Prologue Magazine

Riding the Rails Up Paper Mountain

Researching Railroad Records in the National Archives

Spring 1997, Vol. 29, No. 1

By David A. Pfeiffer

Interior Camden Station Exterior Camden Station
Exterior photo of Camden Station
taken in 1921.
Interior shot taken of Camden Station, B & O Railroad, Baltimore, Maryland. Records of the Interstate Commerce Commission, RG 134, Textual Reference Division.

Railroads have played an enormous role in American history, particularly in the saga of the settlement of the American West in the nineteenth century. Railroads have also played a major part in military operations and civilian supply activities during wartime. The growth of interstate commerce and mass transportation is mostly attributable to railroads. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has a large volume of textual records, maps, still photographs, and motion pictures relating to railroads. Significant information about railroads is contained in more than fifty record groups comprising hundreds of series. This article highlights several examples of textual railroad records.

The American research public is slowly discovering the value of railroad records. Reference requests at NARA have been increasing over the years as more records relating to railroads have become available and as researchers have become aware of them. Many of these researchers are interested in gathering information either on a particular railroad or on a specific geographic area. The researchers include railroad buffs who are interested in the history of a railroad, model railroaders who request railroad track plans, attorneys involved in land-use litigation who need to determine title to parcels of land that were owned by a railroad, historic preservationists who are interested in construction details for railroad structures such as passenger and freight stations, genealogists interested in tracing ancestors who were railroad employees or involved in railroad accidents, and historians interested in the U.S. government's control and use of the railroads during wartime.

Railroad Valuation Records

Some of the most popular records among model railroaders, historic preservationists, railroad history buffs, and even genealogists are the railroad valuation records of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). These records provide documentation pertaining to the railroads of the United States from their beginning until the 1960s. Most valuation records were created between 1915 and 1920 by the ICC and railroad engineers who undertook a massive project to inventory almost every aspect of the U.S. railroad system for the purpose of determining a net worth for each railroad. This value was then used to calculate passenger and freight rates.

The valuation records in NARA's custody total approximately eleven thousand cubic feet and are divided into two general subdivisions. Basic valuation records provide information about the railroad facilities existing at a particular location, the land owned by the railroad and how it was acquired, and the land adjacent to railroad property during the period 1915-1920. Periodic engineering updates follow changes in facilities and rolling stock held by a railroad from the period of the basic valuation to the 1960s.(1)

The valuation records generally comprise land, engineering, and accounting final reports and supporting documentation, including field notes and maps. A typical example of the valuation records are the records pertaining to the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad's Camden Station in Baltimore, Maryland. The valuation maps, which are very popular with model railroaders, include detailed track plans for Camden Yards and the immediate vicinity. Each track map (a twenty-four-by-fifty-four-inch blueprint) covers one mile of track. The maps include the area between Camden Station and Bailey's Roundhouse at the southern end of the yard and show the location of railroad structures on the right-of-way.(2)

The engineering field notes for Camden Yards contain construction details of the station, the warehouse building, the roundhouse, and other railroad structures in the yard. The engineering notes include drawings and photographs including views of the interior and exterior of Camden Station, the train shed, the freight office, and the warehouse.(3)

The land field notes include the names of the owners and the value of the land adjacent to the railroad right-of-way around 1915. Finally, the land acquisition schedules list the landowners from whom the B&O acquired the station and yards, giving the name of the landowner, the date and cost of acquisition, type of instrument (such as lease grant, right-of-way deed or condemnation), and the parcel of land involved. The schedules are particularly useful for genealogists, provided they know the geographic location where their ancestor resided.(4)

Another series of records in the ICC railroad valuation records are the railroad inspection reports of 1939–1942. These reports include a typed summary of the ICC inspection of railroad facilities and often photographs of railroad structures and equipment. The report for the Alton Railroad contains an unusually large number of photographs.(5)

Passenger train collision An aerial photograph from the accident report shows the aftermath of a 1961 collision between a Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific passenger train and a motor-grader. Records of the Federal Railroad Administration, RG 399, Textual Reference Division.

