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Railroads formerly employed hundreds of people in Hamilton

Numerous jobs required to support local industries

Railroads formerly employed hundreds of people in Hamilton

(This is the first of a series on the railroad industry as part of Hamilton’s economy. In this article there is no attempt to trace the complicated ancestry of the two railroads that presently serve Hamilton, CSX and Norfolk Southern. To read more about the railroad history of Hamilton and surrounding Butler County, consult Railroads of Butler County by Jim Blount, published in 1999 and available from the sources listed below.)

Compiled by Jim Blount

Do you have an ancestor who was known as a boomer or a hostler, or whose work place was identified as a crummy or camp car? Often children age and mature without knowing much about where their parents and relatives worked or their job responsibilities. That includes Hamiltonians with one or more generations of railroaders in their lineage.

There are few reminders of the work places of the thousands of Hamilton residents once employed by railroads. One of the city’s two passenger stations was demolished 21 years ago and the other is in disrepair. Freight houses have suffered a similar fate. Facilities necessary for the functioning of steam locomotives have gradually disappeared. Technology has replaced many tasks formerly essential to railroad operations and the safety of rail workers and the public. Also missing is accurate local railroad employment information.

Nationally, by 1870 -- five years after the Civil War ended -- more non-farming Americans were working for railroads than any other business or industry.

Exact figures are elusive, but periodic estimates often exceeded 300 people on local railroad payrolls. Complicating calculations is (1) how many people worked only in and around the city, and (2) the number based here, but performing their duties along rail lines elsewhere.

City directories offer some clues to the volume of railroad employment. A random check of an 1890s Hamilton directory includes residents identified as conductor, depot master, yard master, baggage master, baggage agent, telegraph operator, passenger agent, car inspector, track walker, brakeman, flagman and switchman.

Some other listings could have been railroad jobs -- engineer and fireman -- or apply to other work. For example, the writer’s paternal grandfather was a carpenter, employed by railroads in Kentucky before moving to Hamilton. Similar directory designations include clerk, machinist, welder, boiler man, porter, teamster, laborer and bookkeeper -- tasks required to keep the trains rolling, but also relative to other businesses and industries.


According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago web site, "in the early days of Chicago railroading, most engineers and conductors were native-born men. European immigrants built and repaired track, with the Irish
predominating early, followed by and, by the 1910s, Romanians and Mexicans.  African-Americans worked as Pullman porters and in other often segregated unskilled jobs, and, starting in the 20th century, women were hired for some clerical and telegraphy jobs, as car cleaners, and as on-train maids." The encyclopedia said "railroad workers put in long hours; a 1907 law restricted train crews to 16 hours  work out of every 24."

Crummy was one of many nicknames for the last car on a freight train -- the caboose. Technology has assumed the tasks previously performed by at least three people in those cars. Cabooses began disappearing after a 1982 labor agreement. Computers, scanners, detectors, radios and other devices -- plus cost cutting -- led to their demise. Only two people, an engineer and conductor -- both in the cab of the locomotive -- operate freight trains today.

The caboose was the office for the conductor -- the boss of the freight train. He was responsible for its safe and efficient operation. Brakemen and flagmen also rode in the caboose.

Before invention of the automatic air-brake system (1869), the brakeman helped stop or slow a train. While the engineer applied brakes in the locomotive, the brakeman climbed to the top of the caboose and ran across the top of the cars, applying the hand brake on each car. He reversed the procedure when the train moved again.

When a train stopped, the flagman walked away from the caboose on the tracks to warn a following train of the situation. The flagman, brakeman and conductor also had roles in switching maneuvers and handling equipment problems.

A Hamilton manufacturer, the Estate Stove Co., produced small, specially-designed stoves for cabooses. They were used for cooking and heating.


A boomer, in railroad lingo, was a person who, for various reasons, frequently changed jobs, locations and employers. One positive source says some boomers "were railroad workers often in big demand because of their wide experience."

"The boomer’s heyday was the period of national expansion between the Civil War and World War I," stated B. A. Botkin and Alvin F. Harlow in A Treasury of Railroad Folklore.

A hostler was an engineer who shuttled locomotives in a railroad yard to and from maintenance facilities, or during the process of assembling a train.

A camp car was usually an obsolete freight or passenger car that provided mobile lodging for construction and maintenance crews, The cars, also called dorm cars, were parked on a siding until the assignment was completed. Part of a car, or an entire car, served as a kitchen and dining area.


"Sixty-four passenger trains, 80 freight trains [and] 88 interurban electric trains every day" in Hamilton, noted the 1911 city auditor’s annual report.

