Jack Delano – Working on the Railroad All the Live Long Day

Diesel switch engine working at the South Water Street, Illinois Central Railroad freight terminal, May 1943

I’ve long admired the photography of Jack Delano, one of many talented photographers hired by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and Works Progress Administration to document America, but knew little about him. When I discovered his masterful railroad photographs of Chicago, this provided inspiration to dig deeper. Born Jacob Ovcharov in the Russian Empire (now Ukraine) in 1914, he immigrated with his parents and younger brother to the U.S. in 1923, settling in NYC. In addition to his photography, he was a prolific music composer and wrote children’s books with his wife Irene.

When he was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1928-1932, Delano won a Cresson Traveling Scholarship. During his four-month fellowship in Europe, Delano bought a tourist camera, sparking his interest in photography. It’s also at school, during a beer-soaked party, that his classmates convinced him to change his name. A female friend suggested her own – Delano, while Jack had been adopted earlier in honor of the boxer Jack Dempsey.

In 1941, he was sent on assignment to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands by the FSA. This had such a profound influence on him, he moved there in 1946 after serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a photographer in the Pacific and South America. Soon after moving to Puerto Rico, Delano became the official photographer of the government, chronicling the island’s transformation from agriculture to industry. 

The book Photographic Memories was published by the Smithsonian shortly before his death in 1997. In it, Delano was quoted, “Light, color, texture and so on are, to me, important only as they contribute to the honest portrayal of what is in front of the camera, not as ends in themselves.”

During his long career, Delano photographed coal miners, sharecroppers, railroad men, and Puerto Rican cane cutters, among other subjects. In this blog, I’m featuring the Illinois Central Railroad photographs he shot on assignment for the FSA in 1943. Chartered in 1851, the Illinois Central Railroad had an incredible impact on the economic and physical development of Illinois and Chicago. The color photographs, printed from 4 x 5 transparencies, were unconventional and groundbreaking for the era and subject matter. These wonderful photos also capture iconic Chicago buildings, many of which thankfully still grace the city.


Illinois Central Railroad Depot with huge Pabst Blue Ribbon sign, April 1943

At night, the massive sign advertising Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer lit up the surrounding Illinois Central Railroad freight cars parked in Chicago’s South Water Street freight terminal. This sign was located near the Randolph Street bridge – the vast empty space behind the sign is home to One Prudential Plaza, completed in 1955 and the Aon Center, completed in 1974 (formerly the Standard Oil Building). The gorgeous Art Deco Carbon and Carbide Building at 230 N. Michigan Avenue (completed in 1929) is the tallest one in this photo and also appears in the black and white photo at the start of this blog.


Trucks unloading at the inbound freight house of the Illinois Central Railroad, South Water Street freight terminal, April 1943

In the above photo, the landmark Wrigley Building at 400-410 N. Michigan (completed in 1924), Tribune Tower at 435 N. Michigan (completed in 1925), and Medinah Athletic Club at 505 N. Michigan (completed in 1929) are clearly visible. Built as the headquarters for chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr., the Wrigley Building was the first office building in Chicago to get air conditioning. The Medinah became the Continental Hotel & Tower Club the year after Delano shot this photo and subsequently, the InterContinental. 


Freight cars at the South Water Street freight terminal; the C & O and Nickel Plate Railroads leased part of this terminal, April 1943

The tall tower soaring in the backdrop on the left side is the Mather Tower at 75 E. Wacker Drive, completed in 1928. Commissioned in 1926 as a speculative office building by millionaire developer and businessman Alonzo C. Mather (1848-1930), the building was slated to have twin towers, but this never happened. Today, this stunning building is home to the River Hotel. An intriguing fact that relates to the theme of this blog:

  • Mather was an animal lover and is known for developing a more humane stock car for the shipment of livestock by rail. Features including feeding and watering facilities – neither of which had been installed in cars prior to this. 


Looking south from the South Water Street Illinois Central Railroad freight terminal, April 1943

From north to south, starting with the low building just right of the center, these are the historic pictured buildings – a few are partially obscured. All have addresses on Michigan except the Chicago Cultural Center, because its official entrance is on Washington, with a secondary one on Randolph. Sadly, the 10-story tower, three-story pyramid, temple, and weather vane in the shape of a woman was removed from the Montgomery Ward Building in 1947.

Chicago Public Library (Chicago Cultural Center), 78 East Washington Street
Constructed: 1892-1897, 1977 (restoration)

Michigan Boulevard Building, 30 North 
Constructed: 1913-1914

Smith, Gaylord & Cross Building, 20 North
Constructed: 1882, 1891 (addition)

Montgomery Ward Building, 6 North
Constructed: 1897-1899, 1923 (addition)

Willoughby Tower, 8 North
Constructed: 1928-29

Chicago Athletic Association, 12 South 
Constructed: 1893

The Gage Group, 18, 24, 30 South
Constructed: 1898-1900, 1902, 1971

University Club, 34 South
Constructed: 1907-1908

Monroe Building, 104 South
Constructed: 1910-1912

Illinois Athletic Club (SAIC MacLean Center), 112 South
Constructed: 1908, 1985 (addition)

Municipal Courts (Lakeview Building), 116 South
Constructed: 1906, 1912 (addition)

People’s Gas, 122 South
Constructed: 1910-1911

Orchestra Hall, 220 South
Constructed: 1904-1905, 1907-1908

Railway Exchange (Santa Fe Building), 224 South
Constructed: 1903-1904

Straus Building (Britannica Center), 310 South
Constructed: 1923-1924

Special agent making his rounds at night at the South Water Street freight terminal of the Illinois Central Railroad, May 1943

An entry in Delano’s diary, entitled Things I Cannot Photograph, ended with this:

A train is approaching us!
The glare of the headlight
With a WHOOSH of thunder as it flies by us.

The brakeman gets down from the cupola and watches it go by
Two red lights and a white one pass us
The white one waves up and down.

We answer
Then back again to the drone
I throw a cigarette out of the window
It whirls off in the backwash scattering sparks wildly like fireworks
The blackness again.


All photos courtesy Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

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