Spending this Labor Day holiday weekend researching your family tree? Good! Consider learning more about the occupations of your ancestors. For many, railroad jobs figure prominently in their family’s story. Here’s a few tips for researching railroad employees from our course US: Occupational Records.
The development of the railroad system in the United States opened up new frontiers. It employed people in all aspects from surveying and construction to the porter, conductor and engineer. Some of these individuals worked directly for a specific rail line while others worked for companies that contracted with the rail lines.
The first place to begin research for a railroad employee that was employed after 1937 is the Railroad Retirement Board.
The Railroad Retirement Board was formed in the mid-1930s, under the Railroad Retirement Act of 1935 and began maintaining records in 1936. Until 1964, Railroad workers received a special Social Security number, numbers starting with 700 to 728, and a separate pension plan. The Board’s primary function is the administration and payment of railroad pension funds.
The Railroad Retirement Board maintains a genealogy web page with helpful information for researching railroad employees. They will perform a search of their records for a fee. For more information about what is available and how to request a search, see their website. Please note: the Railroad Retirement Act did not include street, interurban, or suburban electric railways.
If your family member worked for a railroad before 1936 the Board does not have those records. To locate a record before the inception of the Railroad Retirement Board you will need to know the name of the rail line and the current company name. This is necessary before the researcher can access the proper archived records. To find archival collections, use the online catalog ArchiveGrid.
The mobility of these employees makes placing the individual in a time and place more difficult. Railroad employees moved with the work. In addition, the records might indicate that they were changing companies, when in reality there was a company name change or merger.
There are several tools that will assist the researcher in locating rail lines that employed a specific individual before 1937.
First, you can search directories of railroad employees. The directories, such as the Biographical Directory of Railway Officials of America that was issued between 1885 and 1922, gave a listing of mid to senior employees in the railroad industry. This was followed by Who’s Who in Railroading. These books include short biographical sketches.
Second, determine what rail lines were active in the area that the individual lived. This is easily done with the use of maps. Because of the continuous growth changes in the rail lines it is important that the map you use is of the same time period that you are researching. Many of these maps are available online, including a large collection from the Library of Congress based on Railroad Maps of the United States: A Selective Annotated Bibliography of Original 19th-century Maps in the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress.
Lastly, search US Federal Census records which may list the person’s occupation as “railroad” or possibly something more specific like, conductor . In later years, the name of the railroad company may also appear in the occupation columns.