T. Hansen describes the wealth of records that may be found
in railroad archives.
to understanding railroad records is to have some knowledge
of railroad history. From the initial chartering of a railroad,
through the surveying and laying of the grade, to building
the tracks, stations and towns, many lives were affected.
As surveyors planned the routes, they encountered Native Americans
and homesteaders. These encounters may be included in journals
and ledgers kept by the surveyors. Great photo collections
exist, containing not only tracks and trains but also pictures
of people. The images of these people, found in the path of
the railroad, were sometimes captured and documented. Maps
give glimpses of life as it was, a small slice of the world
our ancestors lived in captured in time.
The first experiments with railroads began in the early 19th
century and by the late 1820s the first commercial tracks
were in operation. Railroads rapidly expanded across the North
American continent and in the process countless records were
created. Some records give us insight down to the minutest
detail of daily operation. Maps, journals, photographs, personnel
and pension records, and much more offer local and family
historians access to this great American story and the people
who made it happen.
Records and Deeds
It is possible to find maps, original survey records, land
records, deeds, and rights-of-way records that may be helpful
in replacing records that have been lost or destroyed. These
records are also wonderful in helping to locate migration
routes. Some of the records pre-date the railways and give
details of areas long forgotten. On some maps you may find
information about trails, taverns, homes, waterways or mountains.
Valuation maps or "Val maps" as they are known in
the industry, contain acquisition information on all railroad
property. They frequently show the owners of property abutting
railroad property. Local farmers and landowners along the
right-of-way often took the opportunity to supply and also
sell cross-ties, spikes, and other commodities to the builders.
They might find short-term jobs for themselves, their sons
or teams. When searching in various collections and government
archives, look for these types of records. Some contain the
names of all the owners along the rights-of-way.
As you come across Journals and Ledgers kept by surveyors,
engineers, owners and others filed and stored with railway
collections, stop to analyze the types of information documented
within these awesome artifacts. Entries may be full of technical
details, tell about encounters with the native races or homesteaders,
they may contain information about employees, passengers or
anyone affiliated with the company.
Board, directors' and stockholders' minutes are available
for most railroads. Board minutes give details on retirements,
pension payments, and sometimes the executor who received
the last payment. The information available in these minutes
varies from one railway to another. Unfortunately there are
very few if any indexes to these types of record source.
and Public Folders
Public folders and timetables give the names of stations and
stopping places on each railroad. They include times when
trains should have left each station, they show distances
and fares, and rules and regulations regarding passengers,
baggage, articles carried on, and freight. The explanation
of marks on the tables are very informative, showing whether
or not a certain train stopped at a station, the end of the
line for each train, and symbols pointing out where refreshments
where available. Names of cities and larger towns are often
identified with bold lettering; main line, connecting lines
and branch lines are all identified as well. Operating, employees,
timetables show distances and have, in the "Special Instructions"
section, locations and business tracks not shown on the schedules.
Watch files were kept by all railroads; railroad workers were
required to turn in their watches periodically for maintenance
and upkeep. Any record with names of individuals can be beneficial
to the researcher. Upon discovery of this type of file, the
author was extremely curious and excited, asking a rail enthusiast
profuse questions about them. The rail enthusiast said, "Oh
they're just dry toast!" We all want dry toast! Right!
What other types of dry toast are waiting to be found?
How about train sheets? What are train sheets? Train sheets
are big pads of paper about 6ft x 4ft. They fit nicely on
top of the dispatcher's desk; this is the place he documented
where a specific car on a particular train and each employee
is at any given time in a day! Can you imagine finding a collection
of train sheets documenting the whereabouts of your research
subject? They provide a daily documentation of his employment
whereabouts and activities. Incredible pieces of dry toast
are awaiting discovery!
and Pension Files
Although personnel records have often been destroyed, when
they can be found, they contain a wealth of information. From
early times, railroads kept records of their employees: when
they began, where they worked, how much they were paid, promotions,
etc. For example, The Detroit & Mackinac Railway Company
personnel records include the following information: employee's
date and place of birth; physical features such as weight,
color of hair and eyes; any scars or disabilities; names of
parents, wife and children; maiden names of mother and wife;
employment record by date, pay rate and job classification;
street address and town of residence; any sickness or accidents;
employee reprimands and general comments about their work;
retirement date; and sometimes the cause and date of death.
Records documenting the building of the rail may also include
personnel records for contract labor. Those who built the
railroads were generally not the same men who would become
conductors, porters, or engineers.
Pension and benevolent fund records might be company or union
sponsored. Pension records may be found within board minutes
of individual companies. Benevolent funds were set up by workers
and unions to help wives and families in times of tragedy.
