Labor Day and the American Railroad Worker

We celebrate workers of all descriptions and all occupations that drive the engine of commerce on our Great Nation. That spirit is exemplified by the American railroad worker. This weekend we cast the spotlight on those men and women that are responsible for the operation and management of our great railway network of today. That sector is more diverse and technically advanced than at any time in history. Because of that and the long legacy of the railroad industry, it is impossible to do justice to all within that broad subject. So this is the first installment on this subject we will post. Future features will feature other aspect of the American railroad workers to honor that journey to diversity and technology.

The historic images we feature speak to the traditional years of railroading. The age of steam and many manual functions, railroading was considered to be rugged and demanding and accordingly, men dominated that profession. The most demanding positions were evenly divided between the operating sector, maintenance of way and shop crafts. All three had special challenges that many less-driven individuals sidestepped.

Operating crafts included locomotive service (engineers and firemen), train personnel (conductors and brakemen) and yard personnel. In addition to the hard physical labor involved, all sectors worked out in the elements and were subject to demanding shifts that were uncommon to other businesses. Those men seldom were home to celebrate the holidays or family events with their loved ones and friends.

Men that labored in the maintenance of way sector were responsible for maintaining a superior roadway that became more difficult and demanding with the arrival of newer and larger steam locomotives. Irrespective of the emotional and pictorial romance with steam power, those titans of the rails needed a much more consistent and heavier roadbed than the latter-day diesel-electric locomotives that now dominate railroading. Like those men in the operating sector, M of W men practiced their profession in all types of weather, were frequently away from home for longer periods and were physically pushed to the limits.

Contrasting the operating and maintenance workers, men that toiled in the huge locomotive back shops had reasonably predictable schedules, comparable to other manufacturing businesses. Still the large erecting shop halls were hot in the summer, were consistently dirty and were extremely loud. Many men suffered hearing loss and were subjected to all types of industrial accidents that could permanently injure them. The foremen that managed each part of those shops were equally demanding and insisted upon the absolute best examples of craftsmanship. In common with all human endeavors, sub or counter cultures frequently developed where less-scrupulous foremen created their own little empires that concealed bad workmanship or behavior of their “favorites” and cast out those that were not in their good light.

Less physically demanding but much more mind-dumbing were the large masses of clerical workers that were needed in those pre-technology years to process literally mountains of paper all the supporting functions and departments of a railroad. Commerce demanded that and government reporting had extreme demands after 1900 that contributed to the sea of paperwork. Although men dominated clerical and administrative positions, women had more representation. Sill by 1955, women represented only 5% of railroad employment.

We will continue this story in future articles but we hope you take time to pause and contemplate these historic images and recall the total contribution railway workers have added to advancing the industry and their contribution to our culture. If you elect to labor on pursuing your own model railroading empire this weekend we guarantee that our current selection has something that will enhance your model railroad journey. Steam, diesel and all classes of rolling stock, all made viable with our Rewards Program and for a time, 10% off your entire order with promo code 10LABOR