Railroad Job Descriptions

Up until the about the mid 1950's, railroaders were a breed apart from the rest of us. They controlled powerful machines, they traveled to far off and exotic places, and they had the respect and admiration of every little boy - and most grown men. The closest modern day job to hold the same admiration and esteem is probably that of airline flight crew, with the pilot having the same status as the engineer of old.

The trainmen were part of a fraternity that worked their way up the ladder. They lived dangerous lives. In one month in 1887, 34 railroaders died in on-the-job accidents. That is a fraction more than one a day! In the entire year of 1888, 2,070 railroaders were killed on the job. Another 20,148 were injured. Be that as it may, railroaders scorned other professions, for theirs was the adventure of the age. Here then, is a description of the various jobs these iron men of Olympus held when our grandparents, great grandparents and even great great grandparents were taming Nebraska.

Baggage Handler
The baggage handlers duties were to load and unload baggage from inbound and outbound trains. In small towns, the telegraph operator or station agent usually did this. In large towns, such as Omaha, it was a full time job, and like modern airports of today, the baggage handler had to make sure the baggage was placed on the right train, or was transferred from an inbound train to the right outbound train.

Baggage Master
The person in charge of the baggage car. From 1840 to about 1920, passengers referred to him as the "baggage smasher." They swore he held contests with the baggage handlers to see who could stand at one end of the baggage car and hit the far wall with someone's baggage. Probably a bit of an exaggeration, but then again, I always thought they were the ones that trained the airlines' baggage handlers!

Prior to 1888 when Westinghouse developed a reliable air brake, stopping a train or a rolling car was very primitive. Iron wheels, located atop cars, were connected to a manual braking system by a long metal rod. The brakemen, usually two to a train, would ride on top of the car. On a whistle signal from the engineer, the brakemen, one at the front of the train and one at the rear of the train, would begin turning the iron wheels to engage the braskes. When one car was completed, the brakeman would jump the thirty inches or so to the next car and repeat the operation to apply the brakes on that car. The brakemen would work towards each other until all cars had their brakes applied. Tightening down too much could cause the rolling wheel to skid, grinding a flat spot on the wheel. When this happened, the railroad would charge the brakeman for a new wheel. New wheels cost $45, which was exactly what a brakeman earned a month. In good weather, the brakemen enjoyed riding on top of the cars and viewing the scenery. However, they had to ride up there in all kinds of weather - in rain, sleet, snow and ice, as well as good weather. Jumping from one car to the next at night or in freezing weather could be very dangerous, not to mention the fact that the cars were rocking from side to side.

As train crews go, especially passenger trains, the Conductor held the ultimate dignity. He typically worked his way up from Flagman. He was the captain of the train. His job required diplomatic skill (such as explaining politely to a women who claimed her "10 year old" son (who was sprouting whiskers) could not ride for free, but had to pay half-price. Conductors had to handle crooked gamblers, and had to use finesse when explaining to some passengers why they shouldn't fire their pistols out the window at passing telegraph poles. At times, they were even required to deliver babies, or doctor the smashed or severed fingers of one of the train's crew. He also collected fares when folks boarded the train where there was no ticket agent.

The locomotive engineer in Nebraska and the rest of the west was a real hero in olden days. The engineer enjoyed the privileges of the office, much like heros of antiquity. The engineer was allowed to have his engine painted whatever colors he chose. He was allowed to alter the sound of the whistle by placing wooden stops in it, to create a unique and distinct sound (this had the side benefit for the engineer - his wife or landlady would learn to recognize that distinct sound, and she knew he would be home soon, so she would have dinner waiting for him when he arrived). The engineer was paid $4.00 a day, but he had to work his way up. Quite often he started out years before as a Wiper in a yard house, then worked his way up to Engine Watchman, then to Switch-engine Fireman, then Road Fireman, then Hostler, then to Engineer.

Engine Watchman
This man's job was to keep water in the boiler and keep enough fire going in the firebox to move the locomotive within the railroad yard.

Express Agent
While not actually an employee of the railroad per se, they were employed by the "Railway Express Agency," which was a private concern, and usually had an office in the depot. Their job was to ship packages, much like United Parcel Service (UPS) or Federal Express (Fed Ex) does today. Quite often, especially in smaller communities, the Express Agent was also on the payroll of the local railroad. He might have been the telegraph operator, or the ticket agent, or even the the station agent.


This job probably had the sharpest contrast to that of conductor. There were two types of Firemen. The one learning the trade, called the Switch-engine Fireman, who worked in yard and never left on a traveling or "Road" Engines, and the Road Fireman, who traveled with the freight or passenger trains. The fireman's main job was to shovel coal into the firebox of the engine. Early engines burned from 40 to 200 pounds of coal per mile, depending on the quality of the coal and on the engineer. Another job of the Fireman was to keep the cylinders on the drive wheels oiled while the train was underway. Prior to 1888, this could only be done by climbing out on the running boards and creeping forward alongside the hot boilers and pour tallow on the valves. This duty ended when a device was invented that mixed oil with the water that was turning into steam. This allowed a self-lubrication to take place in the drive piston cylinder and all of the related valves. The fireman new that if he did his job well, in about three years he would move up to Hostler, and then to Switch-engine Engineer before becoming a journeyman Engineer. The Fireman's job paid $2.40 a day.


