America’s railroads were a place of opportunity for multiple thousands of men who arrived in various states of education, aptitude and strength. Some struggled at the bottom rung, but opportunities were readily available for the ambitious to achieve. These men included those who remained a part of the laboring class, while others developed advanced skills or entered management. All did their work under visionaries who saw possibilities and pursued them with intensity and much success. Included in the work force and the industries that supported them were those who rose to the highest positions in the country.
What was your plight as you became a young man in the West of Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries? It was much as your father’s was, and the generations before him. The enforcement of the Penal Laws by British authorities kept Catholics “in their place” and told men of different talents and ambitions that their plight was to accede to the status quo. There was little in the way of education or advancement in the workplace, little motivation to improve the landlord’s cottages that housed them, and working men were not even allowed to own a decent horse to travel to and from an opportunity that presented itself.
Catholic education and worship were either outlawed or highly discouraged in a public setting, and a young man’s working life looked much like their ancestors did. Simple farming life was the way of most, eking out an existence for family by doing the most menial of tasks. Many served on the estates of their landlords, working under an agent who served their employer’s interests. Many paid their rent through such work, and supplemented their income through digging peat (see photo above), keeping the tiny family garden plot and seeking out other physical work as it became available.
These men found dignity in a modest measure by doing the work they did. Supporting a subsistence family was a vital role for each of them, but many were capable of much more. Their gifts and talents could be used to accomplish bigger things once a proper level of education or training was realized, but what were they to do? Where was that education to be had, and who was going to take them on as apprentices or laborers in a circumstance where career development, with its natural advancements, could be realized? The West of Ireland, and many other regions of the British Isles seemed without much in the way of hope for hundreds of thousands who lived far from the markers of an advancing Industrial Age.
A free, young America spoke to these men. Among these were a few different people groups from Ireland, including the many Scots Irish Presbyterians from Ulster and the predominantly Catholic Irish from the south and west of the island. They had their differences, no doubt, but both groups received a calling from a land where their ambitions could be put to good use. Railroads were an industry that welcomed them to take on work, however modest, and rise to wherever their strong backs and wits could take them.
Consider this group of men who gathered for a photograph in front of a massive locomotive of their era. A bit of careful inspection shows us how railroaders played different roles, but were still among their own, professionally speaking. This remarkable image includes lots of Gandy Dancers: men who worked as a team to realign track into its best configuration...rather modest work. Yet they were not shy to join their peers as this photograph was taken. Other men in the photo seem just a bit higher within the work place: a bit better dressed, and not quite as weary.
These men gathered in front of the locomotive that made such a workplace possible. They were part of the community that worked the train system in Cumberland, the “Queen City” of Maryland. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, under the leadership of President Louis McLane, had reached 178 miles westward from their eastern terminus to arrive in Cumberland on November 5, 1842. The Railroad and its affiliated support industries employed thousands who provided passenger and freight service to Eastern cities and Europe itself. Coal shipping was particularly lucrative to many, including B & O founding director Robert Oliver.
Many other thousands built structures, locomotives and tracks as the railroad expanded even further westward. Cumberland became a key spot for railroad service, as it was situated among the coal fields that were essential to the production of iron and steel. Men with a vision saw the sense of building a rolling mill for the B & O in Cumberland, and Larry Cosgrove was given the task of preparing a place for a cornerstone in 1869. This Ulsterman had prepared a foundation for the original cornerstone of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, set in 1828 by Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and was called upon to do the same service in Cumberland 41 years later.
Cumberland’s rolling mill (above) was completed in 1873, and the facility’s large work force made the iron track that would reach to Pittsburgh, Chicago and St. Louis, among other destinations. Men of various abilities did the heavy work, as well as office work to plan and accomplish the miraculous.
The locomotives themselves were built by an entirely different group of men, in several locations. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad built many of their own locomotives and rolling stock over the years, but also relied on large production firms to build for them. These included the Pittsburgh Locomotive Works, established by Andrew Carnegie in 1865. He was born in a rather modest home in Dunfermline, Scotland, the son of a damask weaver. His accomplishments in America are legendary and included the building of the Superior Rail Mill in 1864, providing the iron rails needed for several railroads. The Locomotive Works came next, also built in Pittsburgh. It produced many engines over the years, and was complemented by the establishment of an iron bridge works at the same time. Wooden bridges were simply too vulnerable, and Pittsburgh iron replaced timber as the main element in America’s railroad bridges.