Many made provisions for work-related injuries and provided
for early retirement under special conditions. These records
can be difficult to locate, and access to them may depend
upon knowing the individual's pension number. Many records
of Canadians Unions are available at the National Archives
of Canada, in Record Group MG 28. Included with the finding
aid are brief histories of the organizations. Always look
for union records; they are a different record source but
hold valuable information.
The U.S. Railroad Retirement Board administers a Federal retirement
benefit program covering the nation's railroad workers. These
records deal primarily with the administration and payment
of benefits. The Board will provide information from its records
on deceased persons, however, it will not release information
on living persons without that person's written consent. A
non-refundable fee is required for a record search, payable
before the search is attempted. The Railroad Retirement Board
was not established until the mid-1930s and began maintaining
its own records of all covered rail service in 1937.
The Board's records are filed by the railroad employee's social
security number. In some cases, if the number is not available,
having the employee's full name, including middle name or
initial and complete dates of birth and death, may be of some
help in determining whether records are available on a person.
In using the Social Security Death Index for locating Social
Security numbers, be aware the index is not complete, especially
in cases where the person died over 40 years ago. The Social
Security Death Index is available online at http://ssdi.genealogy.rootsweb.com/cgi-bin/ssdi.cgi.
Other versions of the Index may or may not include the Railroad
Retirement Pensions. Because the index does not give information
on a person's employment, it is not possible to determine
if a person worked for the railroad or any other entity by
using it, although generally people with numbers beginning
with 700 and above were railroad workers when they received
Some railroad passenger lists exist and have been published
and indexed. One such publication, Railway Passenger Lists
of Overland Trains to San Francisco and the West, includes
information detailing where a person was from and where they
were bound, giving a title and/or occupation if applicable.
This index may give family relationships. While passenger
lists might be good sources of information few companies kept
them, but they are worth looking for.
Telegraph records, although not common, do exist. Telegraph
lines ran alongside the railroad tracks and each railroad
depot had a telegraph office. Some railroad collections contain
original telegrams, thus making it possible to gain a glimpse
of history from those sending and receiving messages. The
Nevada State Museum holds telegram copies about escaped prisoners,
who arrived on what train and other interesting tidbits. Watch
for this type of record when using government repositories.
Most railway historical societies and associations hold substantial
book collections. These collections include books with geographical,
biographical, railroad and railway history and information.
Libraries, art galleries, museums and archives hold massive
photograph and art collections. Many photos are of trains
and tracks; some include photos of employees' families and
their homes. Although most are catalogued by subject, some
are catalogued by the photographer or artist. Often these
are documented. A large collection is held by The Digital
Library and Archives, University Libraries at Virginia Tech.
They have 50,000 images available online (http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/imagebase).
Some collections contain photographs and treaties documenting
encounters with Native Americans.
As you begin to search and use geographical information, you
will find it is linked to the hierarchy of the railroad company
for which the employee worked. As you study the history and
layout of a certain company, find out when the railway began,
where it ran, what company absorbed or merged with it, and
then figure out where the individual you are seeking belonged
within the company hierarchy. Headquarters, for example, hold
the offices of the president, various vice Presidents, chiefs
of operations or departments and office staff. Operations
in most companies were divided between passengers and freight.
Regional headquarters was responsible with the overall management
of the divisions, shops, stations, and terminals within a
region. The largest number of railway employees worked within
a division (approximately the distance a steam engine could
travel comfortably in any working day), usually 120 to 150
miles. At the end of each division would be a marshaling yard,
a roundhouse and a maintenance facility.
Remember records are kept by jurisdiction and you want to
check each jurisdictional domain independently. Divisional
records are broken down by trade or job groups. The running
trades were engineers, firemen, conductors and brakemen, with
station staff and yard crews in the same payrolls. Payroll
for section-crews (a section was a short stretch of track
maintained and inspected by a section foreman and his section-crew)
will be found in divisional or station staff records. The
large labor gangs who did major track repairs, ballasting,
snow clearing, etc., were usually recruited from local labor
and paid by the hour. Sometimes they turn up on payroll lists.
However, unless the exact division and section is known, it
will be difficult to find records for a specific individual.
Althea, M.A., C.G. and J. Creighton Douglas, B.Sc.,
Canadian Railway Records A Guide for Genealogists.
Toronto: The Ontario Genealogical Society, 1994.
Eakle, Arlene and Johni Cerny, The Source A Guidebook
of American Genealogy, Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry
Publishing Co., 1984.
Eakle, Arlene H., Ph.D. and Linda E. Brinkerhoff, Genealogy
in Land Records, Tremonton, Utah: Family History
Elliott, Wendy, "Railroad Records for Genealogical
Research", National Genealogical Society Quarterly
(NGSQ) 75 (December 1987): 271-277 (an addendum to this
article was published in NGSQ 79 [June 1991]: 140).
