Working on the Railroad

A brief introduction to the people behind the railroads

Railroading was America's great industrial occupation for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, employing millions of people who practiced skills ranging from heavy manufacturing to railroad operations. People ran the trains, built the locomotives, and repaired the track. Generations of skilled men and women constructed, operated, and maintained America's railroads.

Railroaders came from every background. Most managerial and skilled craft jobs were held almost exclusively by white males until well into the 1960s. Entry level and manual labor jobs were open to everyone, minorities and immigrants included. Over time, some of these men and women were able to move into better-paying and skilled jobs.

African Americans, Irish, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, East Indians, Mexicans and representatives of dozens of other ethnic groups labored on track building, shoveled snow, and hauled cinders. Women worked as telegraphers, dispatchers, and clerks starting in the 19th century, but few other railroad jobs were open to women. Women were hired during the First and Second World Wars to replace men called away to the armed forces, but peace brought the soldiers back to their old jobs, pushing many but not all women out of the industrial workforce.

The 1960s brought the civil rights movement and the recognition that the railroad workplace was filled with discrimination. By 1970 most opportunities in railroading were open to everyone. Women and minorities moved into occupations formerly closed to them, and though progress has sometimes been very slow, this has resulted in a permanent broadening of the workforce and the creation of opportunities long denied.

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