I Been Workin’ on the Railroad Resources for Railroad Employee Research

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

I recently attended a Nelson County [Virginia] Historical Society program presented by Clann Mhór, a local organization dedicated to documenting “the many workers who labored for ten years on the thirty-mile-long Blue Ridge Railroad from Ivy to Staunton, Virginia.” This railway includes four tunnels through the mountains, and its longest tunnel, the Blue Ridge Tunnel, was designed by engineer Claudius Crozet. This brick-lined tunnel is still intact today, passing almost a mile through what is now known as Afton Mountain. Clann Mhór, a small, dedicated group of researchers and railroad enthusiasts have located records of more than 1,900 Irish workers and their families as well as approximately 100 African-American slaves, using primary sources and such strategies as comparing railroad company lists of workers with the 1850 census for Nelson and its surrounding counties of Albemarle and Augusta. Almost half of these workers were native Irish from the counties of Cork, Kerry and Limerick. They built the tunnel by hand, working six days a week for about a dollar a day.

The first railroad constructed in the United States dates to 1826 in Massachusetts. By 1869, the continent would be spanned by rails, and rail travel became the norm for many individuals. Recently, I began to wonder how researchers might identify and use railroad records. I discovered that identifying and accessing such records requires considerable effort.

The first place to check about a railroad ancestor is in your family papers and documents. Alternatively, you may first learn of such an ancestor through census records and city directories. The latter will not only provide you with place or type of employment, but its business section will help identify railroad offices and workplaces that existed during a specific time period.

I decided to look for a possible railroad worker in the 1850 Nelson County, Virginia, census on Ancestry. As I was not looking for a particular individual, I initiated a very broad search combining “born in Ireland,” “residing in Nelson County,” and “male” as search terms with “railroad” as a keyword. As a caveat, the search yielded, 10,364,220 entries (probably about 1,000 times the population of Nelson County in 1850), which would not be the case if you were searching for a specific individual. Nevertheless, I chose at random the name “Daniel Arrington,” which appeared among the first twenty entries. When I looked at his census entry, I noted that he was described as a “laborer p. works.” Assuming that this phrase indicated “public works,” he was, more than likely, a railroad worker, although he might also have been engaged in building a canal or another such project. (You will want to consult a county history to identify projects underway during a specific time period.) I am, frankly, amazed that Ancestry.com indexing made this intuitive leap from the keyword “railroad” to the census enumerators notation of “laborer p. works.” Daniel Arrington was born in Ireland ca. 1800, and was living with his wife, Catherine, and children Mary (aged 8), Catherine (aged 6), Jeremiah (aged 4), and Daniel (aged 2) Given that all of the children were born in Ireland, Daniel and his family probably arrived in the United States ca. 1849. Also living in the household were Dennis and Michael Lynch, both employed as laborers in “p. w.” As I scanned the entire page, I noticed that all of Daniel’s male neighbors (Cornelius Shay, Patrick O’Connell, Patrick Dresdil, Michael Crisp, Peter Tilman, John Sullivan, James Casey, and Patrick Manly) were also born in Ireland and were employed as laborers in “p. w.” Interestingly enough, however, this same search strategy was not as successful for other locations. My search for railway workers in Keene, New Hampshire, in 1860, was unsuccessful, but in the first group of displayed hits was M. C. Grady, born in Ireland ca. 1823, listing his (and his wife’s) residence as “South Orange and Alexandria Railroad” in Fairfax, Virginia. A similar search in Chicago in 1920 identified a William R. Town, aged 51. Born in England, William emigrated in 1898 and became a naturalized citizen in 1904. In 1920 was employed as a bookkeeper with the Santa Fe Railroad. Other keywords that may be useful include “railway” and “train.”

The desired goal of family archives, census, and city directory research is to identify the specific railroad for which your ancestor worked. Once identified, you will need to search out institutions which include railroad employment records in their collections.

