Railroad Work and Workers

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.

Documents related to this topic

Engineering and Surveying:

  • Letters of Claudius Crozet (20):

    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.

  • Letters of Samuel B. Reed (274):

    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.

Railroad Labor

  • Payrolls (16):

    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.

  • Contracts (5):

    Railroad companies contracted with independent contractors to build the lines and issued detailed descriptions of the work. In the South these companies hired slaves.

  • Strikes and Blacklists (8):

    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.

  • Photographs, Illustrations, and Broadsides (35):

    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.