V&T links history and tourism
“Tourism is a malleable industry designed to anticipate and cultivate trends in American society.”
Professor of Environmental History
In October of last year, Hal Rothman, a professor of environmental history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, gave the keynote address at the V&T Railroad History Symposium in Carson City. Many of Professor Rothman’s comments, although not specifically related to the V&T Railroad reconstruction effort, were particularly relevant to the task before us. Among other things, he warned against compromising authenticity and the educational benefits of cultural tourism just for the sake of economy.
Professor Rothman has, over the years, authored an impressive number of articles, publications and professional papers. Among these is a piece that appeared in the November 1996 edition of Pacific Historical Review entitled “Selling the Meaning of Place: Entrepreneurship, Tourism and Community Transformation in the Twentieth Century American West.”
In this article, Rothman focuses on the evolution of some of the earliest tourist attractions in the American West (most notably the Grand Canyon and Santa Fe, N.M.) illustrating with these examples what he calls “The transformative power of heritage tourism.” Ironically, in the case of the Grand Canyon, the existence of railroad access increased the marketability of this geological wonder, while in the case of Santa Fe, inaccessibility by rail preserved its image as an exclusive cultural retreat and its illusion of authenticity.
In the case of the Grand Canyon, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (AT&SF), recognized, like other railroads, that it could increase business by creating a so-called “Romantic Terminus” – in the words of Professor Rothman,” an iconographic celebration of western topography and indigenous culture that convinced visitors to “See America First.”
As a direct result of lantern slide presentations, promotional literature and referrals, thousands of visitors rode the train annually to the Grand Canyon in the late 1800s and the early part of the 20th century. Traffic on the rails increased and vacation destinations were expanded to include western sites with symbolic meaning, spectacular scenery and first-class accommodations.
The Grand Canyon was marketed not only for its natural splendor, but also for what it came to represent – the embodiment of what is great and glorious about the American continent and the people who pioneered it.
Santa Fe, on the other hand, was on its way to oblivion before it was rescued from “the scrap heap of western history” by the aggressive and deliberate marketing of its culture. In the 1800s, the rails that opened the door to western expansion bypassed Santa Fe. Interestingly, it was this geographical isolation that led to its salvation.
Santa Fe became a sanctuary for those seeking a preindustrial experience and eventually evolved into what it is today – “a state of mind.” Its cultural identity was deliberately manipulated to create a romantic niche in the modern world.
In many respects, northern Nevada is a composite of the destinations just described. It is blessed not only with an abundance of natural beauty but also with a rich and bountiful history. In order for us, however, to realize our true potential as a region, we must develop a vision of our cultural meaning and the financial courage to pursue a grander destiny.
The reconstruction of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad represents a real and symbolic link between our heritage and the prosperity that lies within our grasp.