Searching for Antecedents on the Railways

In the 19th century, the railways were a new industry and source of employment. Also many immigrants came or opted to work on our pioneer railways in Canada. Some already had experience of working on a railway in the United Kingdom, and saw better opportunities for advancement or promotion in a railway network that was developing after the railway boom of the UK in the 1840s. Early Canadian railways were financed in large part by the London, UK financial houses and banks, and it was natural for word to spread about opportunities "across the pond". 

The railway industry in the pioneering years was a very labour-intensive one, and collectively they were a huge employer. For any Canadian whose family was part of this country's tapestry during the "Railway Age", it would be very unlikely for there not to have been an antecedent who had not worked on the railways somewhere. There are some "railway families", where the tradition of working on the railway was passed on from father to son to grandson, and across to brothers in each generation, with the result that some families could boast of hundreds of, or even some thousand, collective years of railway service.

Out in the fresh air it was very hazardous work, especially for brakemen and yardmen. Horrendous accidents to life and limb were common, and safety equipment and procedures were initially only gradual  improvements through legislation (sometimes fuelled by public outrage after a particularly terrible accident) and enlightened commercial self-interest, but which then accelerated in the late 19th century with rapidly-increasing innovations in technology and the formation of unions.

While the railways were conservative when it came to wages, they developed a reputation for security of employment, preferring demotions rather than "layings-off" in hard times, as long as one worked hard, followed the labyrinth of rules, and did not "blot one's copybook" with responsibility for a major accident, possibly with a  criminal negligence conviction. Wherever possible, the railways would look after workers who had been injured on the job by assigning them to "light duty" jobs, such as grade crossing keepers.

Aside from the "fresh air" attraction of working on the railway (as opposed to being cooped up in a factory), there was also the romance of aspiring to be a locomotive engineer, and the camaraderie of being part of an organization that was very structured and that revered seniority, with a pride that was somewhat akin to being part of a military regiment.    

Searching for antecedents employed on the railways
The railways were also an industry where one moved around a lot. In the early pioneering days, it was common to move on from one railway to another in search of a slightly-better paying job, or for a promotional or locational opportunity. As the early railways consolidated or were absorbed into the emerging Grand Trunk Railway, or became part of the Canadian Pacific Railway, it became more likely to move around within those larger systems, but moving around remained a common prerequisite for "working on the railway" and keeping one's job, bettering oneself, or just hanging onto one's seniority.

So for anyone looking to find out more about, or to trace their antecedent's work history, it is helpful, indeed a prerequisite to know

  • approximate age and date, or date range, of service (if one does not have approximate age, a prior genealogical search is in order)
  • location
  • type of work, position or rank
  • company worked for

 It is important to understand that any search will almost certainly have to be conducted locally where your antecedent is believed to have been - in the timeframe being searched. It is also important to realize there will be some serendipity (sheer good fortune) to success, in the light of the possible permutation of factual circumstances, and the fragmentary nature of the surviving records being searched.

As newspaper research (see below) is a key source of potential information, it is important to know the approximate age of one's antecedent, and to have an idea of the date, or range of dates, of service, as this will enable one to zero in on the dates of newspapers or other documents, such as title or census records to be searched, as well of course the locality. If the known locality is too small to have had a newspaper, search in the nearest towns that published a paper.

The likelihood of a record is much enhanced if your antecedent had reached the rank of station agent or conductor, or more senior. Chances are that if the position was in the superintendent, (chief) engineer or higher management position range, it will be recorded or mentioned in the railway's surviving documents, such as timetables, prospectuses, and of course in any books or articles dealing with that railway. For that reason it is also useful to know for what company your antecedent worked.

Many enquiries are in connection with accidents. Serious accidents involving injuries and/or loss of life were usually reported in the local newspapers, and even sometimes in the "national" or regional papers. Less serious ones were usually, but not always, reported in the local newspaper(s). Most of these were published weekly. If an accident occurred on or close to publication date, there is a possibility that a minor accident of the "no injury", e.g, minor collision or derailment variety, may not have been published a week later as it was then "old news". Other possible sources of information might be through local diaries at local reference libraries. All railways were required to keep records of accidents, but these registers are often fragmentary, and even if in existence, likely only in summary without any detail.  

