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