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Overheard in GenForum: R/R Employees 1830s-1880s
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

September 14, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Does anyone know of a website, address, etc. that gives any information on the railroads in the above time period? What I am looking for: I have a person born in NJ about 1818 works as RR Engineer. Is in (according to census records/birthplaces of children) NJ/Delaware/Mass/NJ again /KY/IA/IN/WY. How can I find out which RR he worked for in each location? Is it possible he worked for the same one? I lose him after 1870 in Carbon Co. WY census. His wife is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis (I believe it's her). One, or more, of their children stayed (and worked for a RR) in Indianapolis. Helpful hints appreciated. -- Amy

A: In most cases railroad records are a creation of the twentieth century. The main collection of records that most researchers turn to, those of the Railroad Retirement Board, do not exist for railway workers unless they worked beyond 1935.

All other railway records are linked directly to the railway company itself. Locating railway company records often requires ingenuity on the part of the researcher.

Locating railway company records often requires ingenuity on the part of the researcher.

Why Not Railroad Retirement Board?

The Railroad Retirement Board is often the first place that people turn when trying to find information on an ancestor who worked for the railroads. However, few researchers understand the limited focus in years of these records.

In order to increase your chances of finding your ancestor in the Railroad Retirement Board records, the railway worker had to work for the railroad for at least ten years. They also had to die after 1935. If your ancestor died before this time, it is likely that he will not show up in these records.

However, if he did live past 1935, you will need to supply as much information as possible to the Board to request a search of their records. Most important to them is the Social Security number, as it is this number under which their records are organized.

You can write for a search to Railroad Retirement Board, 844 Rush Street, Chicago, IL 60611. The cost for the search is $16.00.

Where Else to Turn

If your ancestor does not fit the requirements for the Board, then you must turn your attention to the records generated by the individual railway companies themselves. This is a more difficult endeavor.

Railway companies can be difficult to determine. One of the easiest ways to begin searching for what companies were operating in a given area is to search the land records. The railway companies were often purchasing and selling land in the area. As a result you will find the names of the railway companies listed in the grantor and grantee indexes.

Once you have the names of the railway companies, then you will need to turn your attention to possible repositories for those records. This is not as easy as going to the Railroad Retirement Board. Many of the railway companies are no longer in existence.

Where to Look

The records for the hundreds of railway companies may turn up anywhere or nowhere. There is no guarantee that you will find them for any given company or time period.

Unlike the Railroad Retirement Board, which is now required to maintain their records and preserve them, no such laws or mandates were in place to require the individual railway companies to preserve their records. Many of them, fortunately, did retain older records in a company archive or look to another repository for storing these older records.

Museums and historical societies are often those repositories. It is a good idea, once you have determined the locality where the railroad was and the name of the company to look at the local and state historical societies. Many of the state historical societies have a Web presence and some of them have even made their catalogs available for searching online.

Finally, no search is complete without looking in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC - pronounced nuck-muck). While many public libraries will have the published volumes to this catalog, some of it is now available for searching online.You will want to search it to see if and where records for the railway company you are interested in may be housed.

Finally another useful source is The Directory of North American Railroads, Associations, Societies, Archives, Libraries, Museums and Their Collections compiled by Holly T. Hanson. This volume lists addresses and in some cases lists holdings of the repository.

In Conclusion

Occupational records can help to fill in gaps and supply the researcher with information that furthers the family tree. Sometimes those records require the researcher to put forth a little effort in unearthing them.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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