Sources of Information
At the national level, Library and Archives Canada holds the records of Canadian National Railways and other affiliated (including the Grand Trunk) railway companies that operated in Canada, but this does not include old employee records. The same is true for the Canadian Pacific Railway Archives. Any archival records that exist would likely be in fragmentary fashion as part of a provincial or local reference library record, perhaps as part of Provident or Benevolent or Brotherhood Society or similar records. In any event, the local reference library or archive is always a good starting point, if for no other reason than prospective referral to articles, Fonds and local published material that may have a bearing on your search, and/or to other local repositories of which one might otherwise remain unaware.
With that said, as an example of the kind of record that may prove to be a treasure find, the Canadian Pacific Railway Archives have a remarkable collection of photographs taken as part of a visual inventory record in the two decades leading up to WWI, known as the Joseph W. Heckman Collection of some 4,000 photographs or more of CPR stations and structures that almost invariably include a picture of the local station agent (sometimes named in the field book), his family, and members of the local section gang that would be assisting Mr. Heckman with his travels. A book was published in 2015, featuring about 10 per cent of these images.   
Museums, historical societies and Women's Institute records 
Museums may or may not have their own archives, but are more likely to have local photographic collections. Unfortunately these are not always dated very precisely (if at all), and the persons appearing on the images may not always be identified. It is therefore useful if one has a picture of one's antecedent with one, so that one can at least run a comparison, which in turn my provide other clues. On the subject of pictures, local antique or collectible stores may have albums, postcards, framed pictures, or loose pictures in a shoebox - time-consuming to go through, but potentially rewarding.
The local historical society may co-exist with, or actually operate, the local museum; but if a separate organization, may be aware of a source of local information that may be able to help.
Women's Institute records
Women's Institutes are not nearly as prevalent as they used to be. Their records are usually very community- and person-oriented, and are likely to have pictures and newspaper clippings that can be very helpful. If the local WI has been disbanded, chances are their records may be at the local reference library or with the local historical society. 
All of our pioneer districts were "covered" by a (usually) weekly newspaper, and in the "Railway Age", railways were a substantially newsworthy item, so much so that some papers would have a special dedicated column devoted to local railways, and the comings and goings of their employees. The railway column would usually appear in the same space on the same page each week, making it very easy to zip through 52 weekly editions. Don't forget to scan the other pages for headline news about any accidents or special railway-related events though, as these would always mention any involved railway employees. Today, pretty well all of these papers are at least on microfilm and may be viewed at the local reference library. The "railway column" is a railway historian's good friend for tracing names (and other railway-related news such as changes to railway buildings). An example of the value of newspaper clippings can be seen in Carl Riff's Railway History Diaries elsewhere on this website. Unfortunately perhaps for the researcher, one circumstance where names would be reported would be in connection with the many numerous accidents that occurred on all railways.
If your antecedent was a station agent, operator or dispatcher anywhere in Canada, you may be in luck - try the Canadian Railway Telegraph History website.
Local railway history books and history publications
Over a period of time, many books have been written about individual railways that will reference names of railway employees in all grades and positions in the text and as captions of pictures - if there is a comprehensive index, your job is made easier; but if there isn't, borrow the book and have a good read - and you may be pleasantly surprised with what you may stumble across. As an example of what may turn out to be the "find" that you are looking for is the kind of book mentioned above, but there are published histories of virtually every railway that was ever built in Canada - most are long out of print and pricey to buy on-line or from a used book store, but usually available on loan on the public inter-library system.
A search of this kind is time-consuming, calls for imagination, determination and an enquiring and deductive mind - very much amateur sleuthing, but exhilarating and potentially very rewarding - but there are no guarantees, as the sands of time have covered tracks that might have enlightened one half a century ago - but if one approaches the challenge with the conviction that "somewhere in an attic is what I am looking for", there is that chance of success that makes the hunt the exciting journey that it is.