14 August


Roughnecks and Parlor Boys: Researching Railroad Ancestors

By Stephanie Pitcher Fishman methods No Comments

Researh Your Railroad Ancestors

Recently, my family lost someone dear to us: my best friend’s father. He’s been around and part of my life’s tapestry since I was still excited about having a double-digit age. Mr. Charlie was a train guy through and through. What do genealogists do when we suffer a loss in the family? We memorialize them. He’s not on my own family tree so there’s no entry in my database. However, he was part of my self-made family, so my mind went straight to trains. The railroad was only second in his heart to his family, so it’s fitting that I started pulling together my list of genealogy links and resources to use when researching your ancestors who were roughnecks (brakemen) and parlor boys (flagman.)

The following resources are only a small portion of what is available to you when researching your railroad ancestor. If you are lucky enough to have this area of research in your family history project, milk it for all you can! This type of research is rich in content for really making your ancestor’s story pop. Take the time to look at maps and histories so that you see the entire picture of their experience.


General Resources

These sites make a great start in your research. (I always check them first to see what treasures they hold!)

Cyndi’s List: Railroads

US Railroad Retirement Board: Genealogy Information

Ancestry Wiki: Railroad Employees



A Timeline of Railroad History

RootsWeb: Railroad Accidents (message board)

History of Railroads and Maps



RootsWeb: Railroads (message board)

The Northern Pacific and Genealogy (Tips and Tricks)

Ancestry Wiki: California Railroad Employment Records , 1862-1950


Surname Research

Are you looking for a specific surname or individual? Try a few of these:

RootsWeb: Railroad Workers (message board)

RootsWeb: L&N Railroad Employees (message board)



Like other types of research, you’ll likely come across terms with which you aren’t familiar. Here’s a great online dictionary provided by CSX to help you understand references in your documents.

CSX Railroad Dictionary


And now, onto the fun stuff! I love lingo. Vocabulary is more refined and meant for function. Lingo, on the other hand, is what our ancestors would have said. It’s the straight talk of the real world. It’s also the slang (which is far more interesting!) Here are a few links to help you understand the terms the men (and later women) of the railroad would have said as they lived the life.

The Katy Depot: Railroad Slang

Alaska Rails: Railroad Slang


The 611

The Norfolk & Western Class J 611 Steam Locomotive is an amazing machine. I wasn’t raised around trains like my friend, and even I look at the 611 in awe. It’s beautiful. It was technologically advanced for its time. And, though she has been in retirement at the Virginia Museum of Transportation since 1994, the 611 might just run again if funds can be raised for the restoration. If you’d like to help in that effort, you can donate to here.

Landmark Hunter: N&W #611

American Rails: The N&W 611, Famous Class J, Steam Locomotive



Your Turn

What’s your favorite resource for researching those ancestors associated with the railroad? Or, even better, do you have a story about your own roughneck or parlor boy? If so, link them below! I’d love to read them!

© 2013, Stephanie Pitcher Fishman. All rights reserved.


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