Railroad Laborer
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"We followed the rails, we slept under the stars
digging in darkness, and living with danger
showing no fear of what lies up ahead
they'll never see the likes of us again"

(from) Driving the Last Spike Genesis

Basic Information

Railroad Laborer refers to the many, many people responsible for building and maintaining the rails of the railroad. The most famous of these is John Henry of man vs. machine contest notoriety. A substantial number of laborers in The Wild West were from China, and they have their own page at Chinese Laborer - as a rule of thumb, the Chinese built West-to-East, whilst the East-to-West lines were built by black and/or Irish labourers.

The iconic railroad labourer is, of course, the "steel driving man" who wields a mighty hammer to seat rail retaining spikes, but there was plenty of manual labour to be required simply in digging cuts, piling track beds and hauling sleepers and rails into position. Bridging and viaduct construction may or may not have required specialised labour, depending on time and place. The other "steel driving" role that might be found would have been in hammer-drilling work when it became necessary to blast though a stone obstruction (like a mountain). In this case, before automated drilling machines, the "drill bit" was held by one man known as the "shaker" (possibly because the job was hard on the nerves) whose job was to keep it in line and rotate it slightly as his oppo struck the end with a big hammer. With luck and skill this would cause the drill to bite slowing into the rock, drilling a hole into which the explosive charge could be inserted. This, incidentally, was the task at which John Henry (and his shaker) beat the steam drill - not laying track but drilling for blasting work.

Sources

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Game and Story Use

  • By day, Set Dressing and NPC Extras] to flavor the background and remind the PCs that the Transcontinental Railroad is coming to town. By night, they could serve the same role at The Saloon, or perhaps serve as Mooks bolstering the ranks of your Angry Mob that plans to Lynch the PCs.
  • It was very common for Railroad Barons to hire Pinkertons Agents to break up Labor Unions amongst the workers. These almost always ended poorly, and eventually got so out of hand a law was passed to prevent the Federal Government from giving any business to the bloody Pinkertons.
    • Only the PCs can save the day!
  • These people also serve as falling plates for rampaging warbands of "Injuns", thus requiring hired guns (or PCs as we like to call them) to be brought in to protect the worksite.
  • In previous eras these people can be represented by canal "navigators" or road gangs for much the same sort of plotlines.
  • Possibly also a good source of labour that can be hired for other jobs - such as the comprehensive demolition of the Martense family estate in H. P. Lovecraft's The Lurking Fear, or for unearthing lost cities, uncanning sealed evil and similar manpower intensive jobs.
  • "Once I built a railroad, now it's done. Brother can you spare a dime?"
  • Potentially a good cover or background for a PC.
  • Outside the American West, similar operations were conducted in deep the wilds of central Asia, Darkest Africa and the Middle East. All had their issues with labour, employers and natives - not to mention the terrain that the rails were being driven through.
    • Note that Russians of all stripes had form for using political prisoners as labour for these projects.
  • The railroad labourer can be expected to be a strong man, archetypically good with a hammer, but unlikely to be well educated and, quite possibly, a little hard of hearing (and numb in the hands) after long days hitting one bit of metal hard with another. Potential to play as dumb muscle where needed.
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