Through much of the history of this country, trains and railroads have had strong metaphorical and symbolic significance in our history, literature, music and art. Artists and musicians have used the railroad as a metaphor for everything from heartbreak and sorrow to hope for the future and spiritual deliverance. The mournful and haunting sound of a distant locomotive speaks to the mortality of us all.
There was a time when trains signified the very essence of strength, power and the relentless march of progress. But even in the early days of railroading a darker side of progress was evident. In Walden, Thoreau hears the “iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils.”
Trains have been displaced by swifter and mightier symbols of progress, but these trains pictured from our current vantage point hauntingly refer us to the ultimate end of progress. In their decayed and diminished state, they speak to the ambiguity of progress as well as our nostalgic longing for a better past, as we accelerate into the future.