The Pennsylvania Railroad archives are housed at the Pennsylvania State Archives, principally in a collection of PRR Voluntary Relief Enrollment Cards, 1881-1968. In February 1886, the Pennsylvania Railroad established an insurance plan that provided sick and death benefits to its workers, as well as their families. These records are subdivided into several Deceased and Left Service categories with information dating back to 1865. Information appears on 5 x 8 cards, with the earliest group (cards printed prior to 1938), for example, providing name, place and date of birth, occupation, names of father, mother and spouse, certificate numbers and dates of entitlement for retirement, employment service records (titles of postings held, division by which employed, dates of entrance into service or change in job, and rates of pay). Supplemental information may include details as to sickness or injury, cause of the disablement, and if applicable, date of death. Other records include death and retirement memorials (1901-1958), payroll sheets (1947-1955), records of employees (1855-1940), and the Order of Railway Conductors Personnel Records (ca. 1946 and undated). Supplemental files include photographs, maps, engineering drawings and information about accidents and wrecks. Specific questions may be addressed to a railroad archivist via email. In addition to the Pennsylvania Railroad archives, a search of the Pennsylvania State Archives website will provide access to the records of several other railroads.

The Newberry Library in Chicago houses the business records of Pullman’s Palace Car Company, including drawings and specifications for Pullman sleeping, dining and lounge cars, ledgers, financial records, and other documents. Pullman operated a virtual monopoly on such train cars after 1899. In addition, the Newberry also includes archival materials for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad Company, the Illinois Central Railroad Company, and a railway photograph collection (1868-1914). The Historic Pullman Foundation, also located in Chicago, provides links to a series of genealogically related sites. One such site, the South Suburban Genealogical and Historical Society, houses a collection of personnel records from the Pullman Car Works from 1900-1949, encompassing approximately 200,000 individuals. It should be noted that this collection is not open to the public (but staff will search the employee records at no charge, with copies provided for $7.00 each for members and $15.00 each for nonmembers) and does not include employment records of Pullman porters.

The University of Louisville University Libraries maintains the records of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (the L&N of folk-song fame) from 1829-1981, including individual and group photographs of employees dating from 1865 to 1965, with the bulk from ca. 1910 to ca. 1950.

Other railroad archives may be located by reviewing links provided in Genealogy Today’s “Locating Railroad Employee Records,” in The Great Search-Finding Railroad Employment Records, and on Cyndi’s List.

If your research has documented your ancestor’s railroad employment in 1937 or later, your next step may be the records of the Railroad Retirement Board. When the Social Security Act of 1935 was established, a parallel program was established for railroad employees to be administered by the Railroad Retirement Board. As with Social Security, a unique number was assigned to each individual. Where prior to 1972, the first three digits of a Social Security number designated region of birth (the initial “0” of my number refers to New England, for example), a series of initial numbers was set aside for railroad employees: 700-728. If, during the course of his life’s employment, an individual worked as a railroad employee and also in an occupation where he qualified for Social Security, then he may have had both a Social Security number and a Railroad employee number. This number (or numbers) may possibly be found on a death certificate or other document.

Once again, these records are not open to the public. The Board, however, may provide information on deceased individuals for the purposes of genealogical research. The cost of a search is $27.00 (nonrefundable if no applicable records are located during a search), payable in advance. All genealogical requests should be sent to the Board, which will decide if the search is within its responsibility or that of the National Archives. If the latter is deemed the appropriate agency, your request and check will be returned to you with instructions about how to request the information from the Archives. If possible, requests should include the individual’s specific (700 series) number. Requests and checks may be mailed to the U. S. Railroad Retirement Board, Office of Public Affairs, 844 N. Rush Street, Chicago, IL 60611-2093. If the request is successful, you will receive documents that might include a copy of the individual’s application for retirement, statements of service, certificate of termination of service, death certificate, and statement of compensation, etc.

If you are interested in a British ancestor, you will want to search in the newly available Railway Employment Records, 1833-1963. These two million records from eleven different companies variously  furnish name, home station and date of birth of an employee, as well as information on career progression, salary increases, rewards, fines or suspensions of misbehavior, and intriguingly, notes from supervisors on the worker’s character and behavior. Searching for railway workers with Barclay as a surname, I located the rather grandly named George Walter Woodface Barclay, who was appointed to the audit department of the Great Western Railway at the Paddington Station in August 1866. James Robert Barclay, aged 14 in 1895, received 8 shillings weekly as a traffic staff employee at the Willow Walk Station on the London, Brighton, and South Coast railway line.

Other sources of railroad employee information can be found in the magazines published by specific railroads and railroad-related labor unions. Museums such as the National Park Service’s Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pennsylvania, represent an addition source of possible information. Research into railroad records takes time, but the rewards may far outweigh the effort.


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