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Railroad Records

Holly T. Hansen describes the wealth of records that may be found in railroad archives.

A pre-requisite 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.

Maps, 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.

Journals and Ledgers
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.

Timetables 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
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?

Train Sheets
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!

Personnel 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 their numbers.

Railroad Passenger Lists
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
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.

Railway Collections
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.

Railorad Hierarchy
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.

Suggested Reading List

Douglas, 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 World, 1998.

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 Incorporated, 1998.

Rasmussen, Louis J., Railway Passenger Lists of Overland Trains to San Francisco and the West, 2 Vol., Colma, California: San Francisco Historic Records, 1966.

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, 1997.

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. Railroad History.

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.


Railroad Histories
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.

Working 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 Society Quarterly.

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.


This article originally appeared in the November/December 2000 issue of Family Chronicle.


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