Wartime secrecy limited detailed reporting of Hamilton railroad activity during World War II and the immediate post-war years. During that war (1941-45) and the Korean Conflict (1950-53), there were more than 125 industries -- large and small -- producing a component or a finished product for defense purposes. Many of them required rail service. In 1947, at least 16 train crew were required in Hamilton to handle daily freight switching movements within the city. The Baltimore & Ohio said its side tracks in Hamilton could store more than 3,330 freight cars.


In 1948, a B&O publication showed 19 storage tracks with a capacity of 773 cars in the Pit Yard, south of the South Hamilton Crossing (Central Avenue). North of the crossing were 17 tracks capable of storing 378 cars. That’s a total of 1,151 cars in that busy yard. In addition there were at least two main line B&O tracks through South Hamilton.

Several Hamilton industries had rail sidings in 1948 As many as 312 cars could be handled on a complex of tracks at Champion Papers. Others heading the list, based on storage limits, were Estate Stove Co., 41 cars; Ford Motor Co., 40; Niles Tool Works, 35; American Frog & Switch 33; Anderson Shaffer Co., 16; National Can, 16; Hamilton electric plant, 15, Black & Clawson, 10; Lingler Coal Co., 10; and Pater Coal Co., 10.

When General Motors’ Fisher Body plant was operating in Fairfield it was reported that at least 50 boxcars were moved in and out of the plant each day. The B&O operated a freight yard (Wayne Yard) near the plant until it closed in December 1989.


Less-than-carload (LCL) freight was handled at freight houses in Hamilton until the railroads began concentrating on bulk shipments (coal, grain, etc.).

The B& O freight house was on the south side of Maple Avenue between South Fourth and South Fifth streets. It included two buildings, one partially two stories, measuring 30x200 and 45x185 feet. The complex, which had space for 16 freight cars, was demolished in 1971-72.

The Pennsylvania freight houses -- a part still standing -- are on the north side of Maple Avenue between South Seventh Street and East Avenue. The two buildings, which are connected, were 20x120 and 36x160 feet. The PRR structures were part of a scrap yard in recent decades. They were partially visible behind high, solid protective walls.


A 1957 B&O training document said "Hamilton is numbered among the higher revenue producing stations on the Baltimore & Ohio" [now part of CSX]. "The Baltimore & Ohio is in a strong position at Hamilton due to the fact that 54 of the industries served by sidings, or 67 percent of the total, are located on B&O rails; the remainder of the industries, 27 in number, or 33 percent, being served by PRR [Pennsylvania] sidings." By 1957, the exodus of industry from the city had started.

The report listed car storage capacities of 983 at South Hamilton and 532 at Wayne yard (Fisher Body). It noted that B&O handled 30,000 loads annually at Fisher Body.


A vanishing railroad job by World War II was the news butcher, also known as news boy, train boy and train butch. His services could make the difference between a pleasant train trip and an endless, boring, sometimes torturous ride. Early passenger trains lacked amenities -- no dining cars, no lounges, no sleeping cars and no air conditioning.

By definition, the news butcher sold newspapers and magazines aboard passenger trains. "He not only sold newspapers and magazines, but he sold about everything from sandwiches and drinks to toy dogs and candy-filled pistols and lanterns," recalled a local reporter, writing in the mid 1930s.

"It is claimed that the news butcher on the more important and luxurious trains . . . made as much as $300 a month," the writer noted. "But now the news butcher is gone," the writer observed, in most cases yielding to onboard diners, cocktail lounges, snack bars and other services.

His offerings ranged from fruit, candy, postcards, tobacco, cigarettes and cigars to water, milk and soft drinks -- whatever he could carry and sell. Later, refrigeration permitted ice cream and other products to be added to the fare.


Not all railroad jobs were aboard trains. A necessity in the steam age was the roundhouse. The Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton, probably before 1860, built a roundhouse with a turntable on South Fifth Street, just south of the passenger depot. A coal dock also was located there. The roundhouse became outmoded because its stalls could only hold smaller locomotives (4-4-0 and 4-6-0 wheel arrangements), according to Dan Finfrock.

A new semi-circular roundhouse, with an 80-foot turntable, was built on the east side of the tracks at South Ninth and Long streets. A 100-ton coaling facility and oil house also were part of the service complex. They were built about 1918-20 after the B&O took control of the CH&D, according to Finfrock. Their usefulness ended in May 1959, when two Baltimore & Ohio steam locomotives stored there were sent to Cincinnati to be scrapped.

