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Weekly Tip: Working on the Railroad

By Gena Philibert Ortega

Did your ancestor work for the railroad? Whether he was a conductor, a trainman, an engineer or one of the countless others who helped to lay the tracks across the United States, there is something that can help you learn more about their work. The United States has a rich railroading history that includes tragedy and triumph. Researching railroading ancestors can be difficult due to company mergers and lack of personnel records, but the following ideas may help you find some information you can use. Because it can be difficult to get personnel records for railroad workers, you may want to tackle the research by looking for personnel information as well as historical information so that family members can better understand what it was like to work on the railroad.

Websites

Various genealogy subscription sites have documents relating to the railroads. One example can be found at Genealogy Today . You can see what railroad employee records they have by looking at their homepage here. To access these records you will need to purchase a subscription to Genealogy Today. You can learn more about a paid subscription to the site here .

While starting with railroad specific sources are important, don’t neglect to research the catalogs of regional archives as well. One good example is the Online Archive of California (OAC), which lists various railroad records from the Southern Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, among others. The Online Archive of California is a catalog of archives throughout California. These records contain everything from administration records to a photograph album of employees. You can see listings for railroad records on OAC here .

Also consider local museums that are close to, or in the same city as, a railroad hub. These museums might have information or artifacts about the history of the local railroad.

Railroad Retirement Board

The U.S. Railroad Retirement Board is one of the first sources that people think of when they contemplate researching their ancestor. However, not every ancestor who worked for a railroad will be found in the records of the Railroad Retirement Board.

The Board only has records for those who worked for the railroad after 1936. To learn what information to send to have them conduct a record search for a worker, consult their genealogy page.

Archives/Museums

Railroad archives and museums provide resources donated from individual workers as well as railroads. Consult a railroad archive in the area your ancestor worked. One source to consult when looking for a railroad archive is Family History Expos President, Holly T. Hansen’s The Directory of North American Railroads, Associations, Societies, Archives, Libraries, Museums and Their Collections. While this title is now out of print, it can be found at various libraries. Consult WorldCat for the library nearest you with this book. Don’t forget that you may also be able to borrow a copy through interlibrary loan.

Maps

The Library of Congress includes a website called, Railroad Maps 1828-1900. Aside from these maps helping you learn more about the routes of the railroad your ancestor worked on, it also provides historical information about the development of the railroad through time.

You can also purchase older railroad maps. One supplier, Gold Bug has historical maps for sale, including railroad maps. They also have a free download of a 1917 Pennsylvania Railroad Map .

Books and Other Resources

Some books that might help in your search for information on your ancestor’s work on the railroad include:

Drury, George H, and Bob Hayden. The Train-Watcher’s Guide to North American Railroads. Milwaukee, WI: Kalmbach Pub. Co, 1984. Print.

Edson, William D. Railroad Names: A Directory of Common Carrier Railroads Operating in the United States, 1826-1982. Potomac, Md. (10820 Gainsborough Rd., Potomac 20854: W.D. Edson, 1984. Print.

Melhado, D H, and J S. Keeling. Keeling’s Railway, Telegraph, and Steamship Directory, for 1866: Containing an Official List of All the Officers and Directors of the Various Rail-Road, Telegraph, and Steamship Companies in the United States and Canadas, Together with Their Financial Condition, &c. New York: Published by J.S. Keeling, 1866. Print.

Railway Connections and Junction Points: S Systematic Compilation, Showing Conjointly Information As to Passenger and Freight Connections between Various Railroads in the United States. Baltimore: H.K. Cammann, 1917. Print.

Richards, Tom. Was Your Grandfather a Railwayman?: A Directory of Records Relating to Staff Employed by Railways in the Following Countries with Details of Material and Repositories : United Kingdom, Australia, Canada … [et Al.]. Bristol: Tom Richards and the Federation of Family History Societies, 2002. Print.

Some websites that may help you include:

Cyndi’s List: Railroads

National Railway Historical Society

Some helpful articles are:

Researching Old Railroads by George G. Morgan 

Making Tracks Through Railroad Research by George G. Morgan

Railroad Worker Records by Peter D. A. Warwick

Riding the Rails up Paper Mountain: Researching Railroad Records in the National Archives by David A. Pfeiffer

Researching your railroading ancestor takes patience to look through numerous types of documents to find the details you need to piece together their work life. As with any genealogical research, remember that research begins with the Internet (genealogy sites, history sites, archives and libraries) and continues with brick and mortar repositories like archives, museums, public libraries and university libraries.

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