Hansen, Holly T., The Directory of North American
Railroads, Associations, Societies, Archives, Libraries,
Museums and Their Collections. 1999.
Meyerink, Kory L., Printed Sources A Guide to Published
Genealogical Records, Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry
Rasmussen, Louis J., Railway Passenger Lists of
Overland Trains to San Francisco and the West,
2 Vol., Colma, California: San Francisco Historic Records,
Soncrant, Eugenia J. Some Detroit & Mackinac
Railway Company Personnel Records, 1900's - 1950's,
Tawas City, Michigan, 1992.
Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking,
The Source A Guidebook of American Genealogy, Revised
Edition, Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Incorporated,
The Biographical Directory of the Railway Officials
of America for 1887. A Record of the Railway service
of the Principal Officers of American Railways; A Supplement
Giving Recent Changes and Appointments; An Alphabetical
List of all General and Division Officers Not Included
in the Biographical Record; A List of Prominent Railway
Men Recently Deceased. With 35 Portraits.
Chicago: The Railway Age Publishing Company. 1885-1930.
The Railway & Locomotive Historical Society, Inc.
Who's Who in Railroading and Rail Transit.
New York: Simmons-Boardman, 1971-.
Who's Who in Railroading in North America.
New York: Simmons-Boardman, 1930-1968.
There are rich sources for biographical information and is
easily obtained from such publications as The Biographical
Directory of The Railway Officials of America; Who's Who in
Railroading in North America.; and Who's Who in Railroading
and Rail Transit. Large reference libraries usually have one
or more editions, as do railway museums and railway historical
society collections. The Family History Library in Salt Lake
City has at least one, although one of the best-known collections
is in York University, Toronto, Canada. Interlibrary Loan
is a good way to access these biographical publications.
Railroad and railway history; and historical train information,
can be found in trade and company periodicals. Also, many
societies and associations publish newsletters and journals.
Numerous rail enthusiasts publish magazines and web pages
that can be of great interest and value to the researcher.
As well, corporate histories can be beneficial if your ancestor
was a top executive. They are also useful in understanding
the history and politics of a particular rail company from
their particular point of view. These histories tell you what
the company wants you to know. Things that may reflect negatively
on the company are rarely included in this type of history.
Obituaries are often found in society newsletters.
You will find incredible scrapbooks containing documents useful
to the genealogist and they often turn up in some museum,
historical society, association, or research library's manuscript
collections. Such surviving records are usually indexed by
the name of the private collection, or by the name of the
railway company that generated them. This may mean only the
name of the company appearing on documents or letterhead,
although if the cataloguer knew the railway history, it could
include interim owners.
Much can be said about the railroad in connection with the
pioneering efforts of the 19th and 20th centuries. Before
the pioneers began walking, riding horseback or going by wagon
train, they would first take the rail to the end of the line.
When seeking to document migration routes, use publications
such as The Official Guide to the Railways. The guide contains
maps showing the exact route and gives details that can be
quite helpful. Most good academic research libraries will
have one or more copies available for research use.
in Railroad Archives
When contacting railroad and railway societies and associations,
keep in mind that many record keepers have no idea of the
genealogical value of their records, but see them only as
preserved for historical purposes and industry standards.
Appointments are essential when contacting private companies.
Records are the private property of the companies that generated
them and companies have no obligation to allow the public
access to their records. Few private companies employ staff
to aid in historic research and their files may be housed
in some distant warehouse. Some companies may politely refuse
to answer researcher's questions. Government-owned rail companies
may deposit their records with local government archives,
as is the case of the Canadian National Railways who turned
theirs over to the National Archives of Canada with a 30-year
closure. As you begin to use these great resources remember
volunteer record keepers may not know the answer to your questions.
Many of the records described above have existed since the
beginning of railroad history. Railroads are discussed in
virtually every American or Canadian history book written,
they usually include extensive bibliographic materials that
will lead to further information. Railroads have been mentioned
briefly in guides written for genealogists such as The
Source, Printed Sources, Genealogy in Land
Records and Douglas' Canadian Railway Records: A
Guide for Genealogists. Also, Wendy Elliot discusses
different record types in her article, "Railroad Records
for Genealogical Research", printed in the National Genealogical
As you use these resources, you will discover that nearly
every family had a close relative who worked for a railway,
helped build it, sanctioned or opposed its coming. Many records
exist and there are massive collections to be explored in
depth. The popularity of family history is rivaled closely
by the love historians and rail enthusiasts have for railroad
history. Together we can surely build bridges into the past,
reaching into forgotten records that document the lives of
those on the forefront of pioneering and technology in the
19th and 20th centuries.
article originally appeared in the November/December 2000
issue of Family Chronicle.