Railroad records are an invaluable source of genealogical information. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the railroads provided employment for hundreds of thousands of people. People worked in every area of the railroads, from a construction of tracks and trains, to train operation, to administrative jobs in the railroad offices. Any community that was located near railroad tracks usually had large numbers of its population working for the railroad. The employment was steady, the pay was good, and there was room for promotion. A person could make an entire career out of working for the railroad and even turn it into a family business by getting their children and grandchildren employed by it, and many did just that.
If you have ancestors who worked for the railroad (something you can easily discover in later census records beginning in 1880, when the type of employment is listed), you need to look at railroad records. They can tell you a lot of possibly previously unknown information about your railroad working ancestor and their family. The railroad records are personnel records, and they can be anywhere from scanty to quite detailed in the information they provide. With so many people in America’s past who worked for the railroads, it is amazing that more people do not use these amazing and invaluable record sources to do their genealogy research. Railroad records really provide an intimate look into your ancestor’s working life and give you an idea of what their actual life was like in a lot of ways. They are an excellent resource for bringing your ancestors to life on the page once more.
The first railroad tracks were laid down in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1826. Since that time, there have been many different railroad companies. Some have disappeared, others have merged with other railroad companies, and a handful still exists. They all produced personnel records that genealogists can use for research today. You just have to know where to look for the records for the particular railroad company for which your ancestor worked.
As with most genealogy records, some railroad records are easier to find than others. The place you should start looking if you don’t already know where to find the records you want for your ancestor is the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board. This is the organization that administers the current benefits program for today’s railroad workers. These records include anyone who worked for the railroad for a decade or more after the board was created in 1935. You can get detailed employment, personnel, and retirement records for your ancestor from this board.
If you know your ancestor worked for the railroad, but won’t be included in the board’s records, you have to get a little more creative on locating the records you need for your research. If you know the name of the railroad company for which they worked, you can go directly to that company if it still exists. If it doesn’t, chances are high that the records are located somewhere. Most railroad companies that dissolved or merged with another company sent their records to a repository where they would be protected for employees who might need them in the future. Today, the people who need these records are genealogists doing research into railroad ancestors.
Some old railroad records are kept at railroad headquarters. You may find other records at railroad museums, local historical museums, local history archives, local libraries, university libraries, and even online. The best way to find the records you require for your research is to start by searching for them by name online. You will usually be directed to the website of the place that has the records, or at least to a website that lists their location.
Once you’ve located the records, either go look at them in person, or request copies through the mail. It all depends on how far away the repository is from you, and if you are planning a trip to that area in the near future. Either way, you can get your records. Within them, you may find things like a family background for your ancestor, his or her work history with the railroad, applications by your ancestor or survivor for pension money, and retirement records. These are valuable resources for those with ancestors who worked for the railroad. Make sure you use them.
Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)