June 10, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Railroaders and Fascination: Remembering The Gandy Dancers

The work of railroad laborers was romanticized by many. Seeing the accomplishments of thousands who transformed a nation, one mighty stroke at a time, brought a fascination to men, women and young boys who considered railroaders something akin to legends. Songs about John Henry, Casey Jones and others increased that fascination. It continues into modern times with memorials of sorts to Gandy Dancers: railroad laborers who served a vital role in the maintenance of railroad tracks that tamed a continent. (Special thanks to Henry Gaidis, who shared the introductory image with us today)

Museum friend Jeff Whittaker shared with us the story of an ancestor who did such work:

“George Whittaker, son of Irish immigrant William Whittaker (pictured) was born 1867 in Clarke Township, Ontario. He worked as a "section hand": a team of Irish laborers who laid and maintained railroad tracks in the years before that work was done by machines. Section hands were called gandy dancers for the synchronized "dancing" movements of the men using a long "lining" bar, called a "gandy". The name is said to be based on the name of the company that manufactured them to lever track rails into alignment. The team yanked the bars in unison to nudge the rail and tie section back into place, often timed by the cadence of a song or chant.

Constant teams of section workers were necessary because each passing train, through vibration of the wooded ties, slightly misaligned the rails or sunk ties into the crushed stone bed.

  From several years of the shattering noise of hammering spikes into replacement ties, George Whittaker became deaf, an occupational hazard, and in 1901, at age 34 he was fatally injured at work near Newtonville Station in an accident involving train cars, he having failed to hear their movement.”

Museum Docent Damian O’Connor also shared good information with us. That lining bar weighs 35 lbs., and measures five feet in length. Workers would line up and place the gandy where the railroad ties and track met, and coax them back to their best alignment. It was inevitable that the centrifugal force of trains would shift tracks towards a precarious angle over time, and the work of section hands brought the tracks back into an alignment that was best, having sections line up in spite of any natural inclination to shift apart.

Track section hands were also responsible for overall track maintenance: re-driving spikes that had loosened, replacing ties and track, and dealing with undergrowth that might affect the security of the lines of track.

Early crews in the Eastern United States and Canada tended to be manned by the recently arrived Irish. Men of African descent took on the work over time, and brought cadences from field work and heavy labor in other areas to trackside. These developed into their own musical art form, and the men used musical flourishes and methods to stay engaged, and in rhythm with each other. The “call and response” found in churches, blues themes and the witty use of engaging lyrics kept dancers in sync with one another, and in good spirits as they performed the physical work of the Gandy Dancer.

Women began serving as section hands in the World War II era, including on the Reading Railroad in PA. When asked about what attracted them to the work, one woman said it was the good pay (about $55 a week).

For a little glimpse of the work, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3r_cI3kYYhM . These hard working men are shown doing many tasks that were common among the gandy dancers of yesteryear.

Several businesses throughout the United States honor Gandy Dancers in their business names, including restaurants, bars and theatres in Ann Arbor, Pittsburgh, Elkins WV and Norwood NY. Baltimore itself was home for many years to the Gandy Dancer, a bar/restaurant at McHenry and S. Carey Sts. in southwest Baltimore. Co-owner Pat Flanagan (pictured below) and colleagues created a place where friends could gather, including Museum Board President Catherine Reinholdt, who provided these photos of Pat, both indoors and outdoors.

We hear lots of great stories about the place from Museum friends, Irish and otherwise.

It also served as an Irish cultural center of sorts. Ceili (group dances) were held there for years, and important Irish musical groups such as the Chieftains performed there when coming through town. The group included all-Ireland champion flautist Matt Malloy.

Tom O'Bedlem (below) and his group were one of many Friday night performers at Baltimore's Gandy Dancer: open from 1976-1993 or so.‌

Group dancing and traditional Irish stepdance were thoroughly enjoyed there by many. Museum friend Linda McHale Poggi searched high and low for these many images from those days. She's pictured below, and with friends out front.

Thanks to each who contributed to this fun article!

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