See America By Rail Through These RFC Photos

Berle Clay writes us from Kentucky:


John Barriger photographs the observation car of the eastbound, C&O George Washington at Winchester, Kentucky, in the fall of 1939.

John Barriger photographs the observation car of the eastbound, C&O George Washington at Winchester, Kentucky, in the fall of 1939. Berle Clay, 2015

The Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), established by the Hoover administration in 1932, acted throughout the New Deal as a financial engine, creatively funding agencies as diverse as the Commodity Credit Corporation and the Defense Plant Corporation, construction projects like Knickerbocker Village in New York and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and the reorganization of financially strapped industries and banks. It only closed its doors in the 1950s—long after the New Deal ended. It was generally regarded as the conservative side of the New Deal, reflecting the politics of its dynamic head, Texas banker Jesse H. Jones, who felt that Harry Hopkins and Harold Ickes gave away money (through the PWA, WPA, CCC, etc.) while the RFC invested money…at interest, and generally by buying up the bonded debt of the corporations it aided.


An agency of over 14,000 lawyers at its peak, the RFC lacked a dedicated photographic unit to publicize its work. However in one mid-level administrator it had an individual unique for the New Deal, one who documented his work with his own photographs numbering in the thousands. John Walker Barriger, III, a railroader, headed the railroad division of the RFC from 1934 to 1941. During his tenure the agency financially aided 89 railroads collectively owning two thirds of the country’s rails. One of his jobs was to survey the companies, assessing their condition and potentials as the basis for RFC aid. Barriger’s papers – and photos – have survived at the St. Louis Mercantile Library. The photographs are now online (including photographs taken later in his railroad career, after he left the RFC).


Barriger was not a professional photographer, but he used professional gear (a medium-format single-lens reflex Graflex) and had a clear idea of what he wished to depict; namely, the state of the railroads largely as he saw them from the observation platform of the business cars he rode while on duty, as well as the administrators and workers who served them. In doing so he provided an amazing record of what landscape historian John Stilgoe has called the “Metropolitan Corridor,” the built environment of the country’s rails which reached its peak just prior to the market crash in 1929. Furthermore, like the celebrated professional photographers of the Farm Security Administration for society at large, he caught the scene at a moment of transition, soon to be dramatically altered by streamlining and dieselization, abandonments and consolidation, and the World War II effort. Post-war America was never the same.




Berle Clay is literally a product of the New Deal. His father, Cassius Clay, was General Counsel to the Railroad Division of the RFC (he and John Barriger were close friends). Brains Truster Adolf A. Berle, Jr. worked briefly in the Railroad Division, after the 100 Days, on bankruptcy matters. One day he introduced his younger sister, Berle’s mother, around the office, where she hit it off with Berle’s father. Berle is a farmer in Kentucky and a retired archaeologist, as well as an avid fan of the rail scene and an unabashed fan of the New Deal.

is Project Manager for The Living New Deal. He is a trained cultural historian who teaches courses in U.S. History at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University.

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