Working on the Railroad

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the railroad industry shaped our country.

George Paul Semler with fellow railyard workers

My great grandfather, George Paul Semler, spent most of his life working on the railroad.  When he retired on November 29, 1961, the local newspaper ran a story about him, complete with a picture of him standing on the steps of yard engine 9083 surrounded by fellow workers.

During his 46 years in the railroad industry, Semler worked in the railyards of Richmond, Indiana.  He began his career as a yard switchman and ended as a yard conductor.  His duties included helping to make up trains and switching various cars from route to route.

On June 5, 1918, when he signed his World War I draft card, he put M.J. Murphy from the PCC&StL (Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis) Railyards in Richmond as his employer.  By the time he signed his World War II draft card, his employer was simply the Pennsylvania Railroad.  (For more on the history of railroads in Richmond, Indiana see Dan Tate’s blog.)

Semler's WWI draft card

Semler's WWII draft card






When  he retired at age 65, he said “All my service was spent in the Richmond yards, but all my years have been interesting and exciting.”

George Paul Semler with his wife Esther and two of his grandkids

The job that he and countless other railroad employees did across the nation helped build the United States.  They transported food, fuel and supplies from one place to another.  They made others’ lives easier by efficiently and effectively moving what was needed to where it was needed.

The railroads shaped the country in so many ways, but without the workers–without the people–the railroads wouldn’t have even existed.  It takes a lot of people to make an industry.  For the railroads it took capitalists, inventors, machinists, engineers (the kind that design things), engineers (those that drive trains), firemen (who shoveled the coal into the engine), switchmen, accountants and countless others.

Several of my relatives worked on the railroad at one time or another.  Another example is my great-great uncle, Roswell Harris.  He retired as general storekeeper for the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1944 when he was 70 years old;  he had served in this position for 21 years.

Roswell Harris

Harris began working for the Pennsylvania Railroad on a volunteer basis in the engineering section in Richmond, Indiana, but was soon given a salaried position and moved to Indianapolis. Two years later he was transferred to Pittsburgh where he worked for the chief engineer and completed a series of preliminary surveys.

In 1900 he came back to Richmond and helped plan the station that was built there in 1902, which still stands today.  He also helped design a bridge over the Whitewater River and the freight and station railyards in Richmond, where George Paul Semler would later work.

When I was researching a parallel line of my family, I even found some patented designs for railroad-related objects.  In December 1921, Lewis W. Harris submitted a design for a “railway rail lock” that would more securely fasten the rails to the ties.  His brother Oran P. Harris submitted drawings for a new type of “railway rail fastening” in January 1922.  These men were my cousins (Roswell’s first cousins, or my first cousins three times removed).

Patent for Railway Rail Fastening by Oran Harris

When Lewis died on June 22, 1922, there was no mention of his recently patented railway lock.  Oran’s obituary indicated he was an electrician when he died in 1953 and also made no mention of his patented invention.

I don’t know if the railroad fastenings they designed were ever made, if the drawings were ever sold, if anything came of them.  But the kind of creative spirit that went into these designs was necessary to make the industry thrive.

Patent for Railway Rail Lock by Lewis Harris

Certainly, for every invention that worked and found success, many others remained unused.  But they were all important.

Some men got wildy rich and famous from their involvement in the railroads; many just fed their families.  But they all played a role in the success of the railroads.

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11 Responses to Working on the Railroad

  1. jharris says:

    I’m the first to comment!

  2. jharris says:

    And the second 🙂

    But now I will say real things. Like, why don’t you go get a job down at Buckeye Yard so WE can get wildly rich? Or just sedately rich? Or, who is Roswell grinning at so devilishly in that picture? He looks like he knows something the rest of us would like to know. Or, when are you going to invent something that will never be patented or turned into something meaningful? 🙂 I have a suggestion for something: Invent a carpet protector that will completely and effortlessly repel dog urine, and give the offending dog a nice zap in the hindquarters while doing it. What do you think?

    • I always thought you would be the one that would make us wildly rich. One great book is all it would take…you have the talent. I’ll look forward to reading it (and helping spend the money you earn).

      I’m not sure you want me trying to invent anything mechanical. I can barely work things that are mechanical, much less design them and make them. I’m afraid if I tried to make something to zap the dog in the hindquarters, we might all get zapped somewhere we’d rather not be.

  3. pokedpotato says:

    Love the use of parentheses: “… engineers (the kind that design things), engineers (those that drive trains), firemen (who shoveled the coal into the engine)…”

    That made me laugh…I have lost count of the times that I have said, “I’m an engineer. No, I don’t drive a train.”

    Zach has a cousin who went to fire school. He would get so mad when people called him a fireman. He would launch into this huge explanation of why he was a firefighter, not a fireman. We told everyone to call him a fireman=)

    Great post!!

    • So you drive trains, huh? And Zach’s cousin is a fireman. You could have your own little family business…a short-run, steam railroad to take the kids on rides on the weekends.

      Thanks for the compliments!

  4. bronxboy55 says:

    Excellent work again, Kevin. If you ever decide to put these posts together into a book, I bet you’d sell a bunch. (I’d buy one, and my name isn’t even Harris.)

    Check out George Semler’s signature on his WWI draft card! I can’t typeset script as perfectly as that.

    • Thanks for the kind comments, Charles. I’m a long, long way from writing a book. Maybe someday. But I have to get Julia to write hers first.

      George Semler’s signature is very nicely written and right on the line. If all those census workers and doctors who filled out death certificates had writing like that, I’d have a lot less wrinkles in my forehead.

  5. Rod Holaday says:

    Fun reading, Kevin. Would love to hear how you dig this stuff up sometime.

    • Thanks for reading, Rod. I’d be happy to talk anytime about how I do the research. Funny story about the patent documents:

      I was at the local (Richmond) library doing research one day. Scrolling through microfilms, grabbing various books off the shelves and thumbing through them. I had some sort of question that I was chatting with the librarian about and I looked down on her desk and saw a folder with the name Lewis Harris on it. I asked her what it was and she said, “oh, my boss has me searching through patent records to find all the patents that were registered by people from Wayne County.” I asked if I could see the Lewis Harris one, so she picked it up and below it was the Oran Harris one.

      Easiest research I’ve ever done!

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