Thursday, February 11, 2021

Researching Railroad Ancestors

Locations of Railroad Genealogical Materials, James Sponholz

Finding Railroad Genealogical Records
Our railroad ancestors crossed America for their work and can often be difficult to trace.  This blog is twofold.  1) provide tips and hints to records that may assist with tracing these transient ancestors 2) encourage DNA testing.  A DNA surprise was the impetus for this blog.

 The a3Genealogy Research Team discovered through DNA exactly where a client’s grandfather disappeared to because he was the “head of househould” for two additional households along the railroad track line. He appeared under slightly different spellings of his names, but DNA proved him to be the same man. Two of the wives divorced him for abandonment; but upon his death the third wife was subjugated to a Poor Farm. Court records suggested he was presumed dead. Of course once the bloodline was proven, these three groups of descendants connected.  Know that this story is repeated in American history, as DNA has identified many second families that resulted from the moveability of the railroad workers.

Where to Start
To begin this research the timeframe and place of employment is important.  If your ancestor worked for a pensioned railroad, you are probably in luck.

Railroad Pension Records.  

The U. S. Railroad Retirement Board Resources held at the National Archives (NARA) - Atlanta can be access by the public if they do not violate the restrictions (see link above.). The Midwest Genealogy Center, Mo, as well as and other accessible databases host an index of the inactive pension claims from the U. S. Railroad Retirement Board (1936 -2010).  This only holds persons whose employers were covered under the Railroad Retirement Act.

Pullman Employee and Retirement Records. The Pullman Porters, all called “George” were ex-slaves who worked on the George Pullman luxury railcars. Pullman also hired maids and other people for attendant jobs. To learn more about Pullman Porters read this article from

The Newberry of Chicago holds the large collection of Pullman Employee Records. This record collection includes operating company workers: porters, maids, commissary attendants, conductors, shop workers, yard force workers, clerks, and manager. Of course, the registration with the Railroad Retirement (1937 - 1960’s) may also be located within The Newberry collection. 

Be sure to also peruse Jim Sponholz’ overview of other Pullman Company resources. 

The Chinese and the Iron Road book will give Asian American researchers a great foundation for the cultural and social complications that have resulted in missing records and undocumented workers. 

But, it is possible to reconstruct your ancestor’s travails and accomplishments. Our researchers usually start with scouring the NARA branches, especially NARA - San Bruno if your ancestor worked the railroads out west. also offers articles, videos and a listing of its Chinese Railroad Workers’ collections. 

National Archives at Atlanta holds the original Railroad Retirement Board collection of To 1.5 million worker claims’ files. Researchers can access this records directly from the Archives.  Email as much of the following information about the claimant or pensioner as possible”:

  • First Name, Middle Name/Initial, Last Name
  • Railroad Retirement Board Claim Number
  • Social Security Number
  • Year of Birth
  • Year of Death 
However, the family researchers may be looking for exactly this information (date of birth, social security number to obtain an SS5, etc).  Or, the researcher may be looking for documents to unscramble commonly named family units, i.e. William Smith. Often, the death date, or additional information like the wife’s first name, children’s names are known. But, additional information may be obtained from these retirement claims. 

We all love it when one collection uncovers siblings, a wife’s maiden names, parents' names, or our ancestor's movements from one state to another, etc. This may be possible in the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB records), but several steps may be needed to pinpoint YOUR ancestor's claims.

Midwest Genealogy Center (MGC) Quick Look
Here researchers will find a 1936 - 2010 index of the Railroad Retirement Board claims.  When ready to submit a request, it can be done with a touch of a button. But, we suggest you use first, if applicable. The index, presently covers 1934-1984, but, more information is abstracted for the researcher. With only the name, and date of death, determining which “H Brandt,” was the correct one was pinpointed using both and requesting via MGC Quick Look. and MGC Quick Look Index side by side

By going through Railroad Pension Index,  the correct “H Brandt,” was located because the ancestor was known as Henry Albert Brandt (early census record). By returning to the Midwest Genealogy Quick Look, a request for record was submitted using the ancestry 1972 death date. This process avoided copying costs of the incorrect “H Brandt,” from the archives’ collection. Copy charges are incurred from the archives not Midwest Genealogy Center. As you can see, Henry Brandt, born Jul 1878 in Iowa, died in CA in 1972.

What Will Railroad Retirement Claims Tell Us?

Vital Records: In addition to a birth or death date, pension files provide other family information.  Oh and for proof of eligibility, death certificates in the ancestor's RRB claim can also be had. 

Marriage(s): Researchers may discover why that the marriage record was never located.  In this case, Edward had a “common law” marriage, but also affidavits from family and neighbors as to the date and location of the union.

Family: Like most pension claims, family names or at least beneficiaries can be validated along with other proofs of kinship - parents, spouse, maiden names, siblings and children. Addresses or location of each person can also be uncovered. 

Other Resources

US Migration Railroads

Researching Old Railroads and Railway Records,

The Directory of North American railroads, associations, societies, archives, libraries, museums and their collections

Railway & Locomotive Historical Society, Inc

National Railway Historical Society

US Occupations finding Railroad Records

United States Occupations Finding Railroad Records (National Institute)

Research Come Up Empty?
We know your ancestor my have worked for the early railroads across America or they may have not been enrolled (or eligible for) the Railroad Retirement plan.  This compilation by Jim Sponholz offers historical and genealogical resources by location and railway to fill in those holes. Although not complete, Sponholz has uncovered a wealth of resources. Be sure to look for your ancestor in the scanned books for your area. Visit Locations of Railroad Genealogical Materials, January 28, 2021 Jim Sponholz. 

Many of our blog posts are pre-scheduled. In spite of the NARA branches being locked down, our thoughts are hopeful. Researchers can began to plan and are able to begin gathering information on our railroad ancestor data. Come "late spring (yes I'm hopeful), we will have our Research Plans ready to go.  Join me in wishing the repositories to all open safely in a few months. 

Be Historically Correct 

Kathleen Brandt
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