Ties to the Past Railroad Records Provide Surprising Clues in Local Genealogy Research
Harmon, Elizabeth, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Byline: Elizabeth Harmon Daily Herald Correspondent
Nearly all of us, in one way or another, are the descendents of railroad workers.
"In the last part of the 19th-century and the early parts of the 20th, the railroads were the nation's largest employer," said Craig Pfannkuche, a genealogical archivist for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad Historical Society.
"At one time, almost everyone worked for a railroad."
Their occupations stretched far beyond engineers, porters and brakemen. There were station agents, baggage men, all types of laborers, bridge builders, coal shovelers. Women too, as ticket agents and telegraphers, toiled for the railroad.
Even farmers found seasonal work clearing snow from rural tracks.
These employment facts led the Elgin Genealogical Society to invite Pfannkuche to talk about an unexpected tool for family tree research; railroad employment records.
"People say no, my ancestors were farmers, but there were all kinds of things they could have done for the railroad," said Pfannkuche, a Wonder Lake resident.
To a recent presentation at Gail Borden Library in Elgin, Pfannkuche brought along several examples of railroad records, among them an 1858 roster of workers on the CNW line stretching from Chicago, through Elgin and Janesville, Wis., eventually terminating in Fond du Lac, Wis.
He also brought a thick paperback book, the Official Guide of the Railways, which lists all of the towns where railroads stopped - a good source of information to learn what line your relative may have worked for - and he shared a CNW pension index from 1909 to 1923, hand-labeled the "Death Roll."
Pensioners received around $40 a month in the early 1900s. Earlier workers received nothing.
Nevertheless, workers were eager for the jobs and the railroads were eager to have them, especially the newly arrived immigrants who were willing to take the most menial work.
"First you had the Irish who were the canal diggers, then as they moved up to the better jobs, the Italians moved in, then the Hungarians, the Bohemians, and later the Mexicans. You can see the waves of immigrants coming in as the names on the employment records change," Pfannkuche said. …