We sing about them, we read about them, we listen to stories about the heroes of railroad lore. And they are often inspiring, or humorous, or even frightening tales of men and women who risked life and limb while employed by the railroads. There is a nostalgia about the railroad workers who experienced life “on the road” back in the days when a lonesome steam engine would break the dark silence of a country night with a whistle in the distance. These are the childhood memories of today’s grandparents. They, in turn, link us and our children to memories of even earlier days.
While there has always been a certain romance associated with trains moving along the rails, it was far from an easy life for those employed by our nation’s railroad industry. Hours were long and wages were low, especially in the several decades before railroad workers began to organize into unions. The concept of sick leave was unheard of, and the same can be said for life insurance, health care and other benefits that workers enjoy today. For many workers, it was a daily struggle to put food on the table. Vast numbers of them had fled the “Great Hunger” in Ireland during the middle of the 19th century, coming to America in search of a better life. Thousands of them came to West Baltimore, settling in the neighborhoods surrounding the rapidly expanding Mt. Clare Shops, current location of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum. Along with immigrants from other lands, they worked long and hard to provide the better life they sought for themselves and their children.