Lives on the Railroad
Riding and Working on the Railroad
In the 1920s, railroads were a central part of American life. Railroad lines crisscrossed the country. They carried people, manufactured goods, food, the daily mail, and express package. Railroads made long-distance travel possible, but the opportunities for travel were not equally shared. In the South, African Americans were segregated into “Jim Crow” cars. Salisbury, North Carolina, was linked to the nationwide system by the Southern Railway. Its main route ran between Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, Louisiana, by way of Salisbury. The depot and rail freight sheds made the town a part of the country’s rail network. The railroad also provided job opportunities in the community: in nearby Spencer, the vast locomotive repair shops employed 2,500 skilled workers.
The Salisbury Depot
What Happened to Plessy?
Transportation has long been a flash point in the struggle for racial equality in America. In 1896, the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision declared racial segregation legal. For the next half century, until 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education reversed Plessy, the doctrine of “separate but equal” was the law of the land.
After 1954, segregation remained a common practice. Mass protests against segregated transportation helped create the modern civil rights movement. The Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1955-56 showed the power of nonviolent direct action and encouraged other forms of protest against institutionalized racism.
Transportation issues remained at the forefront of the movement when it entered the next stage: making sure that the new laws were being applied. In 1961, integrated groups of activists calling themselves Freedom Riders boarded buses and traveled into the South to see if bus stations were desegregated as ordered. The Freedom Riders were attacked as they traveled, and one of their buses was burned in Alabama. But their efforts pressured the federal government to make states comply with desegregation laws.
Because of these kinds of protests over transportation, laws and social customs began to change throughout the segregated South.
A Way of Travel
Fireman stoking locomotive’s fireboxCourtesy of Louisville & Nashville Railroad Collection, University of Louisville Archives and Records Center
Southern Railway conductor C. Frank Marshall and engineer David L. Fant compare watches, Greenville, South Carolina, 2:48 p.m., January 4, 1929From Southern News Bulletin, February 1929
Conductor’s watch, Hamilton Model 940Gift of Henry Gilbert "Doc" Wells
Railroad conductor’s cap, 1920s–1940s
Conductor’s ticket punch, Southern Railway, 1920s–1940sGift of Albert S. Eggerton Jr.
In the Community
Although they were servants on the job, porters took pride in their professionalism. At home, they were respected members of their communities. Porters traveled extensively and connected their communities to a wider world. From the 1920s through the 1940s, porters helped southern blacks migrate by bringing back information on jobs and housing in the North. Porters were also involved in Civil Rights activity. Pullman porter E. D. Nixon helped plan the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1955–56. Union leader A. Philip Randolph pressured President Franklin Roosevelt into issuing Executive Order 8802 in 1941. It barred discrimination in defense industries and created the Fair Employment Practices Committee. Later, Randolph was involved planning the 1963 civil rights march on Washington.
Carrying Everything Into Town—and Out
The South Connected to the Nation
The Wonder of Mail Order: “Delivery Right to Your Door”
Ordering goods by mail from a catalog became increasingly popular in the 1880s. The Chicago firms of Sears, Roebuck and Company and Montgomery Ward and Company were mail-order giants. Through their catalogs, retail marketing became truly national, reaching customers in tiny rural communities as well as in cities. The catalogs included almost any product imaginable, from a toy to a plow to a dress to an entire house in kit form. Delivery was by mail or by the Railway Express Agency. In either case, the product came by train.
Railroaders behind the Scenes
Railroad ClerksCourtesy of B&O Railroad Museum Collection
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.
Track WorkersCourtesy of B&O Railroad Museum Collection
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.
DispatcherCourtesy of B&O Railroad Museum Collection
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 OperatorCourtesy of Minnesota Historical Society
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.
Railway Express Agents
Railway Express AgentsCourtesy of Minnesota Historical Society
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.
Spencer, an Industrial Community
Spencer, a suburb of Salisbury, owed its existence to the Southern Railway. The town began in 1897, springing up around 141 acres of land the Southern bought to build a railroad repair-shop complex. Although the railway did not directly develop the town, more than 2,500 machinists, foundry workers, boilermakers, carpenters, and other shop workers and their families lived in Spencer. They and the merchants who supplied their needs made Spencer a thriving industrial community.
Steam Locomotive Shop Work
Work in the Spencer Shops was hot and hard. The pay was good and workers took pride in their craft. In the 1920s, the shops employed many African Americans as laborers, while at the top of the craft hierarchy stood the white master boilermakers and master machinists. Labor disputes occasionally simmered, and in 1922 Spencer workers took part in the nationwide shopmen’s strike, the most extensive strike of the 20th century.
Main erecting hall, Spencer ShopsMarvin Rogers Collection, with the help of the North Carolina Transportation Museum.
Inspection and Lubrication
What Happened to the Railroads?
Diesel locomotive (right) brings the Southern Railway’s Tennessean passenger train into Harrisonburg, Virginia, 1947Photograph by Harry A. McBride
Before World War II, railroads were an integral part of peoples’ lives and one of the nation’s premier businesses. They employed between 1.5 and 2 million people annually—about 10 percent of all industrial workers—and transported hundreds of billions of ton-miles of freight. But after the war, as Americans embraced cars, trucks, and highways, the role of railroads changed.
In the 1940s, diesel locomotives began to be introduced on U.S. railroads in large numbers. Steam and diesel locomotives ran side by side for a brief time in the 1940s and early 1950s, but new diesel locomotives took over as they radically cut maintenance and operating expenses. Steam locomotive 1401 was last repaired at Spencer in 1951. All steam locomotives on the Southern were retired by 1953, and Spencer Shops, not easily convertible to diesel work, closed in 1960.
By 1950, rail traffic was dropping steadily, motivating rail managers to cut costs. This drop in traffic and the fact that diesels needed far fewer people to maintain them combined to cut rail employment. In 1962, U.S. railroads had half the number of workers they had in 1946.
In the 1980s and 1990s, passenger trains were no longer a part of most travelers’ lives. But railroads rebounded economically, due to growth in rail shipment of freight containers, automobiles, coal, grain, food, and other products. In the 1990s, rails carried more commercial freight more miles than waterways or trucks.