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 nations 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, United Brotherhood of Maintenance-of-Way Employees
Train safety depended on thousands of track workersincluding 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
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
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 stationmasters duties included serving as express agent.