Railroad History: Who Constructed Railroads?

Many workers contributed to the construction of railroads. On the East Coast, Native Americans, recently freed black people, and white laborers worked on the railroads. On the West Coast, many of the railroad workers were Chinese immigrants.

New Jersey issued the first railroad charter in 1815. Col. John Stevens, the recipient of the New Jersey charter, is considered by some to be the father of the U.S. rail system. By 1826, he had proven the feasibility of steam locomotion in a test at his New Jersey estate.

Shortly after, in 1827, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was authorized to build the first westbound route from Baltimore into Virginia.

Between 1830 and 1850, the U.S. railroads expanded drastically, from 23 miles up to 9,021 miles of track.

There was a symbiotic relationship between the post office and the railroad in their early history. New Jersey’s Camden & Amboy line was the first to transport mail to customers in 1832.

Until the domestic locomotive industry was established in the U.S., railroad companies were forced to import railway cars from Britain. As railroads became the main form of transportation for goods and passengers instead of canals, more workers were hired to meet the demand. Growth of the railroad industry boomed in the 1830s through the 1850s. Following the boom in railway employment, several railroad unions were formed to protect workers’ rights.

The first union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, was established in Detroit in 1863. It was followed by many others, including the Brotherhood of Conductors in 1868, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in 1873, the Switchmen’s Union of North America in 1876, the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen in 1883, and the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen in 1890.

Railway workers needed unions because the working conditions were extremely poor. Railway employees only made around a dollar a day, and injuries were commonplace; 70% of workers were injured within five years of starting employment. Because it was such a dangerous job, insurance was not available for railway workers.

New workers were often forced to sign “yellow dog” contracts saying that they wouldn’t join unions. Employees who tried to join unions were fired immediately and had no means of seeking recourse from railroad companies. It wasn’t until 1866 that the first nationwide labor organization, the National Labor Union, would be founded.

In 1851, the Erie Railroad used the telegraph for the first time. The telegraph was a form of speedy communication for railway stations to relay problems and alerts. Eventually, there was a telegraph office in almost every train station.

In 1869, foreign workers, many of whom were Chinese and Irish, built the first Transcontinental Railroad. The Transcontinental Railroad linked Sacramento, California, to Omaha, Nebraska, and was a collaboration between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads. Many of the workers died in the process of building the railroad.

  • Black Chain Gangs: During the 1870s and 1880s, prison laborers worked on expanding and refurbishing existing railroads in the South. Chain gangs were composed of convicts, largely black men, who suffered neglect and malnutrition. The average survival rate for a member of a chain gang was only three years, and 10% of chain gang members died during the first four months.
  • The Great Strike of 1877: Workers protesting a second 10% cut in their wages since the 1873 Great Panic halted operations on four eastern rail lines. There were violent protests in many cities, including Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Chicago, Illinois.
  • The Interstate Commerce Commission: The ICC was formed in1887 to ensure equitable railway ticket pricing.

In 1890, leaders of disparate unions began to recognize that a single umbrella union would be more effective in communicating workers’ demands than numerous smaller unions representing different types of railroad workers.

  • Eugene V. Debs: Eugene Debs founded the American Railway Union in the early1890s. Unfortunately, the ARU did not last for very long; it was disbanded after the 1894 Pullman Strike.
  • The Railroad Safety Appliance Act of 1893: Passage of the Safety Appliance Act was a great achievement for railway unions because it forced railroads to use automatic couplers and air brakes.

The Pullman Strike was the impetus for the designation of Labor Day as a national holiday in 1894. Grover Cleveland sought to improve relations with the railway labor movement after many employees were injured and killed when U.S. troops attacked the protest.

In 1898, a new solution for dispute resolution was enacted for railroads as part of the Erdman Act. The new legislation made it illegal to discriminate against employees because of union membership.

Additional Railroad History