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The Folklore and Folksong of Trains in America, Part One

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The Best Friend of Charleston,” The first locomotive for commercial use built in the United States in 1830 for the South Carolina Canal and Rail-Road Company. Prints and Photographs Division.

Part two of this article is available at this link.

Part One:  The Development of the Railroads

The advent of railroads in the United States is part of the country’s coming-of-age story as an industrial power during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Because of this, trains and people associated with the developing railways became part of the legend, folklore, and mythology of the nation.

Early steam locomotive with toothed ‘propelling wheel’ which gripped a ribbed rail while other wheels rode on a smooth rail, and two coal cars.” A wood engraving from the Monthly Magazine, London, June 1814. Prints and Photographs Division.

Rapid growth of the railroads did not come without a good deal of pain. My own family history tells me that.  My father’s father took his first job working for railroads in the 1880s, surveying proposed routes and making technical drawings of existing and needed structures such as bridges and tunnels.  Much of this work was done trekking through wilderness, camping, and hunting for food.  He enjoyed the adventure so much that his family was shocked when he took a teaching position at Gallaudet College.  But he explained that people did not live to be very old in his dangerous profession and he was ready for a new type of adventure.  The railroads expanded so quickly that investors often took on deep debts against future returns, resulting in low wages, particularly for workers in smaller companies.  My mother’s father, a fireman on the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad in northern Maine, was one of the one hundred and sixty-six firemen and engineers who lost their jobs during the strike of 1913-1914.

Canal systems in the east brought goods from the port of New York westward. But Baltimore did not have a canal system, and so they decided to invest in the new English technology of steam-powered locomotives. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was incorporated in 1827, bringing locomotives and track from England by ship in order to build the railroad. South Carolina also started early, and the South Carolina Canal and Rail-Road Company had the first locomotive built for commercial use in the United States, calling their train “The Best Friend of Charleston.” Canada, similarly dependent on canals that were frozen in the winter months, also invested in trains as The Champlain and Saint Lawrence Railroad was founded in 1832. The race to build railroad systems across the United States was on, and developed at a surprising pace. By the 1860s trains had largely replaced canals as transport.[1]

Three men standing on a railroad hand cranked car.
Occupational portrait of three railroad workers standing on crank handcar, ca. 1850-1860 (caption created by the cataloger). This daguerreotype was accompanied by a note: “Jacob Lewis Davis, my dear father. Taken when he worked on the railroad. He is the tall man with a beard standing on the left end.” Prints and Photograph Division.

Progress at a cost figures into some of the lore of the railroads.  The most famous, perhaps, is the legend and ballad of “John Henry,” sung here in 1939 as a work song by Arthur Bell, who demonstrates two-man paced hammering as he sings.  The labor to lay track through mountains and across rivers was done with hand drilling and dynamite. To drill a hole in rock for a charge, one man held a chisel while one or two other men pounded it with a hammer. The work was dangerous both in the drilling and in the dynamite blasting phases.  In the US the laborers were often poorly compensated and these included slaves hired out by their owners or prisoners. In the 1870s and ’80s, steam powered drills were developed. John Henry was said to have been placed in a contest against this new drilling machine to see which could drill the fastest.  In most versions of the ballad, John Henry wins narrowly, but then drops dead from the effort, dying “with his hammer in his hand.” The song symbolizes both the remarkable feats that human beings can achieve and the passing of ways of life as the industrial age advanced. (Read more about “John Henry”  in this article).

Another complaint song, narrated by a railroad worker dissatisfied with low wages, is “Roll on Buddy,” here sung by Aunt Molly Jackson, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1968. According to Jackson, the song relates to the construction of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company in Kentucky which began in Louisville in 1855, reached Nashville, Tennessee, in 1859,  and continued expansions through construction, as the company was able, until the early twentieth century  Litchfield and Madison Railway in Illinois between 1889 and 1900.  She believes the song dates to that period.  The latter nineteenth century saw the advent of unions for railroad workers, which improved the lot of engineers and firemen but left those constructing and maintaining tracks without unions.  If this song does date from the 1890s, it is from a period when there was a push to create one union for all railroad workers and fairer wages.

Prisons continued to be a source of cheap labor for building and maintaining track until the 1940s. African American work songs were often used to coordinate work, particularly in the south.  “Take This Hammer,” a work song recorded by John and Ruby Lomax and sung by Willie Howard, Paul Perkins,  Allen Reid,  John Brown, and Lonni Thomas at  State Farm, Raiford, Florida, on June 4, 1939,  is a defiant song as it is sung from the point of view of a prisoner who contemplates escape. It invokes the memory of John Henry, saying “this old hammer it killed John Henry, but it won’t kill me.” “Shove it Over” was collected by Zora Neale Hurston by memorization rather than recording, and performed by her for folklorist Herbert Halpert in 1939.  This also has a defiant line: “The captain’s got a pistol, and he plays bad, but I’m going to take it if he makes me mad.”  At the end of the song Hurston and Halpert discuss the way the work was done, as this song was used to coordinate the work of shoving the track into place a section at a time.

Perhaps the most famous of the work songs is “Rock Island Line,” which praises the railroad. This was originally a promotional song, written by Clarence Wilson in 1929 for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad.  It was appropriated by the track workers who improvised additional lines. A number of versions were made popular by professional musicians, including Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, Lonnie Donegan, and Johnny Cash. This version is sung by seven men led by Joe Battle and recorded by John and Ruby Lomax at Cummins State Farm in Gould, Arkansas  in 1939.

