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Determining the Facts
Reading 1: The Backbone of the Railroad Industry
The nation’s original railroads, including the Baltimore and Ohio, were built primarily by immigrant laborers. Between 1830 and 1870, immigrants entering the United States were predominantly from northern and eastern Europe. Typically, ethnic groups settled in the same areas of the nation. As a result, railroads in different regions of the country relied on specific ethnic groups. The northeastern railroads usually employed Irish immigrants, while Germans were a major source of labor for the railroads of the Midwest. In the west, Chinese immigrants made up a large portion of the labor force. All these groups were subjected to discrimination, stereotyping, and abuse. They worked in the brutal heat and the bitter cold, and it is certainly an understatement to say the jobs they performed were strenuous and frequently dangerous.
African-Americans, both slave and free, helped build many of the early railroads in the south. By 1859, Baltimore had a significant population of free African- Americans, and many were employed as laborers by the B&O. They were traditionally hired for the most labor intensive jobs. They were for the most part excluded from employment by the northern railroads, who relied almost exclusively on European immigrants up to the time of World War I. Many encountered violent racism as they competed for jobs, and they were refused membership in the traditional railroad brotherhoods and unions, which meant they were denied opportunities to advance into the skilled trades.
James Dilts, writing in The Great Road, provides a colorful description of the immigrants who were a major source of labor for the B&O:
These were the Irish. They were witty and violent, garrulous drinkers, vicious fighters, who built turnpikes, canals, and railroads across half a continent. Their reward was 50 cents a day, with a few glasses of whiskey and a shanty to lie down in. They battled over everything- politics, religion, and jobs, or for the hell of it. The magnificent stone structures that are their monuments are barely visible among the shopping malls and superhighways, yet the fury of their passage will outlast even these. They were genuine wild men.
Source: The Great Road: The Building of the Baltimore & Ohio, The Nation’s First Railroad, 1828-1853.
Questions for Reading 1
- Why were the majority of laborers for the B&O Railroad Irish immigrants?
- Make a list of the hardships faced by the laborers who built the early railroads?
- Why was it difficult for African-Americans to obtain jobs in the skilled trades on the railroads?