In their early years, railroads did much more than just carry passengers and freight across the country. The Iron Horse helped tame the West by building rail branches and opening access to uncharted areas. Investors found lucrative results in penetrating the frontier and opening the way for the hordes of treasure, adventure, and opportunity seekers that have been pouring west since the early 1800s. The "Rolling Thunder" of millions of stampeding buffalo gave way to the Rolling Thunder of railroad locomotives.
Collecting railroad material has been a longstanding priority of the Western History Department, and our resources are vast. The manuscript collection includes papers from the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, Union Pacific Railroad, Northwest Terminal Railroad, San Luis Railroad and the San Juan Railroad. Railroad Passes include solid silver and paper examples that Silverton Railroad founder Otto Mears issued to politicians, judges and others whose favors he courted. Railroad manuscripts hold an extensive compilation of plans for railcars, terminals, and rail lines; accident reports and detailed reports and correspondence that document the growth of the industry.
The Western History Department's railroad, street railway and interurban materials include books, periodicals, photographs, maps, railroad passes, videotapes, construction reports, annual reports, timetables, railroad land grants, and manuscripts covering the full spectrum of the railroad industry and railroad activity in the 22 states west of the Mississippi.
Also in the collection are progress report surveys for some individual lines, official government surveys, promotional maps and brochures, maps showing railroad land grants and rights-of-way, and route guides for different railroads published by different commercial firms.
Highlights of our Railroad Collection:
- 20,000+ photographs including the entire Otto Perry Catalog
- Railroad company periodicals and trade publications
- Promotional material and other ephemera
- 3500+ Books
We have a cataloged collection of both public and employee timetables including train schedules, fares, name of station stops and other useful information for the traveler. Employee timetables usually include additional information regarding operating rules, station services and sometimes information about personnel.
Railroad maps represent an important historical record, illustrating the growth of travel and settlement, as well as the development of industry and agriculture in the trans-Mississippi West. A large number of railroad maps are included in the Western History Map Collection. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe and the Union Pacific Railroad are especially well covered in this collection.
Railroad photographs include images of locomotives, rolling stock, stations, shops, buildings, and people related to railroad activity. Our online database contains a good selection from the nearly 25,000 railroad images by photographers such as William H. Jackson, L. C. McClure, George Beam, Otto Perry, and Robert W. Richardson that are part of our railroad photo collection.
Manuscripts are unpublished materials created by both individuals and corporate entities. The department's manuscripts that pertain to railroads range in size from a single item to many cartons.The holdings include corporate, financial, personal papers, drawings as well as a wide variety of other railroad-related documents. An example of some of the railroad manuscripts are as follows: Railroad passes, Railroad Company Stock Certificates, San Juan Railroad Project Papers, San Luis Southern Railway Company Collection, Union Pacific Railroad Company Collection, Rio Grande Western Railway Company Papers, Northwestern Terminal Railroad Company Collection, Denver and Salt Lake Railroad Company Papers, Denver Northwestern and Pacific Railway Company Papers, and the Denver, Aspen and Grand River Railroad Company Papers. For these and other collections, a finding aid is available for locating individual items of interest.
Railroading Books and Periodicals
The Western History / Genealogy Department owns a substantial number of published items relating to railroading in Western United States. Popular titles about rail travel and railroading are offered, as well as corporate histories, pictorial accounts of single railroads and also of particular geographic areas where railroads were a dominant feature of the landscape. Periodicals such as Poor's Manual of the Railroads of the United States, issued annually since 1868, gives short histories of North American railroads. The Official Guide of the Railways contains the passenger schedules of over 700 North American railroads.
Railroad Collection Processing
Many of the Western railroad manuscripts have been processed and cataloged with funding provided by Marilyn Hodges Wilmerding, in memory of William Van Derveer Hodges and William Van Derveer Hodges, Jr.
You can search for railroad materials in our collection with the Denver Public Library's databases - the main catalog will show maps, schedules, books, and manuscripts, etc., and the photo database will provide photographs. Use terms like "railroads," "locomotives," "freight cars," "depot," "passengers," "shops" and "yards."
We have a comprehensive list of Railroading Resources here.
Be sure to go through the photo gallery with this entry - many of the images were selected by Charles Albi, Retired Executive Director of the Colorado Railroad Museum, a Denver Public Library Volunteer.