Railroad Accident Reports

Railroad accident reports hold particular of interest for genealogists and railroad historians. The National Archives has custody of railroad accident reports for the period 1911–1984 in the records of the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Federal Railroad Administration.

One of several series of accident reports are the "Reports of Investigations of Railroad Accidents, 1958–1964," prepared by the ICC, in the records of the Federal Railroad Administration. In this series the accident reports are typed summaries that average ten pages in length and include photographs and track diagrams. Railroad Accident Investigation Report #3931 describes the collision of a Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific passenger train with a motor-grader near Beech, Iowa, on November 16, 1961. This collision resulted in injuries to 110 people, including 82 passengers and the driver of the motor-grader. The crash was caused "by a motor-grader being driven onto a rail-highway grade crossing immediately in front of an approaching train."(6) The report includes a discussion of the location of accident, method of operation, description of the accident, the motor vehicle and driver, and the cause of the accident.

The largest series of records (106 cubic feet) relating to railroad accidents are the "Accident Investigation Report Files, 1969–84," in the records of the Federal Railroad Administration. These records comprise case files containing much more information than the published accident reports. Files typically include the factual accident report, copies of the railroad rules and regulations that relate to the accident, other railroad publications including timetables, statements of witnesses to the accident, railroad test and inspection data reports, railroad bulletins and notices, railroad investigation reports, and drawings and photographs of the wreckage at the accident site.(7)

Linking railroads at Promontory, Utah A golden spike was driven at Promontory, Utah, to signal the completion of the first linkage of railroads across the American continent. NARA 16-G-99-2-1, Still Picture Branch. (View in National Archives Catalog)

Annual Reports of Railroad Companies

The annual reports submitted by railroad companies are useful to researchers interested in the history of railroads. The National Archives has custody of annual reports from 1862 to 1963 in the records of the Department of the Interior, the Commissioner of Railroads, and the Interstate Commerce Commission. The secretary of the interior was responsible for collecting annual reports from the Union Pacific, Central Pacific, Northern Pacific, Atlantic and Pacific, and the Southern Pacific railroads, companies that were receiving aid from the government between 1862 and 1878.

One prime example of an annual report is that submitted by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869, which proclaimed the connecting of the rails of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroad on May 10, 1869, at Promontory, Utah. In his letter at the beginning of the report the president of the Union Pacific, Oliver Ames, declared that "the extraordinary efforts of these two companies in pushing forward this great trans-continental railway to completion seven years in advance of the time prescribed by law, (1876) has resulted in a very heavy increase in the cost of construction; yet the rapid development of the mining and agriculture districts, consequent upon the cheap and easy transportation thus afforded, will be of great advantage to our whole country and hence more than compensate the government for the subsidies granted."(8) The report also includes lists of the names of the board of directors and the stockholders. The report of the chief engineer describing the construction of the railroad and the report of the operating department of the railroad are also prominent in the annual report. This annual report is found in the records of the Department of the Interior, Lands and Railroads Division, "Railroad Packages, 1849–1901."

The Lands and Railroads Division handled business of the Office of the Secretary of Interior concerning disposal of public lands, land grants, private land claims, and other functions as provided by the Homestead Act and other laws. The division also handled matters concerning the Pacific and land grant railroads, such as aiding the construction of railroads by federal land grants. The Railroad Packages, dating mostly from 1862 to 1881, are chiefly letters received from the President, the Commissioner of the General Land Office, and other federal officials concerning land grant and Pacific railroads. Annual reports from the land grant railroads are also included.(9)

The records of the commissioner of railroads include railroad annual reports for the period 1878 to 1904. These reports were submitted by railroads whose tracks lay west, north, or south of the Missouri River and to which the United States had granted loans, subsidies, or land.(10)

The ICC records include the annual reports of all common carriers for the period 1887 to 1963. These reports were submitted on an ICC standard form, are usually twenty to forty pages in length, and typically include the identity of the respondent, the comparative general balance sheet assets and liabilities, investment in road and equipment, income and profit and loss accounts, railway operating revenues and expenses, income and rents, employees and their compensation, important changes during the year, and description of equipment.(11)

Riding the Rails Up Paper Mountain, Part 2
Riding the Rails Up Paper Mountain, Part 3

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.