Many of us remember hearing stories about Grandpa Joe who worked for "the railroad." He may have been an engineer on crack passenger trains such as the Hiawatha or 400, may have manned a busy interlocking tower, or generated waybills in the yard office. He may have been awarded a gold pass for 50 years of service, or he may have worked on the section gang one summer while home from college. Aside from family stories, how does one go about finding information on Joe's career through company archives or other materials?
Unfortunately, that's a tough question to answer. Resources available to us in the 21st Century tend to vary in quantity and quality depending on the railroad in question. I have done some limited investigations into resources over the past 10 years, and there appears to be little out there that has been indexed and is readily available. Employee "personnel files" are virtually non-existent, as can be expected from that type of record. I stumbled upon some a few years ago for eight Milwaukee Road employees when a railfan friend passed along to me some documents he had acquired. A summary of those records can be viewed on my Milwaukee Road page. If you are researching the Frisco Railroad, you can access excerpts from about 500 employee records that were saved from the landfill by clicking here. Another large collection, of Erie Railroad and Delaware, Lackawanna & Western employees working in the Scranton, PA area, is housed at the Steamtown National Historic Site (read on for more information on that).
If Joe was involved in some way in a major railroad accident that resulted in deaths or injuries, he may be included in an online database maintained by the Department of Transportation. This database contains accident reports for all U.S. railroads in PDF and HTML formats (caution: the HTML versions contain numerous scanning errors due to the quality of the originals) from 1911 to 1960. My review of over 100 accident reports for the Milwaukee Road show that after about 1940 the reports stop naming employees involved or interviewed, so they are of limited use after that date for finding someone. They also don't give first names in most cases, so unless you have a unique surname or know for sure which railroad and division Grandpa worked for, it can be difficult to search. I have indexed the ICC data for the Milwaukee Road by surname on my Milwaukee Road page, while the Chicago & North Western data can be found on my C&NW page. The ICC database can be accessed through the DOT website.
Retirement records are available provided Grandpa was still working after 1936 when Railroad Retirement was instituted. The Railroad Retirement Board was set up for railroad workers just as Social Security was established for other employment categories. The RRB, by the way, has some great information online for genealogists regarding this subject, as well as location of some archives that do hold personnel or other records, including data before 1936.
An index of the early RRB records which are now in the National Archives is available from the Midwest Genealogical Center. Note that search results for some last names are truncated to the first 5 letters.
One good source for information can be the employee magazines that many roads published for their workers. Employees of some divisions of railroads even published their own periodicals. These can be great sources of insite into the day-to-day lives of railroad workers and their families, and may contain detailed stories on retiring employees. Once again, though, their availability today can be very limited. I happened to have been given copies of the Erie Railroad magazine by a fan, and from two dozen copies of this monthly periodical I was able to extract the names of just under 1,000 Erie employees who retired between the years of 1947 and 1960! Also included in these issues were several detailed career profiles and photos of hundreds of Erie employees. To search the Erie retirement and death databases, visit my Erie Railroad page. In addition, Railfan.net has scanned many issues of Erie Magazine (as well as Lackawanna (DL&W) Magazine and Erie Lackawanna Magazine) in PDF format, and they can be viewed by clicking here.
Along with the Erie, a number of other railroads published magazines. The following is a partial list, along with the earliest known dates of publishing: Frisco System Magazine, December, 1902(?); Erie Railroad Magazine, March, 1905; Santa Fe (AT&SF) Magazine, December, 1906; Rock Island Magazine, July, 1907; The Pere Marquette, June, 1909; The North Western (Chicago & North Western) from at least 1911;The MK&T, March, 1913; Milwaukee (Road) Employes’ Magazine, April, 1913; Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Employes’ Magazine, 1913; Baltimore & Ohio Magazine, May, 1913; Illinois Central Magazine, July, 1913; Canadian National Railways Magazine, January, 1915; New York Central Magazine, April, 1920; Union Pacific Magazine, January, 1922; Great Western (C&GW) Magazine, February, 1922; Pullman News, May, 1922; Missouri Pacific Magazine, about May, 1923; Detroit, Toledo & Ironton News, about May, 1923; Maine Central, January, 1924.
Another source of railroad magazines online is available from the Springfield-Greene County Library. This Missouri library has an extensive collection of on-line local history, including the Frisco Railroad employee magazine in PDF format. Hopefully more local archives and historical societies will follow the leadership shown by ELH&TS and Springfield and digitize collections of magazines from other roads!
