U.S. Occupations, U.S. Railroad Occupations

(1800's to early 1900's)

"And the sons of pullman porters,
and the sons of engineers
all ride their fathers' magic carpet made of steel."
--"Riding on the City of New Orleans"

Early U.S Occupations (1850-1930)

listed on the census included the following (alternate names and information about occupations are given in parentheses):
keeping house (for a wife)
student (or "scholar;" usually for a child)
at home (for a child)
RR (+ name of job in railroad)
rail road
pilot (of a boat)
stone mason
odd jobs
laborer (day laborer)
commission laborer (this is a person who gets 'commission' for work done, thus 'piece worker,' probably!)
work in paper mill (paper maker)
candy maker
work in wool mill
work in cotton factory
dress maker
shoe maker (work in shoe factory)
sales lady (often listed with what sold, such as "dry goods"), salesman (again, often listed with what sold, i.e., "hardware")
shop keeper
clerk (historically, this could be a well-to-do person)
bookkeeper (cost accountant)
police official

Often, the same occupation is listed for many persons living in the same neighborhood or household; for example, in a hotel, many of the persons listed together are servants and laundry workers who may also live there--or who may be listed at their place of business. But persons living in someone else's household might be engaged in labor for the head of household (as a "servant," "butler," "coachman," or "laborer").

You'll note that some of the occupations listed above are not really occupations, but industries. The 1920 and 1930 censuses, however, list both occupation and industry!

The Railroad and Railroad Occupations

Railroads (Tracks and Connected Train) and Steam Locomotive: How it Fits Together and Works:
Attaching Cars--With Cable: the Funicular System
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funicular (According to Wikipedia, "[t]he Funicular system of attaching cars with cable was standard till the 1890's.")
The Rack or Cog Railway
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rack_railway Wikipedia's "Rack Railway"
"Railroad Construction in Old and Modern Times"
http://catskillarchive.com/rrextra/tksa.Html (Rpt. online from Scientific American, December 9, 1893)
The Steam Locomotive
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steam_locomotive Wikipedia's "Steam Locomotive"
Workers on the Railroad

According to the Railroad Museum's "The Faces of Railroading" (http://www.rrmuseumpa.org/about/rrpeopleandsociety/occup.shtml), African Americans traditionally built tracks and worked as porters, but not only these; some advanced to the position of engineer: http://www.rrmuseumpa.org/about/rrpeopleandsociety/africanamericans.shtml
Before World War One, approximately one third of firemen and brakemen in the south were Black though some of these were still classified as 'porters.' The numbers stayed high after World War One, in spite of difficulties integrating into and being accepted by the unions, and increasing mechanization/automation.

See also the video, "Pullman Porters: Ordinary Men, Extraordinary History" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yoYSkoCp5M)

And CBS's Legacy of Pullman Car Porters" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOgATGaTSrM)

Larry Tye Author&Journalist, wrote: Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class (http://www.larrytye.com/books/risingfromtherails/); here's a review of Larry Tye's book, reprinted from The Chicago Tribune, where most of the pullman porters were based: (http://www.larrytye.com/books/risingfromtherails/reviews/chicago/)

For an in-depth (without pictures) discussion of the role of Black labor in the railroad industry, and difficulties Blacks had rising in the industry, see David E. Bernstein's artcle, "Racism, Railroad Unions, and Labor Regulations" http://www.independent.org/pdf/tir/tir_05_2_bern.pdf

