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America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Transportation in America before 1876 Community Dreams: Santa Cruz, California, 1876 Delivering the Goods: Watsonville, California, 1895 A Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., 1900 People on the Move Americans Adopt the Auto Crossing the Country: Somewhere in Wyoming, 1903 The Connected City: New York, New York, 1920s The People's Highway: Route 66, 1930s-1940s Roadside Communities: Ring's Rest, Muirkirk, Maryland, 1930s Family Camping: York Beach, Maine, 1930s On the School Bus: Martinsburg, Indiana, 1939 Suburban Strip: Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, 1949 City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s On the Interstate: I-10, 1956-1990 Transforming the Waterfront: San Francisco and Oakland, California, 1960-1970 Going Global: Los Angeles Introduction The Salisbury Depot What Happened to Plessy? A Way of Travel Railroad Conductor Pullman Porter Carrying Everything Into Town--and Out Locomotive Engineer & Fireman Railroaders behind the Scenes Promoting Good Roads Spencer, an Industrial Community What Happened to the Railroads?
9: Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927

Railroaders behind the Scenes

It took a vast, coordinated army of workers to run a large railroad. In the late 1920s, there were over 1.7 million rail employees nationwide. Most railroaders labored behind the scenes, without the glamour in folklore and culture that the publicly visible locomotive engineers and conductors enjoyed. Meet a few of the less-visible railroad employees.


Railroad companies were big businesses, and they generated a vast amount of paperwork. About 20 percent of the nation’s railroad workers were clerks. These employees created bills, kept accounts, dealt with the payroll, filed reports with government regulatory agencies, and ordered thousands of supplies for far-flung offices, repair shops, and terminals.

Dues button, Brotherhood of Railway Clerks, 1920.
Dues button, Brotherhood of Railway Clerks, 1920.
Dues button, United Brotherhood of Maintenance-of-Way Employees
Dues button, United Brotherhood of Maintenance-of-Way Employees

Track Workers

Train safety depended on thousands of track workers—including inspectors, track-construction gangs, and bridge builders. Civil engineers designed structures and track layouts, while maintenance crews replaced worn-out or broken rails and old crossties and aligned track to high precision.


Until the 1950s, dispatchers coordinated train movements primarily by telegraphed messages. Orders conveyed by the dots and dashes of Morse code directed trains to use specified routes to avoid collisions and kept dispatchers up to the minute on train locations. There were no radios, so depot telegraphers personally delivered the orders to train crews as written messages

Tower Operators

At major junctions, where many tracks came together from different routes, a tower operator controlled the trains in shifting from track to track. The operator used the long levers to set or change the track switches mechanically. Setting a proper route through a maze of switches took skill. Changing signal lights told train crews the route was safe.

Badge, Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen
Badge, Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen
Dues button, Order of Railway Expressmen, 1921
Dues button, Order of Railway Expressmen, 1921

Railway Express Agents

The thousands of packages people sent daily that were too large for the U.S. mail went by railway express. Agents worked for companies such as American Railway Express, Adams Express Company, Wells Fargo, and Railway Express Agency. These firms had their own offices in large rail stations, but in small depots, the stationmaster’s duties included serving as express agent.

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