Prior to about 1900, Flagmen were called Freight Conductors. The Flagman is the senior brakeman. He had worked his way up the ladder by being competent, avoiding being killed, and he had to be able to read, as he would pick new orders for the train at various stops along the way. He may also be responsible for collecting fares from passengers that would ride in the inexpensive boxcars on the freight trains. If, or maybe I could more accurately say when, a train wreck occurred, or when a train was required to stop for some unusual reason, and would be blocking the main set of tracks, the Flagman's job was to set flares and warning devices along the track in the direction of any expected train, then they were to station themselves at a visible point as far down the tracks as possible to be able to warn any oncoming train of the dangers ahead.

The Hostler would go into the yard and pick up an engine from where the journeyman Engineer left it running, and move it into the roundhouse.

Railway Mail Clerk
These people actually worked for the U.S. Postal Service, not the railroad. They were considered the aristocracy of the postal workers. They were paid better, and they got to travel. Their job was to sort mail on the mail car while traveling from one location to another.

Section Gang
Section Crews, or Section Gangs as they were commonly known, were responsible for a (large) section of track. They typically rode handcars to look for, and replace, rotted ties, tamp loose spikes, and tighten bolts.

Station Agent

The Station Agent was the man in charge of the railroad station. In smaller towns, this job also included being ticket agent, baggage handler and telegraph operator. One station agent in a small town described his primary job as learning "...the art of killing time while being lonely." The high points of the day would come just before the arrival of the morning train and again just before the arrival of the evening train (which would be headed in the opposite direction of the morning train). Usually, the whole town would turn out to see if anyone was arriving or departing the train. Enterprising farm wives would show up to sell fresh eggs and produce to the train crews and passengers. This was the break in an other wise boring day for the lonely station agent. [Note - on the even more lonely "whistle stop" locations out on the plains, the long periods of shear boredom could be interspersed with periods of shear terror - see the job description of telegraph operator below for a story about an Indian raid at one whistle stop]. Some Station Agents found constructive ways to manage their slack time. When my grandfather was station agent in Auburn and Brock (Nemaha County). During the depression he made use of this slack time by planting a huge garden for the community on the station grounds. Since this was during the depression, it not only gave him something to do, but it fed many hungry folks, as the produce was free for the picking. He continued this practice until his death in 1953.

Switch-engine Engineer
This position was held by apprentice engineers learning the trade. Their job was to move railroad cars (also known as "rolling stock") around the railroad yard. Getting loaded boxcars on the right tracks and getting them hooked up for the Road Engines to pickup just before leaving the station. Once the apprentice engineer proved his ability with handling the Switch-engines, the next opening for a Road Engineer would be his.


These brave souls worked in the railroad yards, hooking cars together, sometimes while the cars were moving. From the earliest days until about the late 1870's or very early 1880's, railroad cars were hooked together with a link that resembled a giant chain link thirteen inches long. One end of the link would be placed into a slot in the iron drawbar of a car, then fastened with a long iron pin thrust through a hole in the drawbar. The same operation was now repeated on the car being connected to the first car. To make things worse, not all drawbars were the same height above the tracks. To accomodate this fact, some bent links, known as gooseneek links, were kept on hand to link drawbars of differring heights. Many switchmen were killed trying to link together two cars of differring heights, when the bumper of one car would slide over the bumber of another car while the switchman was in between the cars trying to link them together. After automatic couplers were invented, the switchman's main job was having the siding and switching tracks in the correct position.


The telegraph oeprator's job was to keep the trains on schedule, notifying the train crews of any problems or unexpected trains that may be ahead of them. They also would send warning messages to other depots up and down the line, warning of such things as run-away trains or Indians on the war path. One story is told by Railroad Historian Cy Warman of a station agent/telegraph operator stationed at a whistle stop in Nebraska known as Wood River. The only people that lived at or near the depot were the station agent, a settler named Bankers, his wife, their baby daughter, and a school teacher named Emma. The depot was little more than a shack that was built with double walls and four inches of sand in between to act as insulation. Inside was the agent's bunk, his telegraph key, a pot-bellied stove and an iron safe. One day, a friendly Pawnee Indian stopped by and warned that a Sioux war party was in the area. The Bankers' and the school teacher knew they weren't safe in their cabins, so they hid in a livestock car that was on a siding. They asked the agent to join them, but he refused, saying he had to stay at the telgraph key. He hammered out a warning to Ogallala, 165 miles west. The war party attacked after dark, burning the settlers' cabins and attacking the depot. The agent took refuge behind the iron safe and fought from there. One warrior did climb into the cattle car, but Mr. Bankers clubbed him with a rifle butt. When the battle seemed all but lost, a relief train running without lights arrived with Army officers and Pawnee scouts and routed the Sioux. All of the settlers lived, but the station agent had taken a Sioux bullet that shattered his leg. The happy ending to the story is the fact that later on, the conductor of the relief train married Emma the school teacher!

Ticket Agent
The ticket agent obviously sold tickets, but he also answered questions. The usual question was "Is the train on time?" One enterprising ticket agent, who knew the trains were almost always 20 minutes late, and who had grown weary of answering the same question dozens of times in a day, painted a sign that said, "The train is 20 minutes late." He left the sign up permanently. Customers started asking him if that meant today's train. He could not seem to get away from being asked the same question dozens of times a day!

The Wiper's job was to work a 12 hour shift in the roundhouse, where he packed the internal moving parts of some engineer's beloved engine with wads of greasy waste. The pay was $1.75 a day. This was the bottom rung on the latter that climbed to the engineer's seat.

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