Some Traditional Railroad Occupations

(not in alphabetical order):
This is the U.S. term, according to Wikipedia, for the "driver, engine driver, train driver (UK)" According to, Iron Roads: Making Tracks Across Nebraska," the new apprentice in railroading often started as either an "engine wiper" or "engine watcher", then moved through the ranks as follows: "switch-engine fireman" > "road fireman" > "hostler" > "switch engine engineer" > "journeyman engineer" > "engineer"
Brakeman, Switchman, Hostler, Shunter, Switch-engine Engineer
These people were all involved in switching cars! Brakemen road the car and activated brakes, switchmen switched cars and hooked them together mostly in the yard, hostlers switched cars but only in the yard, and also moved engines from the yard to the roadhouse, shunters assembled trains and moved railroad cars around, with a small locomotive, switch-engine engineers brought cars onto the tracks for the engineers to pick up.
Fireman (switch-engine, road)
According to Wikipedia, "a worker whose primary job is to shovel coal into the firebox and ensure that the boiler maintains sufficient steam pressure; a driver's [engineer's] assistant." The switch-engine fireman worked in the yard, the road fireman did the same job but in transit. The road fireman (before a 'self lubrication system' was invented for the steam engine) also oiled the cylinders on the 'drive wheels' that the hot steam boiled across and turned.
Stoker/Boilerman/Boilermaker/Engine Watchman
The Engine Watchman worked in the yard, keeping the water level up in the boiler, and fire in the firebox.
Coal Dock Operator
The coal dock is where coal was loaded from.
Engine Wiper
Engine wipers cleaned and greased the engines in the yard, and also perhaps added water, and did other sort of similar work (this was an entry level job for persons wishing to become engineers);
Machinist, Mechanic
Tests electrical equipment on cars. (A more modern job, one available today!)
Wheel Tapper
According to Wikipedia, "historical railway occupation; people employed to tap train wheels with hammers and listen to the sound made to determine the integrity of the wheel; cracked wheels, like cracked bells, do not sound the same as their intact counterparts. The job was associated with the steam age, but they still operate in some eastern European countries. Modern planned maintenance procedures have mostly obviated need for the wheel-tapper."
Joiner (?)
According to Wikipedia, [r]ails included: "Jointed track: track in which the rails are laid in lengths of around 20 m and bolted to each other end-to-end by means of fishplates (UK) / joint bars (U.S.)." This may be one of the RR occupations listed on the census--probably involved joining track. (Normally though a "joiner" was engaged in woodwork--that was not done for the railroad!)
Section Gang, Laborer
The section gang crew replaced rotten parts in the section of track they were responsible for. They also road about their section of the track in a 'hand car' to inspect for bad areas.
Ticket Agent, Station Master
The ticket agent sold tickets; the station master was in charge of the station--and might also, in a small town, sell tickets!
This person was in charge of the train and its crew! He/she was also responsible for the safety of passengers.
Baggage Handler
Handled baggage. This position existed at large stations only.
Porter, Pullman Porter
Made beds on the train, made passengers comfortable
Waiters worked in the dining car.

According to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania,

"[r]ailroad Occupations Included in our Railroaders' Hall Plaques: Clerk, Switchman, Section Hand, Auditor, Architect, Superintendent, Inspector, Police Officer, Foreman, Machinist, Plumber, Purchasing Agent, Accountant, Barge Captain, Maintainer, Crossing Watchman, Mail Clerk, Train Director, Electrician, President, Coal Dock Operator, Supervisor of Material, Customer Service Manager, Boilermaker, Yardmaster, Hostler, Brakeman, Union Official, Rules Examiner, Dining Car Steward, Roundhouse Mechanic, Wreckmaster, Watchman, Power Director, Baggage Agent, Oiler, Blacksmith, Carpenter, Data Processing Clerk, Car Cleaner, Timekeeper, Lineman, Ash Cleaner, Laborer, Air Brake Inspector, Mechanical Engineer, Trainman, and many more."

The above information on occupations is from:

Wikipedia "Railroad Terminology"
The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, "The Faces of Railroading"
Iron Roads: Making Tracks Across Nebraska, "Railroad Job Descriptions" (part of the Nebraska Genweb at USgennet)
Dictionary of Occupational Titles
Industry Job Analysis: Mechanical Department Laborer (Railroad)
(search for this file at www.google.com to get an html version generated!)
Larry Tye, "The Work of a Pullman Porter," at Alicia Patterson.org
"Machinist for the Railroad" at Greenspun.com Lusenet Message Board

Where People Worked: Defunct United States Railroads

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_defunct_United_States_railroads Wikipedia provides a "List of defunct United States Railroads." It's possible to find the names of the railroad someone probably worked for here, and then to find more information about it by searching online. You may be able to get the names of other lines in the same town, the name of owners of the line, or even the name of the company who bought the old line--if you are quite lucky!

Railroad Jobs Today

http://www.getrailroadjobs.com/ This is a free site! Various jobs are listed here, throughout the U.S. It is certainly a good place to get acquainted with the kinds of work available in railroading today. (I have not used it, cannot say how useful it is to a job seeker, but I understand there is at least no charge.)


Near Southeast CDC (Keen Group?)/S. Lewis, PO Box 1872, Forth Worth, TX 76101, phone/fax 817-810-0602
This page last updated, 2014.