Plains, Trains, and Historic Photo Collections

Mary McDonnell is a sophomore majoring in Conservation and Resource Studies.


Growing up in Sacramento, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for trains. That is why this photograph of a railroad stretching the small Plumas county town of Vinton, stood out to me. Taken in 1910 by collector Walter P. Taylor, this image of Vinton is hauntingly beautiful, capturing the town’s isolation and small size, the dry shrubs that seem to go on as far as the railroad, and the expansive hilly landscape in the background.

Incredibly enough, looking up satellite images of Vinton, CA on Google Maps shows a town that doesn’t look much different from the one in the photo from 1910. Although the railroad no longer runs through the town, a long stretch of paved road has taken its place. Otherwise, little has changed about the buildings and almost nothing has been developed on the far-reaching grass and shrub lands, leaving the view of the hills unobstructed.

This photo is unlike many of the others I have handled so far. Mostly, I pick through different images of ecosystems and animals; forests, birds, lakes, deserts, bears, etc – typical field documentations. For some reason, Taylor found this site of a small town and railway worthy of belonging to his photo collection. I doubt he foresaw that someone like me, whose idea of fun is an afternoon at the Sacramento Railroad Museum and whose text message ringtone is the sound of a train whistle, would see this image and get excited by the window into California history that it opens. Train enthusiasts in mind or not, Taylor saw significance in the town of Vinton for documenting, and I am happy he did. 


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