Utah students track 150 years of railroad history in graphic novels

(Courtesy of National Park Service) Re-enactors gather in May 2018 at Golden Spike National Historical Park in Utah to mark the anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. This year is the 150th anniversary of that East-meets-West achievement.

Students in Kayse Fernandes’s fourth-grade class used to ignore the railroad tracks that run next to the freeway and along the outskirts of their city. If they did think about them, they figured they were just an old-fashioned way to get from one place to another.

But after researching, writing and illustrating a graphic novel about the colossal effort it took to build the nation’s first railroad to link the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, these kids at Horace Mann Elementary in Utah are bursting with information and awe.

They can tell you who paid for the railroads and how laborers used gunpowder to blast through mountains inch by inch, losing body parts and lives in the process.

"It inspired me to support and protect the railroad," said Keegan Barney, who is 10. "This railroad took six years to build. Men worked hard. They died for it. And some people are going to go spray-painting this (railroad), doing graffiti on this? ... I mean seriously."

Eight fourth-grade classes were chosen to make graphic novels as part of a major celebration in Utah to mark the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.

(Photo courtesy of Horace Mann Elementary School) Fourth-graders at Horace Mann Elementary in Ogden, Utah, created a graphic novel about the building of the railroad.

The state happened to be where Central Pacific and Union Pacific crews joined their separate rail lines on May 10, 1869. And Utah is hosting something like a birthday party, with festivals, re-enactments and train demonstrations, at Golden Spike National Historical Park.

Students at Horace Mann spent weeks researching how the railroad companies raced each other to the finish line, deciding what story to tell, drawing panels and writing the words.

"It gives you confidence to draw and write your own things," said Scarlett Smith, 9.

The students said they had fun — and learned more — by creating a graphic novel instead of writing a report on their own.

"You had to have your own thoughts of how to do the certain pages," said Marley Pitcher, 9. "You can be more creative with all of your thinking."

She and the others liked how they were in charge of what to write and draw.

"You feel like what it was like back then, what they used and how dangerous it actually was," said Micah Yancay, 10. "They would basically work you to death because you're basically working nonstop."

Just as the railroad companies competed, the class split in half while working on the book, with each side representing one of the companies. A line taped in the middle of the classroom divided the groups, and students needed tickets to cross to the other side. Art teacher Brent Rhodes worked with them on how to draw facial expressions, action and emotion in pencil, marker and ink.

"You could feel the joy in the classroom," said Jake Wilson, 10. "Everyone was excited. It would be math time, and we'd all be waiting to learn about the Transcontinental Railroad."

Besides learning facts and figures, the students say they figured out how they can create something amazing by helping one another.

"It is so awesome that everyone in our class can work together and make the book really come to life," said Audrina Anderson, 9.


If you go

What: Golden Spike National Historical Park.

Where: 6200 North 22300 West, Promontory Summit, Utah.

When: Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

How much: $10 per vehicle.

How old: All ages.

Don't miss: On most days during the summer, you can watch the arrival of the locomotives Jupiter and Number 119, reproductions of the originals that met at Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869. On Saturdays and holidays during the summer, volunteers reenact the ceremony when the last spike was driven into the completed railroad.

For more information: A parent can call 435-471-2209, Extension 29, or visit nps.gov/gosp.