Overheard in GenForum, November 01, 2001
Q: Any ideas on how I can locate a data base of railroad employee retirement records, death records, etc.? I've reached a dead end on Social Security records and it's quite possible the person I'm researching worked for and retired with the railroad in Pennsylvania. -- James
A: There are two possible avenues to pursue when it is discovered that an ancestor worked for the railroads. There is the Railroad Retirement Board, a federal organization. There is also the individual railroad companies or at least the records left behind by these companies.
Working with either will require additional information from you. Some of this information may already be in the records you have collected. In some instances, you may need to seek out other records before you can pursue the records generated by either of these avenues.
There is more than the railroad retirement board.
Railroad Retirement Board
In order to access these records, you will need to contact the Railroad Retirement Board directly. Keep in mind that they do not have records for everyone. Only those who were employed for more than ten years and who were employed at the time the Railroad Retirement Board was created (in 1934) will be found in the Board's records.
In your correspondence with them, you will need to supply a copy of the individual's death certificate. You will also need to include the employee's name, position, railroad, and when and where they worked. You can contact them at Railroad Retirement Board, 844 N. Rush St., Chicago, IL 60611-2092. The cost for a request is $21.00.
The Railroad Retirement Board website, offers additional information. They stress the fact that they do not have records on anyone who either died or retired from railroading prior to 1937. It is important that you supply them with the social security number, especially on common surnames. With uncommon surnames, if you cannot find the social security number, they may be able to locate your ancestor if you supply them with the employee's full name (including middle name), and complete dates of birth and death. They make no guarantees and will not send records if they are not certain there is a match.
While the Railroad Retirement Board's frequently asked questions section suggests using the Social Security Death Index to locate social security numbers, this is usually not possible when looking for a railroad employee. Railroad employees were often excluded from the SSDI due to the unique pensions set up within the railroads. Social security numbers can be found through death records, and you can also write to the Social Security Administration for an SS-5 form search, even if you do not know the social security number. This may be another way to determine the number before contacting the Railroad Retirement Board.
Researching those family members who do not fit the requirements of the Railroad Retirement Board, either in length of service or when they were employed by the railroad, requires turning your attention to the records of the individual railroad companies. Of course, that begs the question, "Where do I look?"
Many railroad companies have ceased to exist. The records, if they have been preserved, are likely to be in a library or historical society. Museums, both general, and those devoted to railroads, are another avenue to pursue. A book that is of help is locating such museums and collections is The Directory of North American Railroads, Associations, Societies, Archives, Libraries, Museums and Their Collections by Holly T. Hansen.
In addition to this book, you may want to read the following articles
- Riding the Rails Up Paper Mountain: Researching Railroad Records in the National Archives by David A. Pfeiffer
- Elliott, Wendy. "Railroad Records for Genealogical Research" National Genealogical Society Quarterly, 75 (December, 1987), 271-277; 79 (June, 1991), 140.
Records Will Vary
Even if you do discover that your ancestor is listed in the Railroad Retirement Board's files, you may want to see if you can find other records on your ancestor from the actual railroad company. The records kept vary between the two. By exhausting both avenues you may find that you garner insight into the life of your ancestor.
Among other records, those found with the railroad companies may include employment applications. Just as with employment applications today, you are likely to learn about your ancestors job history, where he was living and had lived, along with personal information about when and where born.
When found, railroad records may offer you some valuable clues to your genealogy. Sometimes they require dilligence though in getting necessary identifying information so that you can request the necessary records. Other times the diligence is in locating the repository that may house the needed records.
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 an award-winning author of several genealogy how-to books, including The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, The Genealogist's Computer Companion, and Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at [email protected].
See more advice from Rhonda in her columns Expert Tips, Tigs and Trees, and Overheard in the Message Boards.