Speaking of the Lackawanna, the National Park Service's Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, PA is in the process of building an extensive database of DL&W employees, based on its archival collection of over 400 boxes of DL&W, Erie and EL papers. Steamtown's Historian/Archivist estimates that they will have a listing of around 30,000 employees when finished, with each listing based on personnel folders or other documents in the collection. The employee listing is a work in process, and is dependent on the availability of volunteers: that said, people researching D&LW employees can contact the Archivist at Steamtown for more information.
Employee rosters are another source of names and such information as seniority dates and positions. These were used to determine work assignments based on the seniority held in each position on the various divisions of each railroad. Two types of rosters have survived: official rosters (railroad-generated), and advertising rosters (privately-published, based on railroad-generated data). Information from both types of rosters are included on the Erie Railroad page, and some others are referenced in the links below. Availability of rosters, once again, varies by railroad, and the accuracy of data in advertising rosters, including name spellings, varies widely. Another company publication that may yield names of station and traffic department (passenger and freight sales) personnel is the public timetable issued for use by passengers. These were often considered sales tools for the traffic department, hence the inclusion names and other contact information for those in charge of freight and passenger sales. For an example from the Rock Island, click here. Employee timetables, on the other hand, were issued for employees only and often contain the names of division operating personnel, as well as company physicians or surgeons in major online cities.
Yet another source of information can be found in the magazines published by the labor unions, such as the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the Order of Railway Conductors. These magazines can provide as much good information as the railroad company magazines, and also may include reports of injured or deceased employees whose families were paid benefits from the unions' mutual benefit programs (click here to see a report of benefits paid to members of the Order of Railway Conductors in 1897, contributed to this site by Robert Heck). Google Books has digitized several years worth of B of LE Journals, which contain benefits payments as well as profiles of members. But, like company publications, few (more likely none) of the labor publications are indexed.
Within many railroads, employees organized interest groups that dealt with the issues surrounding particular crafts or jobs. Agents, Clerks, Shop Crafts, all had organizations on many railroads. Also, railroads began forming Veterans Associations as early as 1900. Veterans in this context does not mean former members of the Armed Forces, but rather railroad employees with (usually) 20 or more years of service. For a transcription of a published list of 2,340 members of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Veteran Employees Association in 1934, click here. A separate organization of Railroad Veterans Associations formed sometime in the 1920s, and eventually published its own magazine, "The Railroad Employee," covering several Northeastern railroads including the Lackawanna, Lehigh Valley, and Jersey Central veterans' associations.
Another organization that published a magazine for its members was the Brotherhood of All (or Benefit Association of) Railroad Employees, or B.A.R.E., a mutual insurance association. B.A.R.E. published "The Railway Employees Journal." Today its assets are held by Trustmark Corporation.
A related industry that is also ripe for research is the locomotive builders. Fairbanks-Morse, ALCO, Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton, EMD and General Electric (and predecessors) all produced locomotives, some exclusively diesel while others started with steam and moved into the diesel era. While many private railroad shops had the machinists, boilermakers, electricians and heavy shop facilities to produce their own locomotives (and many did just that), the majority of steam locomotives and virtually all diesels were produced by the major builders. These companies also had corporate magazines, although the purpose of most was to promote the current product line. Click here for information on the builders, as well as info on ALCO plant inspector Edward F. Holtz, submitted by Jim Holtz.
City directories and federal census lists are more accessible and can provide good information on occupations of individuals at specific points in history. I have put together some listings of Wisconsin and Michigan railroad employees gleaned from 1890 city directories. You can check them by clicking here.
A final comment: it is very possible depending on the railroad or the era you are researching that records simply no longer exist, or if they do they are buried in a dusty archive somewhere. Many employee files over the years were tossed into bonfires or hauled out to the dump after the employees left service. In most cases it is very hard to find anything out beyond what you might glean through basic public records. That said, each year I see more records and sources posted online as archivists seek to digitize their holdings. You never know what might turn up next year! Best of luck with your search!!!
Listing of research resources, in archives and on the web, September 14, 2017 version, in PDF format. This document will be updated as additional sources are found. Please contact me if you know of other resources (rosters, collections of magazines, personnel records, etc.) in publically-accessible archives or on the web and I will add them to the list. Also, like anything on the Web, links sometimes go bad, so please pass those along as well. My thanks for source tips go to: Peter Brill; Harold Gjermann; Suzanne Guinn; George Hartwell; Leann Johnson; Mark McCune; Sunny Morton; John Taylor; Ken Weller.
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