Ancestry® Family History
Railroad Job Records
Throughout the 19th century, railroads became a vital method of transportation in the United States—for goods and people. By the end of the 1800s, traveling from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific Coast was feasible in record time. The expanded railroad transport systems also allowed distant family members to connect more easily through faster mail delivery and more advanced telegraph services, for example.
Starting in the 1860s, U.S. railroad companies became a major source of jobs, as huge numbers of manual laborers were needed to build the country’s rail network. American citizens, those formerly enslaved, and new immigrants—recruited in part by railroad companies—were needed to complete the ambitious construction projects.
And once those thousands of miles of tracks had been laid, railway workers then were needed to perform many different types of roles to operate the vast railway system. By the early 1900s, more than 2 million people worked in the railroad industry.
The Railway Building Boom
While the first U.S. railroad—the Baltimore & Ohio—was established in 1827, railway companies began new projects in earnest during the U.S. Civil War. In part, this was because the federal government passed several laws in 1862 that specifically sought to encourage new settlement throughout the West.
One of those laws, the Pacific Railway Act, was signed into law on July 1, 1862, by President Abraham Lincoln. That Act authorized the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific companies to construct the lines that would become the first Transcontinental Railroad. The Act stipulated:
- Federal Support: For each mile of track laid, the companies received an amount based on the type of land they built upon. For example, construction in harsh mountainous regions paid $48,000 per mile of track.
- Land Grants: Both companies were granted 400-foot right-of-way plus 10 square miles of public land for every mile of track constructed. They were authorized to sell the land to generate additional revenue.
- Construction Requirements: The Union Pacific Railroad was to begin in Omaha, Nebraska, and built westward. The Central Pacific Railroad was to start in Sacramento, California, and built eastward.
- Telegraph Lines: Both companies had to construct telegraph lines along the railroad route to enhance communication across the country.
During this railroad building boom, tens of thousands of miles of new railroad tracks were laid across the land, especially throughout the West. This massive surge, in conjunction with the 1862 Homestead Act, spurred the creation of new towns and cities along railroad lines, as well as countless new farms.
Transcontinental rail systems also led to the development of major railway hubs in cities like Chicago, St. Louis, Omaha, Seattle, Houston, and Los Angeles—for passengers and for goods like grain and livestock. And those hubs needed different kinds of railroad workers to keep trains moving along.
How the Transcontinental Railroad Changed the U.S.
The Great Transcontinental Railroad, completed in 1869 with a "Golden Spike" ceremony, marked the first time in history that there was a continuous rail line between the east and west coasts of the United States.
The major engineering feat—accomplished through the labor of thousands of railroad workers—drastically reduced the time it took to travel across the continent. A journey of several months now took a week. Merchants and businesses could transport products at much lower costs, and aspiring settlers could reach their destinations faster. It was now possible to travel from Omaha, Nebraska, to San Francisco, California, in about 102 hours.
By the end of the 19th century, more than 200,000 miles of railroad tracks crisscrossed U.S. land, territories, and also Indigenous lands.
- The Impact on Native Americans: While westward expansion was a boon to the country as a whole, for Native Americans it was a blow. It meant the loss of land through broken treaties and forced relocations, plus the almost complete decimation of sacred bison herds, a major source of sustenance for Indigenous peoples and part of their traditional ways of life.
Some tribal nations, like the Pawnee, protected railroad construction by serving as U.S. Army scouts. Others, like the Lakota, Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe, fought against the railroad’s encroachment and the related boost in settler migration. This was a time of upheaval and violent conflicts involving Native Americans, settlers, and railroad companies.
The transcontinental railroad’s completion not only impacted the economic and physical landscape of the nation, but it also facilitated a shift in demographics as more settlers moved west.
Who Built the Railroads?
Private companies and the federal government were both behind the creation of new railway lines. And in all cases, the building of railroads all around the United States would never have been possible without the hard labor of many different people:
- Enslaved Black men and women
- Chinese immigrants
- European immigrants (primarily from Ireland, Germany, and Italy)
- American citizens of many races, nationalities, and ethnicities
Before and during the U.S. Civil War, Southern railroad companies hired free Black people for building projects because they could be paid less than white laborers. But railroad companies also used the forced labor of enslaved men and women, who were leased by enslavers to railroad companies.
After the Civil War, many newly freed Black people chose railroad work because it provided steady employment and income—a more attractive prospect than agricultural work like sharecropping. After the war, financially strapped southern railroad companies also leased convict laborers from prisons, primarily Black men, as it was cheaper to use their services.
Railroad construction projects across the West relied heavily on the labor of new immigrants. In fact, railroad companies actively recruited laborers from other countries, especially in China. Of the roughly 18,000 immigrant workers hired by the first Transcontinental Railroad companies—Union Pacific and Central Pacific—between 10,000 and 15,000 were from China, with the rest mainly from Ireland, Italy, and Germany. Chinese immigrants were approximately 90 percent of the Central Pacific workforce.
Immigrants typically performed the most dangerous construction tasks. For example, Chinese men often handled the explosives to clear paths through mountains. Still, despite the hazardous, backbreaking work they performed, Chinese immigrant laborers were often paid less than their white counterparts. Vigilante violence and discriminatory policies, still in place since the Gold Rush years, plus new policies, like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 compounded the hardships faced by these new immigrants.