It was at Carnegie’s Locomotive Works that #1691, pictured above, was built in 1898-1899, an E-16 class Consolidation locomotive with its 2-8-0 wheel pattern. This locomotive style was a workhorse for fifty years across America, and was particularly prized for its power, efficiency and stability on the rails. Its lead wheel carriage helped the locomotive to avoid derailments that were a bit too common with earlier designs.
Such a workplace made it possible for boys and men to have a place to begin, and then develop a career. Their work among thousands of men was an entirely different world from the simple farm life of Ireland or elsewhere, and drew men of all different abilities and ambitions.
Among these was Clarence P. Arnold (pictured above), born in Pennsylvania in 1886. His father William ran a sewing machine by trade, and the family made their way westward from the Philadelphia area in the next few years, arriving in Cumberland by 1895. After a period working as a salesman, he took up upholstery and supported his family. His children were educated, and his oldest son Frank became a clerk and a brakeman for the B & O Railroad. Clarence was attracted towards railroad life as well and started where many young men did, working as an errand boy and a laborer.
He married Cora in 1908 and advanced to being a brakeman for the railroad by 1911. It is during that period that we believe this group photo was taken. He’s the dapper fella with a pipe and good teeth!
Married life and a career that included some advancement seems to have agreed with him. He looks well dressed and content, enjoying his pipe among his fellow railroaders. How about the rest of the image? Several appear to have done the difficult work of the Gandy Dancer, working as a team to push and tease a section of track back into its best alignment. They are shown holding their most important work tool: an alignment bar that coaxed the rail section as men chanted, keeping the group well-timed as they thrusted in unison.
They’re all holding lanterns as well; does that mean they did this kind of work at night? It wouldn’t surprise me a bit, as Clarence P. Arnold is remembered by his descendants as a man with a forty year “night” career working for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. His granddaughter shared with us how she laid in bed some nights, listening to the train whistle, and wondering if it was granddad wishing her sweet dreams.
Clarence continued a career that developed into his working as a conductor on the railroad. Cumberland’s City Directory lists him as such by 1919, and he continued in this work well into the 1950’s. This work was a position that managed passengers, freight and crew, keeping the team coordinated and in good timing.
Records during his later years list him as a yard conductor: managing the operations in the railyards themselves and coordinating the switching of rolling stock, which led to the forming of trains ready to travel in coming days. I am thinking that Clarence got to sleep in his own bed every night at the end of his career.
Railroaders were part of something much bigger than themselves and had opportunities to advance and develop skills over their many years on the job. Possibilities abounded for them, and their wives and children were given hope and a future as a result. We honor those men who took the initiative to begin and continue in the dignified, challenging work that established significance in the minds of many immigrants. These men enriched their new nation, and America thrived as a result.
Many thanks to each who contributed to this article, including:
Jackson and Arnold Families, Northern Neck of Virginia.
Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum (Anna Kresmer, Archivist).
Carnegie, Andrew. Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1920)pgs. 2, 115-116.
Census of the United States, 1880-1930.
City Directory, Cumberland Maryland, 1895-1957.
Reynolds, Kirk. Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (Minneapolis, MBI Publications,2008),pg. 130.
Roberts, Charles S. West End: Cumberland to Grafton, 1848-1991 (Baltimore: Barnard, Roberts and Co.), pgs. 9-11.
Sagle, Lawrence W. B & O Power: Steam, Diesel and Electric Power of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, 1829-1964 (Carrollton, Ohio: Standard Printing and Publishing Co., 1964), pgs. 108-124.
Stover, John F. History of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1987), pg. 48.
https://historicpittsburgh.org/islandora/object/pitt:MSP328.B001.F21.I01 (accessed 1-20-22).
https://www.trains.com/ctr/railroads/locomotives/steam-locomotive-profile-2-8-0-consolidation/ (accessed 1-20-22).
https://www.loc.gov/item/md0004/ (accessed 1/21/2022).