Railroad work both for construction and operation constituted one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States, yet it also provided thousands of jobs across the nation. Apart from the military, railroad employment became one of the largest common experiences for American men.
Claudius Crozet served as the chief engineer for the Commonwealth of Virginia in the 1850s and supervised the construction of the Blue Ridge Railroad and Tunnel between 1851 and 1857. He employed a crew of hundreds of Irish and enslaved black workers to build the line and carve out the tunnel. The Blue Ridge Tunnel was the longest tunnel in the world at the time it was built. Because Virginia financed much of the railroad's construction, Crozet reported to the state's Board of Public Works. He filed quarterly reports on the construction and wrote detailed descriptions about the laborers, their conditions, the progress of construction, and the engineering challenges.
Samuel Reed served as the lead surveyor and construction engineer for the Union Pacific Railroad between 1864 and 1869. Born in 1818, Reed was a civil engineer and worked on the Michigan Central, the Chicago and Rock Island, the Burlington and Missouri, the Union Pacific, the Illinois Central and the Canadian Pacific, as well as several other roads in his career. Reed's work for the Union Pacific included surveying the line from Omaha west into Utah, especially the mountain passes around the Salt Lake. Reed's letters, mostly to his wife and family, detail the progress of the Union Pacific's construction, the engineering challenges he faced, the duplicity of the management, the strikes by workers, and the "hell-on-wheels" towns, such as Julesburg, Colorado, that boomed along the railroad.
Civil War payrolls of the U.S. Military RailRoad shops in Tennessee reveal the detailed records of machinists work. For other payrolls from the Union Pacific Railroad, the Blue Ridge Railroad, the U.S. Military Railroad, and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, search our Employee Database.
Railroad companies contracted with independent contractors to build the lines and issued detailed descriptions of the work. In the South these companies hired slaves.
Railroads began developing blacklists in the wake of strikes after 1877. After the Great Burlington Strike of 1888, company officials tried to identify who participated and exactly what their involvement was.
Railroad work varied greatly by type of job and setting. Railroad workers also became one of the most visible archetypes of modern American industry and labor.
In 1857 the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad recorded every employee on the line. Over 6,000 individuals worked for the B & O in a variety of roles. Our database will track these individuals over time and across the railroad network, and in coming months we will add more data from different railroads on slave laborers, Irish, Chinese, and other workers. We include payroll records from the Illinois Central, the U.S. Military Railroad, the Union Pacific, and the Blue Ridge Railroad.
Beginning in the 1880s railroad companies began compiling blacklists of employees dismissed for cause. During the turbulent stirkes in 1886 and 1888, western railroads began sharing these lists so that an employee dismissed on one road might not be hired on another. This map represents over 1,000 Union Pacific dismissals, by their location and cause.
Replacements were recruited quickly from local men who refused to strike. Three days into the strike the C.B. & Q. railroads were receiving "corps" of switchmen "from Philadelphia," ten at a time. The Burlington brought men from all over the United States in 1888 to break the strike. This map and visualization shows the years served on different railroads by the Burlington's strike replacements.