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Researching Old Railroads & Railway Records

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From the mid-1820s through the 20th century, railroads touched millions of Americans lives. During the "Golden Age of Railroads" (1900-1945) railroads were the major mode of transportation for millions of Americans. By 1920, one in every 50 Americans was employed by the railroads. Railroad construction also attracted thousands of immigrants, including the Chinese, Irish and even members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Begin your search for a railroad working ancestor by identifying where he lived at the time of his railroad employment. Historical maps and published histories can then help you to identify what railroad lines ran through that area at the time. From there you need to dig into the history of the specific railroads to locate present owners and determine whether employee records still exist for the time in question and where they are held. The majority of historical records related to invidivual railroad workers have, unfortunately, not survived; those that have will generally be found in historical record collections of each individual railroad company, sometimes scattered across multiple repositories in several states, such as the records of the Pennsylvania Railroad. State archives, railroad museums, historical societies and University Libraries are common repositories for historical railroad collections.

1. U.S. Railroad Retirement Board

The U.S. Railroad Retirement Board administers a Federal retirement benefit program covering the nation's railroad workers (essentially the Social Security Administration for railroaders) and can provide copies of records for deceased individuals who worked in the railroad industry after 1936. They do not have records for all railroad workers, so don't expect to find records for short-term workers or individuals employed by streetcar, interurban, or suburban electric railways.

2. Interstate Commerce Commission Historical Railroad Reports, 1911-1994

The Online Special Digital Collections of the U.S. Department of Transportation includes detailed descriptions of its investigations into railroad accidents that occurred between 1911 and 1994, available as both text and PDF.

3. Railroads in North America - Railroad History & Genealogy Database

Milton C. Hallberg has compiled a free database of basic information on over 6,900 railroads, including currently existing mainline and switching and terminal railroads, as well as of all operating railroads that have existed in the United States and Canada since the first railroad - the Granite Railway - was chartered in Massachusetts in 1826.

4. Erie Railroad Internet Employee Archives

A great resource for anyone researching ancestors who worked for the Erie Railroad, linking Chicago and Jersey City-New York, with employee rosters, photographs, historical news articles, reports and other related data. Most of the information comes from back issues of the company's "Erie" magazine dating back to circa 1851. Additional information has also been contributed by former Erie railroaders, fellow researchers and the Salamanca, NY Railroad Museum.

5. Virginia Tech ImageBase

Do a search for "railroad" to explore tens of thousands of historic digitized images relating to old railroads, from photographs of trails and railway yards to timetables and advertisements. There are even photographs of some railroad employees.

6. Norfolk & Western Historical Society

Read about the history of the Norfolk & Western and Virginian Railways, and search the catalog of documents in their Archives. Many drawings and photographs have been digitized and made available on their website.

7. Researching Railroad Records in the National Archives

David A. Pfeiffer explores the wealth of historical railroad records available through the National Archives & Records Administration (NARA) in this Prologue article titled "Riding the Rails Up Paper Mountain: Researching Railroad Records in the National Archives," including railroad valuation records, railroad accident reports, annual reports of railroad companies, patent application files and other railroad-related records.

8. California State Railroad Museum

The museum holds a number of documents in its collection that may help provide biographical information on railroad employees and officials, as well as some manuscript collections with selected records from specific railroads including the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads and the Pacific Fruit Express Company.

9. A Federal Railroad Adventure - Andrews' Raiders

Explore this collection of digitized and transcribed documents relating to Andrews' Raiders and The Great Locomotive Chase, a Federal military raid that occurred April 12, 1862 in Georgia, to interrupt Confederate communications by destroying railroad bridges and telegraph lines during the Civil War.

10. Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad Museum - Hays T. Watkins Research Library

Some records of Baltimore & Ohio Railroad employees (some but certainly not all) between 1905 and 1971 are available from the collection of the Hays T. Watkins Research Library at the B&O Railroad Museum. These records consist of several thousand individual payroll records, which give the person’s name, date of birth, job title, division, department, station, salary (sometimes), and subsequent changes in the job or salary, including date of retirement, resignation, or dismissal, and in some instances, date of death. You can submit a request online for a staff member to research these records for a B&O employee.

11. Chinese-American Contributions to the Transcontinental Railroad

Dig into the history of the thousands of Chinese immigrants who labored blasting, digging and laying track for the great Transcontinental Railroad, through photographs, excerpts from news and railroad reports, first-hand accounts, and other resources. From the Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum.

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