Historical Railway Employees
Men have largely dominated the railroad’s workforce, although railroad companies did hire women as early as the 1830s to serve as railroad attendants.
But as times of war—like the Civil War, World War I, and World War II—increased the demand for men in military service, women had new opportunities to fill railroad companies’ workforce needs. During and after the Civil War, for example, railroads hired women as telegraph operators, station agents, and ticket sellers. As each conflict came to a close, companies usually expected women workers to return to their traditional roles. Still, some railroad companies continued to employ women, as they could typically be paid less than men.
Later, as railroad construction needs decreased and service needs increased, Black men could find work in roles ranging from freight and baggage handlers, porters, and waiters, to switchmen, firemen, and in train maintenance. In the 1920s, for example, tens of thousands of Black men were employed by the Pullman Company or were members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union. Pullman porters were mostly men whose jobs were to carry passenger baggage, turn down or make up beds in sleeping cars, and otherwise serve passengers’ needs. Many Black railroad workers had steady employment, but they were still subject to long hours, low wages, and discrimination.
The legacy of these diverse groups, as well as their significant contributions to early railroad systems, form an integral part of the history of the American railroad industry. Are they also connected to your family history? Perhaps your ancestor laid tracks for the Central Pacific Railroad, was a conductor for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, or maintained cars and engines used by the Chicago and North Western Railway.
The Roles of Railroad Workers
As you dive into historical railroad job records, you’ll inevitably come across a wide range of job titles. Some railroad jobs focused on the building, maintenance, or operation of trains, but railroad companies also needed people for support roles like typists or related roles like telegraph operators. Here are some common job descriptions for railroad workers:
- Railroad engineers operated the train and ensured passengers reached their destination safely and on time. Census records may list someone’s occupation simply as "Engineer" or "Locomotive Engineer."
- Conductors were in charge of the entire train—the crew and passengers.
- Firemen kept the fire burning to produce the steam necessary to power the train.
- Brakemen operated the train’s brakes, either slowing the train or outright stopping it.
- Track Layers, often immigrants and marginalized populations, were the ones who physically laid the tracks for the railroad. Records may list them as "Railway Laborers."
Other roles you might see in railroad employment records (or in other records like censuses and obituaries) include station master, blacksmith, roundhouse foreman, night watchman, switchman, engine wiper, and ticket clerk.
Those who had long-term railroad careers could also have held different positions, depending on skill levels and responsibilities. So when looking for your ancestor in old railroad personnel records, don’t be confused if you see someone listed as a brakeman on one record and a fireman on another—it could still be the same person.
Exploring Historical Railroad Job Records on Ancestry®
Old railroad job records can be a rich source of historical and genealogical information and Ancestry® offers more than 9 million of them to help family history researchers. While the level of detail in each record group varies, different record types can offer additional hints about an ancestor’s life:
- General employment records can contain a wealth of information, including employee names, their job titles, and dates of employment.
- Payroll records may go beyond simply providing income for a specific pay period. For example, you could find information about typical work hours and potential deductions.
- Accident reports can include specific dates and descriptions of accidents, which weren’t uncommon because of the sometimes hazardous nature of railroad work. You might learn about the cause of an accident, victims’ names, and details on injuries.
- Pension records usually describe the duration of a person’s employment, the kind of work they did, and why they retired.
- Trip passes could show when railroad workers and their families traveled the rails for personal reasons.
- Requests for leaves of absence might indicate time off for health reasons or because someone needed to help with seasonal farm work.
The Ancestry railroad record collections span from 1859 through 1987. Records in some collections offer fairly detailed information, while others contain more high-level notes. Before you browse, check the collection descriptions for further information about what they contain. These featured collections contain the largest number of individual records:
- California, Railroad Employment Records, 1862-1950
- Chicago and North Western Railroad Employment Records, 1935-1970
- Kansas, Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Prior Service Records, 1859-1935
- Illinois, South Pekin Railroad Employment Cards, 1900-1948
- Northern Pacific Railway Company Personnel Files, 1890-1963
- St. Louis-San Francisco Railway Employee Cards, 1940-1980
- Utah, Select Union Pacific Railroad Personnel Records, 1890-1965
- U.S., Railroad Retirement Pension Index, 1934-1987 (this one covers railway workers across the nation)
Tip: Keep in mind that railroad companies typically operated lines that crossed multiple states. You might just find your Omaha, Nebraska, ancestor in the railroad employee records of the Chicago and North Western Railroad, for example. Or you might locate your Arkansas relatives in the records relating to the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway because they worked out of the office based in that state.
Discover More About Your Railroad Heritage with Ancestry
Using the Ancestry card catalog to search for terms like "railroad" and "railway" will allow you to deepen your search and explore other resources, including pictures and the histories of specific railroad companies.
If your ancestors worked on the railroads, they laid the tracks of your family history. Follow their journey and learn more about your family through Ancestry collections of railroad records. Start building (or expand) your family tree on Ancestry.
References (all accessed July 18, 2023)
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"Transcontinental Railroad. History.com. September 11, 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/transcontinental-railroad.
Vong, Sam. "The Impact of the Transcontinental Railroad on Native Americans." National Museum of American History. June 3, 2019. https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/TRR.