History: 1800's


The first railroad charter was issued in 1815 by the state of New Jersey.  In 1827, the B&O railroad was chartered to run the first westward bound railroad in America, from Baltimore to the Ohio River in Virginia. It was the first westward bound railroad in America.

By 1830, there were only 23 miles of railroad in the United States. By 1850 it had grown to 9,021 miles, a fraction of the 200,000 miles it was to eventually grow to at its peak.

The postal and rail services became closely intertwined early on in U.S. history. The first trains to carry letters were on the Camden & Amboy line in New Jersey as early as 1832.

Colonel John Stevens is considered to be the father of American railroads. In 1826 Stevens demonstrated the feasibility of steam locomotion on a circular experimental track constructed on his estate in Hoboken, New Jersey, three years before George Stephenson perfected a practical steam locomotive in England. The first railroad charter in North America was granted to John Stevens in 1815.

Many of the earliest locomotives for American railroads were imported from England, but a domestic locomotive manufacturing industry was quickly established. Between the 1830s and the 1860s, there were enormous railway building booms in the U.S.  The railroad replaced canals as the primary mode of transportation in this country. As the railroad industry expanded and more and more workers were employed, worker's unions came into existence.

Railroad unions representing specific railroad crafts first emerged around the 1860s.

  • In 1863 the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the first union organization of railroad workers, was organized in Detroit. It was originally called the Brotherhood of the Footboard.
  • In 1868, the Brotherhood of Conductors was organized in Mendota, Illinois. Its name eventually was changed to the Order of Railway Conductors & Brakemen.
  • In 1873 the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen was established and in 1906 it became the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen & Enginemen.
  • In 1876, the Switchmen's Union of North America was initially organized.
  • In 1883, the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen received a charter.
  • In 1890, the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen was organized in Topeka, Kansas.
At the time these organizations were formed, conditions for employees were horrible. Wages averaged $1.00 per day and 70 percent of all train crews could expect injury within five years of service. ad workers were injured and 1,657 were killed. Insurance was not available to railroad workers because of the hazards of the job. There were no such thing as  seniority rights, safety laws, insurance, job security or disciplinary rules and safeguards.

In these early days, employees who attempted to form or belong to a union were fired with no recourse. Many employees were required to sign so called “yellow dog” contracts at the time of hire. These so-called agreements meant immediate discharge to an employee who joined a union.


The National Labor Union (NLU), the country's first national labor federation, was founded in the summer of 1866.

In 1851, the Erie Railroad in New York used the telegraph during its inaugural run to alert the next stations about a locomotive problem. Telegraphs provided railroads with a new, high speed communication system to help manage their operations. Train stations became the natural site for telegraph offices across the country.

In 1869, the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed across the U.S. from Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California. It was built by the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad companies. They used workers from China, Ireland, and other parts of Europe to lay the tracks at great loss of life.

After the Civil War, during the 1870's and 1880's, many of the railroads in the South were rebuilt and expanded using cheap convict labor largely composed of young black men. These laborers often worked in chains, were underfed, poorly housed and medically neglected. Many convict laborers only survived an average of 3 years, and almost 1 in 10 perished within the first four months.

In 1877, unorganized railroad workers struck because of a 10 percent wage cut, the second cut since the Panic of 1873. They brought to a screeching halt four Eastern rail trunk lines, which caused turmoil in every industrial center. In Pittsburgh, PA, Martinsburg, WV; and Chicago, IL, the Great Strike of 1877 sparked battles between militia and the crowds.

In 1887, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) was created to regulate railroads, to ensure fair prices.

In 1888, a charter was granted to form a Grand Lodge for the Ladies Auxilliary, Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen.

By 1890, it had became obvious to many that a single union representing all operating employees or even all railroad employees would be much stronger and more effective. However, there was much resistance along craft lines.

In the early 1890's, Labor Leader Eugene V. Debs founded the American Railway Union (ARU) as an all craft organization. The ARU, however, was destroyed a few years later by management, government collusion and the use of federal troops during the Pullman Strike in 1894.

In 1893, unions won with the passage of the Safety Appliance Act. Among other things, the Act outlawed the “old man-killer link and pin coupler.”  It required all American railroads to adopt air brakes and automatic couplers on their trains.

In 1894, Labor Day became a federal holiday. Following the deaths of a number of workers at the hands of the U.S. military and U.S. Marshals during the Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland reconciled with the labor movement. Fearing further conflict, legislation making Labor Day a national holiday was rushed through Congress unanimously and signed into law a mere six days after the end of the strike.


In 1898, the Erdman Act was passed providing for mediation and voluntary arbitration on the railroads. It made it a criminal offense for railroads to dismiss employees or to discriminate against prospective employees because of their union membership or activity. It provided legal protection of employees’ rights to membership in a labor union, a limit on the use of injunctions in labor disputes, lawful status of picketing and other union activities, and requirement of employers to bargain collectively.



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By the 1890s, women workers were playing a major role in American industry. Since the earliest industrialization centered on textile mills and most mill workers were women, the majority of industrial workers were women. Women were paid, in many cases, half the wages of men for the same work. By 1900 more than 2,000,000 women were in the work force.  See http://www.anchoreducationfoundation.org/images/Heroes.pdf






The First Railroad Train on the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad
The First Railroad Train on the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad
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