Friday, May 4, 2012

Sepia Saturday: Railroad Men

Sepia Saturday challenges bloggers to share family history through old photographs.

This week’s Sepia Saturday photo prompt shows people preparing to ride a miniature train.  My family’s love affair with trains was anything but “mini.”  In my database, I have over 30 people who worked for the railroad.  They were clerks, machinists, car repairmen, car inspectors, firemen, brakemen, foremen, general laborers, and conductors.  One was even a watchman at the railroad crossing.

In the town of Shenandoah, Virginia, the railroad MADE the town in the early to mid twentieth century. The railroad meant jobs.  My great-grandfather Joseph Calhoun Rucker started as a railroad hostler before 1900 moving train cars from one track to another.  However, most of his working life he was a conductor.

Look at the size of that engine!

Joseph Calhoun Rucker is 4th from the left
conductor on Engine 685 about 1920
scanned from Shenandoah: A History of Our Town and Its People, 1984

My great grand-uncle Decatur Breeden likewise was a conductor for the railroad.

Decatur Breeden
first from the left
scanned from Shenandoah: A History of Our Town and Its People, 1984
Of course, those jobs are to be expected.  What is surprising though is how people benefited from the railroad even though they did not actually work for the railroad.  Some of my family worked with the YMCA, an organization that offered services in many busy railroad centers.

YMCA in Shenandoah,Virginia
built 1907
scanned from Shenandoah: A History of Our Town and Its People, 1984
In Shenandoah: A History of Our Town and Its People is this description of the Railroad YMCA:

Men may feel the weight of life, and even begin to despair of themselves, but the YMCA never does.  It is a strong and never-failing champion of humanity, which has lifted and renewed men by the thousands, and impressed its three-fold principles [body, mind, spirit] by means which have carried the weight where moral persuasion alone might have failed.

My great-grand uncles George Clift and William Sullivan worked for the YMCA.  For a time, Will Sullivan was Assistant Secretary.  More interesting though is that the two ran the restaurant.

If this is a punch card, men got $6.25-worth of food.
scanned from Shenandoah: A History of Our Town and Its People, 1984
George Clift’s two sons Raymond and Leonard worked as waiters and dishwashers at the YMCA when they were young teenagers supplementing their mother's income after divorcing their father.  According to their depositions in the Clift vs Clift case, they worked from 7:00 at night to 7:00 in the morning.  When asked why they were not in public school, they answered that they were attending classes at the YMCA.

Raymond and Leonard Clift

The YMCA records for 1926 report that the Y served 100,000 people in some way; it served 39,294 meals; sleeping rooms were used 13,463 times.

What a bargain!
scanned from Shenandoah: A History of Our Town and Its People, 1984

That's Woody on the back row, far right
scanned from Shenandoah: A History of Our Town and Its People, 1984
Meanwhile back at the station, it wasn't ALL work. The railroad shops had basketball teams and baseball teams that competed with teams from Norfolk to Cincinnati.  My great-uncle Woody Woodring, who worked in the electrical force of the Norfolk & Western Railroad, was a catcher for the Shenandoah shops team.  He went on to play professional baseball in the minor leagues. 

For over half a century, the railroad not only provided a livelihood but also enhanced the social life of the citizens in Shenandoah.  Sadly, the arrival of diesel engines and the affordability of automobile travel spelled the economic doom of the town in the 1950s. 

[Side note – some of you had asked for updates on my garden from a couple Sepias ago.  Click HERE to see new pictures added to the original post.]

Get your ticket punched and hop aboard the Sepia Saturday train.

©2014, Wendy Mathias.  All rights reserved.


  1. Love those trains. The meal tickets are interesting. Great post.

  2. What an interesting post. The railways were certainly a revolution for many and provided much needed work.

  3. Fascinating; a family history to match the photos.

  4. Railroads really played a big role in our country's history.

  5. Nice that you were able to fiund photographs of family members in that book.

  6. What a great theme for you. To think that so many members of your family worked on the railroad. But the story of the clift brothers. How sad their life must have been.

  7. Railways have made towns and signalled their end, but what a pity that Shenandoah succumbed to the arrival of the automobile. A very enjoyable read.

  8. Hi Wendy, I had to come back; I didn't have time to read this all the way through yesterday. Totally fascinating about how the railroads touched so many lives. So, do I understand this correctly ... the father didn't pay child support but his boys had to work all night long and then give their money to their mom? What is wrong with that story?

    I was also struck by how many in your family worked for the railroads and began to wonder exactly how large your data base is. I would enjoy a post on how long you have been working on your project and some tips on how to search ancestry online, some time. You are the master of the craft!

    Kathy M.

  9. History is always interesting. History which has had a personal family history grafted onto it is fascinating. If you take all that and add such wonderful images so that you can see the faces and feel the places, it becomes wonderful.

  10. A wonderful personal essay on how railroads were once a part of everyone's life in America. My grandfather was a yardmaster and brakeman too.

  11. A real journey!!!
    From big engines to the YMCA,
    something I really didn't expect to read about here today...
    to baseball.
    You know how much I love to wander around.
    Good show, girl!!

  12. Wendy, what an amazing family history and legacy, all those people in the railroad business! Great pictures, wonderful story!