Other off-train railroad workers based in Hamilton included track and car inspectors, section crews, signal operators and signal maintainers.

Largest employers were repair shops followed by track workers, according to John H. White of Oxford, a transportation authority, adjunct professor at Miami University and former curator of transportation at the Smithsonian Institution.

"Railroading, especially in the wood-car era, was a labor-intensive business. In round figures, the number of employees equaled the number of cars; in 1860 the estimate for overall railroad employment was 80,000, and the figure for freight cars was the same," White wrote in his 1993 book, The American Railroad Freight Car.         

"This does not mean, however, that a 40-car freight train would have a crew of 40, for train crews represented only 40 percent of all railroad employees; a large number were in maintenance and clerical positions," White wrote. "It also is true that a good portion of train crews were engaged in passenger service, and so those working in freight trains might represent only about 20 percent of all railroad workers. This would vary greatly from railroad to railroad."


Diesel locomotives were job killers. Lower diesel costs brought an end to steam engines. In 1941, a railroad authority wrote that "because of their high availability (freedom from necessity for frequent major servicing and repair operations), one diesel passenger locomotive will do the work, broadly speaking, of two steam locomotives." He said fuel and other costs were about 50 percent of steam in "comparable service."

Other diesel advantages, Lucius Beebe wrote, were "more rapid accelerating ability in the lower speed brackets, long runs between fueling and other servicing operations, and ability to take the curves at higher safe speeds due to their lower center of gravity, and can economically operate trains on somewhat faster schedules than any but the most up-to-the-minute steam units."

In 1950, the Pennsylvania Railroad was the first local railroad to retire steam power, according to Dan Finfrock. But in 1952, because of a locomotive shortage, he said steam engines pulled Pennsylvania passenger trains for three months.

The last steam locomotive to operate through Hamilton, according to Dan Finfrock, an authority on local railroads, was a B&O freight train in May 1958.


Other track side structures -- no longer needed when diesel locomotives replaced steam in the 1950s -- included water storage towers and coal chutes. Technology also made obsolete interlocking towers where operators directed mainline and switching movements.

In December 1970, when a national railroad workers strike began, local railroad officials said about 250 B&O employees in Hamilton were idled and about 25 on the Penn Central (formerly the Pennsylvania, now Norfolk Southern).


Complaints about long working hours and brief rest periods have always been aired by railroad workers. "The CH&D conductors are very much dissatisfied with the runs that have been assigned," said an 1885 newspaper article, citing the following example.

Conductors "leave Toledo at about 8 o’clock in the evening, get into Cincinnati early the next morning, sleep a little through the day and then take an evening train to Dayton. Here they stay all night, go to Cincinnati the next morning and that evening start back to Toledo. On the Dayton run, they make but $1.20 each way (two cents a mile), but they would rather have some rest and time with their families than this pay. (Allowing for inflation, that $1.20 would be equal to about $29 now.)

"At present, live where they will, they are almost entirely absented from their families, some of them eating but three meals at home a week and none of them having a Sunday with their families unless they give up their sleep."

In another example, a conductor "brings up the theater train [from Cincinnati], which gets in at 12:30, midnight. The next morning he must be up and have his breakfast in time to take out the 6:40 train. In Cincinnati he must start back about 10 o’clock on a local freight that requires five, six and seven and as high as nine hours to make the run to Hamilton. Between 9 and 10 o’clock he must take another train to the city finally getting to bed at 1 o’clock in the morning."


In 1911, the pay for CH&D engineers was based on a 100-mile day. In the Hamilton area, rates for 100 miles ranged from $4 to $4.75, depending on several factors. Wage rules said full-time employment would be "fair time" or "26 days per month." (A 1911 rate of $4.75, allowing for inflation, would be about $110 now.)

Engineers on switching service or helper locomotives were paid $4.70 for a 12-hour day, or about 40 cents an hour. On some assignments an engineer had to work as much as 13 or 15 hours before qualifying for overtime pay. In 1911 federal law limited a railroader’s work day to 14 hours while Ohio permitted 16 hours. Overtime pay was 46 cents an hour.

Many railroad workers didn’t work regular schedules. They were "on call," and worked when needed. The 1911 CH&D work rules said engineers will be called when "within a radius of one and one-half miles and not more than two hours nor less than one and one-half hours before time designated to leave."

Federal legislation in 1907 limited railroad workers to 16-hour days. A 1916 law lowered it to eight hours a day.

