Workin' on the Railroad
Despite their many problems, railroads provided employment for thousands of New Jerseyans. In 1907, for example, 45,810 people were reported by the state’s Bureau of Statistics as being employed by railroads. In addition to managers, they served as conductors, brakemen, engineers, firemen, switchmen, flagmen, trackmen, agents, baggagemen, clerks, machinists, boilermakers, car builders, telegraph operators, and on construction gangs. But they were victim, as today, to the vagaries of the economy. In June 1893, one locomotive builder employed 800 “hands” in its shops; one year later, as a result of the Panic of 1893, it employed only 300. Employees were subject to strict regulations regarding compliance with operating rules, as well as the use of tobacco and alcohol. In an era when individual life or disability insurance was almost unheard of, employees subscribed to voluntary relief associations, such as those of the Reading and the Pennsylvania railroads, which were both established in the 1880s to provide benefits in case of sickness or death. Employment by the railroad could be a vehicle for upward mobility. Joseph L. Gill (1889–1976), for example, was raised on a farm near Yardley, Pennsylvania. In 1905, he migrated to Port Reading, New Jersey to work as a junior clerk in the office of the Reading Railroad’s huge coal facility. Over the years he was promoted until he eventually became chief agent at that office. At age twenty-one, he was also elected a committeeman in his adopted hometown, being at that time the youngest person in the state elected to that office. Together with men and women directly employed by railroad companies, those working in related businesses represented a significant percentage of the labor force.
Title page of Reed's head light for locomotive engineers and machinists : comprising such information as necessary to give a general knowledge of the calculation and construction of the American locomotive engine ... practical instructions to manage the locomotive / by Wm. W. Reed.
William W. Reed, Reed’s Head Light, for Locomotive Engineers and Machinists (Paterson, N.J., 1874). The book is dedicated “To the Locomotive Engineer, as a testimonial of esteem, and admiration of his nobleness and steadiness of nerve, who controls the power of the Locomotive when at his post of duty, and in whose care the lives of many depend.”
Central Railroad of New Jersey employes monthly pass.
Central Railroad of New Jersey. “Employes Monthly Pass,” 1872. One perk offered railroad directors, managers, and employees was free passes.
First locomotive in use in Keyport, N.J., with personnel.
Photograph of the “First Locomotive in Use in Keyport, N.J. with Personnel.”
"To the president and directors of the Pemberton and Hightstown Railroad Company," [April 28, 1870. Petition of widow Catherine R. Nutt for a yearly allowance].
“To the President and Directors of the Pemberton and Hightstown Railroad Company,” April 28, 1870. Petition of widow Catherine R. Nutt for a yearly allowance. In December 1867, her husband “being entirely deaf and unable to hear the approach of an engine, was … struck by a locomotive attached to a construction train … and instantly killed.”