Loading cattle at MacCoy’s stock yard, Abilene, Kansas, 447 miles west of St. Louis, Mo.,” Stereocard from a photo by Alexander Gardner, 1867, Prints and Photographs Division.  Though not much to look at, this rail terminus and the stockyards of Abilene, Kansas were vital to the development of the cattle industry and the spread of the culture and music of the West.

As the American West opened up in 1848, goods shipped to and from Texas, for instance, went by ship via the Gulf of Mexico and goods headed  for the west cost had to be shipped around South America.  This took a long time, and railroads were the best way to solve this problem. So the 1850s and ’60s saw a great boom in the construction of railroads in the west.  The terminal stations that sprang up became the focus of a developing western cattle industry. Beef could not be shipped very far before refrigeration, but cattle could be put on trains and shipped to slaughterhouses in the east.  A major terminus was Abilene, Kansas, where cattle first arrived for shipment in 1867. The long cattle drives from Texas and the Southwest to Abilene gave rise to much of the cowboy lore and the cowboy songs that we know of today, as the long trail rides inspired songs, poetry, and stories to tell of the lives of all those who raised and drove cattle, and for cowboys to entertain each other in these long rides.  “The Old Chisholm Trail,” is a song of the trail from Texas to Abilene. Other songs also traveled with cowboys between ranches and rail-heads. “Home on the Range” is an example of a song known to have traveled in this way. Originating in Kansas not far from Abilene, it traveled home with cowboys to Texas, Colorado, California, and elsewhere. Listen to a version sung by James Richardson in 1939 here, and read more about the song in the article “Home on the Range.”

An issue in the creation of railroads was standardization. For railroads built through difficult terrain, especially the western mountain ranges, local train routes were sometimes built with a narrower track and trains to match.  As railroads increasingly became connected, these posed a challenge, as the tracks needed to be entirely rebuilt  or new lines created in order to join the towns they connected with the larger railway systems.  “Way Out in Idaho,“  sung by Blaine Stubblefield, is a song about the construction of a narrow gauge track between Wyoming and Oregon, the Oregon Short Line. Since this song takes place as the work was going on in Idaho, we can date the events it relates to about 1882.  This recording was made in 1968 by Alan Lomax.

Jesse James, ca. 1882. Prints and Photographs Division.

As the railroads pushed westward, a new style of robbery emerged. Holding up a train took more guts and ingenuity than holding up a stagecoach, but there were outlaws who managed the feat. Ballads treated them as villains or as folk heroes, but whatever the view taken, the stories proved entertaining. Sam Bass and his gang intercepted a Union Pacific train carrying gold on September 18, 1877, at Big Springs, Nebraska. It was nearly a year before he was hunted down in Texas for smaller robberies in that state.  He was wounded in a shootout with Texas Rangers, captured, and shortly died of his wounds on his 27th birthday, July 21, 1878.  He was the subject of a ballad treating him as a misguided youth, “Sam Bass,” here sung by E. A. Briggs, a Texas rancher, in 1939.  “El Corrido de José Mosqueda,” is a ballad concerning an outlaw who led a holdup of a US train on the Mexican border on January 19, 1891 (incorrectly titled “La batalla del ojo de agua” by the collectors. The item record has been corrected.).  Known on both sides of the border, the song casts Mosquero as a Robin-Hood-like character.  The robbers gave the money they stole to local Mexican-Americans to hide as they fled, no doubt more motivated by the desire to get away than to give away the money.[2]

Although they were most famous for robbing banks, the James-Younger Gang — Jesse James, Frank James, and the Younger brothers Cole, John, Jim, and Bob — also robbed trains. Their first was July 21, 1873, near Adair, Iowa on the Chicago & Rock Island line. It was accomplished by loosening and dislodging the track, then pulling it with a rope as the train approached, causing the train to derail and killing the engineer. They robbed the train in Ku Klux Klan garb. The gang expected the train to be carrying a large shipment of gold, but that had been moved to another train. So they satisfied themselves with the passenger’s money instead. The gang robbed about eight trains between 1873 and 1881, though folk tradition often credits them with more.[3]  Their robberies were locally applauded in Missouri as the farmers had no love for the trains that had recently taken large strips of land at what were thought to be low prices.  The gang was seen as robbing the money or gold trains carried, but not passengers, which may have been true in some instances. The banks were not held in high esteem in the post-war south either.  This allowed for the development of an anti-hero view of the gang by the public, in spite of the innocent people they killed. Cole, Jim, and Bob, Younger were wounded and captured in 1876 and pleaded guilty to avoid being hanged. In Warde Ford’s version of the ballad “Cole Younger,” recorded by Sidney Robertson Cowell in California in 1938, the gang robs a Union-Pacific train in Nebraska. This is a crime that is not known to have occurred.

After the incarceration of Cole Younger, the James brothers continued to live a life of crime. In 1879, Jesse and his new gang robbed a train near Glendale, Missouri, which is now part of the town of Independence. This robbery is mentioned in the ballad “Jesse James,” which was sung by Mrs. Vernie Westfall in Shafter, California and recorded by Charles “Lafe” Todd and Robert Sonkin in 1940. Also mentioned in the ballad is James’s death; he was killed in his home in Saint Joseph, Missouri, by Robert Ford, who had been recruited by Missouri Governor Crittenden to infiltrate his gang, on April 3, 1882.

A meeting of the engines at the Golden Spike National Historic Site, where the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads came together in on May 10, 1869.
A meeting of the engines at the Golden Spike National Historic Site, where the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads came together in on May 10, 1869. Photograph by Carol Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006. