October 17, 2002
Q: I'm seeking any information on how to find employment data on my father, who worked for a railroad his entire working life until retirement. I have searched what databases I have been able to find and e-mailed the company, without any success. He was covered under the Railroad Retirement Act, not Social Security. Does anyone have some tips as to how I can pursue this further? -- Fred
Railroad Retirement Board
When most people think about records for a railroad employee they think of the Railroad Retirement Board. The Board's records, though, are relatively contemporary. The Board was not created until 1934. In order to receive benefits from the Railroad Retirement Board, and therefore to have a file with them, the individual had to have worked for the railroad for at least ten years. For those who were already working for the railroad before 1934, they had to still be working for a railroad in 1934. If your ancestor was, then you will want to get a copy of his file.
The files are arranged by social security number so in order to access his file, you will need to know his social security number. Railroad employees' social security numbers began with a 700 number. If you don't know the social security number, you might still want to contact them although you may find that they cannot help you find the record.
To request a search you will need to write to the board at the address below and include the following information in addition to the social security number:
You can send your request along with a check for $21.00 to:
Railroad Retirement Board
You may want to read Wendy Elliott's "Railroad Records for Genealogical Research" National Genealogical Society Quarterly, 75 (December, 1987), 271-277; 79 (June, 1991), 140.
If your ancestor's railroad activities did not reach ten years or he was not working for the railroad in 1934, then you aren't likely to find his record at the Railroad Retirement Board. Instead you will have to turn your attention to the records generated by the railroad company itself. This is often more difficult because so many of the railroad companies are no longer in business. Finding the records sometimes requires ingenuity and perseverance on your part.
First try to determine if the railroad is still in business. This may require doing a genealogy of the railroad company to see if it was purchased or somehow absorbed by another company. If the company is no longer in business, then you will want to turn to repositories. Historical societies, start archives, museums (both general and railroad specific) may be holding the records you want. Also, don't overlook the National Archives, as they have some in their collections as well. You will want to read David A. Pfeiffer's Riding the Rails Up Paper Mountain: Researching Railroad Records in the National Archives. To see what museums and societies may have railroad records, you will want to get a copy of The Directory of North American Railroads, Associations, Societies, Archives, Libraries, Museums and Their Collections by Holly T. Hansen.
Don't Overlook One for the Other
Even if your ancestor has a file with the Railroad Retirement Board, it is a good idea to investigate the railroad company records as well. You may find that you get different information from them. If your ancestor worked his entire life with the railroad, it is possible that through the railroad company records you will be able to find out when he moved, offering you a way to track him in more traditional records.
Here are the records you can expect to get from the Railroad Retirement Board:
Here are the records you can expect to find in individual railroad company records:
Railroad records often hold a gold mine when it comes to learning about our ancestor. The trick is in tracking them down, especially when the ancestor in question didn't qualify for or live to see the creation of the Railroad Retirement Board. Of course, the perseverance pays off in the end if you do manage to find the records on your ancestor.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 email@example.com.
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