looks like a slender horn. We guess that he wants to know if the train is ready to start out again and we wonder if he was the first one to call, ``All aboard,'' to make sure all his passengers were on the train. Or he might have used his horn instead, as they did on the horse-drawn stagecoaches.
On this first train ride, the brave passengers of the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad were jolted along in cars exactly like stagecoaches fastened together underneath. Smoke, sparks, and ashes floated back over the riders. And it was noisy!
In the foreground the artist has placed discarded railroad ties and fallen trees, which not only give the sense that the work was just finished but cleverly give the picture a three-dimensional look by their diagonal placement. This brings us close to the bystanders in the horse-drawn carriages and on foot.
A humorous group is prominent on the left. A stout woman in a dark green dress with a red-bordered scarf and a bonnet to match exclaims with her upraised hands at the novel, and perhaps dangerous, sight. A boy beside her in his best tan suit points excitedly while a younger woman holds her daughter protectively close to her.
We notice that all the travelers on this first trip are men. In 1831 it was not considered proper for women to be adventurous enough to ride the new invention the few miles from Albany to Schenectady. Happily, today women go exploring everywhere on earth and into space as astronauts.
Behind the coaches there is a large building whose sign (between the third and fourth cars) honors President Andrew Jackson with a portrait and the inscription ``Old Hickory.'' Underneath is the name of the inn, Two Mile House. A road sign to the left of the fourth car points to Schenectady 13 miles away and Albany at 2 miles in the opposite direction. As the original route is historically noted as 17 miles, we suppose that a final mile at each end provided a turnaround for the train.
These signs which show that the excursion was headed from Albany to Schenectady are also examples of the care with which Henry researched his scene to get it perfectly correct. Extra touches are men mopping their brows in the August sun, geese on the tracks at right, the boys on the near side discussing the new steam engine and the girl on the far side with her fingers in her ears.
The engine is gray, with a dull green undercarriage. Coach bodies are reddish brown. Men are dressed in tans and grays, while women are fashionable in bright mixtures of rose-red and blue-green. This is a favorite color combination of this artist, who probably found that he could make individual figures stand out clearly with contrasting colors.
His ability to make each figure distinct leads me to guess that Henry also painted dioramas. These usually small exhibits with modeled figures, buildings, and landscapes were popular during his time. People were thrilled by their realistic effect. But as dioramas are bulky and fragile, not many of them have survived.
We are glad that Henry painted this scene for us on canvas so we can feel that we, too, are spectators to a fascinating and exciting moment in the history of our country.