Until checking accounts became common, railroaders were paid in cash. The arrival of the pay train was anticipated by employees, their families and Hamilton merchants and landlords. A locomotive and converted passenger coach usually composed the pay train, which stopped at every station, yard, shop and company facility. A paymaster and one or more assistants were responsible for handing out the cash. One or more armed guards were part of the pay train entourage.


In June 1934, during the Great Depression, railroad passenger patronage had declined. But 18 people were still working in two Hamilton passenger stations. Eleven were employed at the Baltimore & Ohio depot on South Fifth Street [now Martin Luther King Blvd.] at Henry Street. Seven worked at the Pennsylvania Railroad station on South Seventh Street, just south of High Street.

Not included among the 18 were employees of the U. S. Postal Service and the Railway Express Agency who serviced passenger trains passing through Hamilton.


Without a doubt, coal was the most valuable commodity delivered by rail to Hamilton. Until the last half of the 20th century, shuttling hopper cars around the city was a vital responsibility for railroad workers. Coal’s importance to every part of the local economy and personal welfare of residents was demonstrated several times.

According to a 1922 survey, 500,000 tons of coal -- all hauled to the city by railroads -- were consumed annually in Hamilton. A tenth of that total, 50,000 tons, was used in households, mostly for heating. The average residence burned five tons a year. In the early 1920s, there were 10 retail coal dealers in Hamilton adjacent to a railroad.

Dependence on coal was emphasized April 1, 1946, with the start of a 59-day strike by about 400,000 coal miners. It took a few days for Hamiltonians to realize the full impact of the work stoppage. The emergency was complicated later when railroad unions called a strike starting May 18.

Here are some of the repercussions:       

The Hamilton electric generation plant on North Third Street required delivery of at least three rail cars daily to provide 150 tons of coal. As the local supply dwindled, the city appealed for voluntary electric cutbacks by business, industry, schools and residents. Later, the city ordered businesses to eliminate display and decorative lighting. Violators could lose city electric service.

Railroad shipments were subject to limits, including personal packages sent via the U. S. Postal Service, which relied on the railroads. Several local factories eliminated days or hours of production because of scarcity of coal or railroad cutbacks on switching services. Grocery stores voluntarily rationed some purchases, limiting purchases to only one loaf of bread and a quarter pound of butter. The supply of fruits and vegetables was sparse.

Four daily passenger trains serving the city were temporarily discontinued by the Baltimore & Ohio and Pennsylvania railroads. The Cole Brother Circus, which traveled by train, canceled its annual visit to the Butler County Fairgrounds.

Normalcy returned by the end of May 1946, but it lasted less than six months. The second 1946 national coal strike began Nov. 18 when colder temperatures arrived.

By that time of the year, the majority of residences and businesses relied on coal for heating. Three days into the strike, Hamilton retail coal retailers said their stockpiles were either exhausted or extremely low. With conservation, schools said they could operate about six weeks.

Local industries reported only enough coal to operate from two weeks to a month. Some plants suspended work before supplies ran out. Before the crisis ended, 18 percent of the Hamilton work force had been laid off because of coal shortages. With only limited amounts of coal to transport, the strike also idled many local railroad employees.

Hamilton businesses and industries were ordered to eliminate unnecessary lighting. With the arrival of snow and 13-degree temperatures, electricity to commercial establishments was reduced 70 percent. The city turned off 50 percent of city street lights. In addition to Hamilton police, lighting compliance was checked by almost 100 members of the Ohio National Guard, auxiliary police and Ohio liquor agents who patrolled Hamilton streets. Dec. 5, the city manager ordered cancellation of night social functions and meetings by schools, churches and civic groups, including high school basketball games.

Coal miners went back to work Dec. 7. Thirteen railroad coal cars arrived at the city electric generation plant the following weekend with about 21 carloads expected the next week.

The 1946 fuel emergencies are considered a turning point. Government and corporate attention turned to increasing the nation’s natural gas supplies and transmission systems. The federal government began efforts to convert the Big Inch and Little Inch pipelines from petroleum to natural gas. The pipelines -- built east-west through Butler County during World War II -- could carry 50 million cubic feet of natural gas daily, equal to about 2,000 tons of coal, from Texas oil fields to the Philadelphia area.

The web site of a large railroad operating in 2012 includes this description of the duties of a beginner employee: "As a switchperson or brakeperson, you’ll learn to move trains safely in the yards and over the road. You’ll be climbing ladders, boarding freight cars, operating track switches, inspecting cars and using radio communications to control train movement. You won’t work a standard 40-hour work week. Train crews are always on-call, even on weekends and holidays" and "sometimes [will be] spending a day or more away from your home terminal."