How did your ancestors experience the effects of railroads in America? The introduction of steam locomotives into American commerce and daily life in the 19th century changed the way people would experience their nation and its landscape. For many, the advent of steam locomotives and completion of major projects like the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 represented the American idea of manifest destiny. Completing a transportation system that spanned from one coast to another signified that America fully commanded its land, able to utilize it as much as was desired for the nation’s prosperity.
However, achieving manifest destiny and propelling commerce into the future was rarely accomplished without the cost of human life. The construction of the Hoosac Tunnel in Berkshire County, Massachusetts took 195 lives and injured countless more from accidents and explosions. Even riding the railroads was risky business. On Sep 8, 1894, an accident in the Hoosac Tunnel claimed the lives of William Terpinning of Syracuse, New York and George Minnick of Fitchburg, Massachusetts when a miscommunication by the track signalman resulted in a head-on collision between two trains.
Finding records of railroad employees and particular incidents can be difficult. Researchers need to know the company for which they worked, the dates of service, and some basic genealogical information, in order to be certain of whether records survive. Railroads were not heavily regulated until the 20th century and the transient nature of workers means that early records do not often survive. With that said, there are many resources available for finding more information about railroad personnel and this article intends to break these down for the purpose of the genealogist.
Railroad Records in the National Archives
Records related to railroad personnel are located throughout several record groups in the National Archives. Those that are most valuable to the genealogist would have to be the pension files for retired railroad workers. The first federal railroad retirement system was created in the 1930s to repair the defects of previous pension programs put in place by the private sector. At first declared unconstitutional, Congress created an agreeable railroad retirement system under the Railroad Retirement and Carriers’ Taxing Act of 1937. This congressional act put the system under control of the Railroad Retirement Board and allowed employees to retire with benefits after the age of 65 or between 60-64 if they had served at least 30 years. Later amendments in 1946 and 1951 allowed for survivor benefits and annuities for the spouses.
These files can vary greatly in size, from 20 to 200 pages, but the genealogical information is substantial. A researcher could find the following information:
- Applicant’s full name, date and place of birth, names of parents, current address
- Record of applicant’s prior services
- Names of beneficiaries, usually spouses or children, and their relationship to the employee
- Forms which provide the documentation the worker submitted in support of a claim, i.e. vital records, baptism certificates, statement of insurance policies, etc. Copies of the actual records were only made if completed by the person filing the claim file
- For claim files in which the spouse completed an application for annuities, the spouse provided their name, date and place of birth, parents names, previous marriages and names and birth dates of minors living with them at the time of the application
- If the worker was seeking annuities for disability, they were required to complete a physical examination and have the physician submit a report that included a detailed medical profile
These claim files equal genealogy gold. How does a researcher check to see if a claim file exists for a particular individual? Claim files held by the Railroad Retirement Board only exist from 1937 to the present day, so the individual in question must have retired or deceased after 1 Jan 1937. Fortunately, there is now an online index for these records through the Midwest Genealogy Center. The index will provide researchers with the surname and initial of the forename, the date of death, claim number, and which repository holds custody of the file. Most of the claim files have been transferred from the Railroad Retirement Board to the National Archives at Atlanta. For a firsthand perspective, I recommend checking out Debbie Mieszala’s article "All Aboard! Railroad Retirement Board Records" on the Advancing Genealogist blog which describes her experience in using a claim file for genealogical research.
Other sources of genealogical information can be gleaned from NARA Record Group (RG) 134, Records of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). The ICC was created in 1887 to more effectively regulate the railroads and investigate safety concerns. RG 134 actually contains some information on non-railroad personnel through the land acquisition forms, 1914-1939, valuation maps, and land field notes of ICC appraisers relating to the current value of real estate adjacent to railroad rights-of-way, 1915-28. These sources provide the names of people who owned parcels of land adjacent or on the railroad right-of-way at the time of the company’s acquisition.
RG 134 also contains railroad accident investigation reports, but only starting in 1911, because the Federal Government was not involved in railroad accidents until Congress passed the Accident Reports Act on 6 May 1910. An individual who endangered themselves to save lives in a railroad accident may have a Medal of Honor case file in RG 134. These run from 1905 to 1955. In 1967, the function of railroad accident investigations was transferred to the Office of Safety, Federal Railroad Administration (Record Group 399). Reproductions of these investigative reports up to 1994 can be viewed online through the Department of Transportation (DOT) website, in which they are organized by year and then by the railroad company which owned the train involved in the accident. For incidents prior to 1911, researchers should try newspapers or court records to find out more information about a particular incident, as many filed claims against the railroad companies and employees were tried for reckless endangerment, manslaughter, or homicide.
A lot of railroad history and information involving particular incidents remains scattered throughout Records of the District Courts (Record Group 21). District Court proceedings are held by the regional branches of the National Archives and those pertaining to railroads consist of civil cases involving racial discrimination, working conditions, retirement benefits, claims for damages to property, injuries and deaths resulting from railroad incidents. Below is the indictment of John L. Williams, in which Williams was found guilty for providing false information in his claim for retirement benefits.
Only a few employee rosters survive in the National Archives. The only ones are rosters of railway postal clerks, 1855-97, in the Records of the Post Office Department (Record Group 28) and lists of employees of U.S Military Railroads in Alexandria, Virginia, during the Civil War, in the Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General (Record Group 92).
Beyond the National Archives, records of railroad employees remain in the custody of dozens of local archives. The personnel listings are incomplete at best. I highly recommend downloading Jim Sponholz’s guide entitled "Locations of Railroad Genealogical Materials." This guide explains what employee records survive for each company, the dates they span and which repository has custody of these records or whether an online index exists.
Many companies and even employees published magazines that chronicle a great deal of history about the railroads in the United States. They often include lists of current employees, detailed life histories of retiring employees, and information on the day-to-day life on the railroad. Jim Sponholz’s Rootsweb page is the authoritative source on the whereabouts of these magazines, as they are once again very scattered. Some publications are digitized, like the Journal of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, available on Google Books, and the Frisco Railroad magazine, through the Springfield-Greene County Library. Better yet, some institutions have even put together name indexes for their company magazines, such as the Boston and Maine Railroad Historical Society.
The railroads touched the lives of their ancestors in many ways, sometimes very tragically. Is there a story involving trains or railroad employees in your family tree? Depending on the time and place in which your ancestor was involved with the railroads, you may very well be riding a long way on the paper express to genealogy gold.
Jake Fletcher is a professional genealogist, educator and blogger. Jake has been researching and writing about his ancestors since 2008 on his research blog. He currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).
 “Two Men Killed and Others Injured in Hoosac Tunnel,” Vermont Phoenix, 14 Sep 1894, p.7, col.1, image copy, Library of Congress (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn98060050/1894-09-14/ed-1/seq-7: accessed 14 May 2016), Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.
 “Railroad Retirement Handbook – Chapter 1: Development of the Railroad Retirement System.” U.S. Railroad Retirement Board (https://www.rrb.gov/general/handbook/chapter1.asp#: accessed 14 May 2016).
 A detailed explanation of RG 134 is on pages 29-42. See David A. Pfeiffer, Comp. Records Relating to North American Railroads, Reference Information Paper 91, (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, Revised 2004).
 Pfeiffer, Records Relating to North American Railroads, 114.
 Pfeiffer, Records Relating to North American Railroads, 12.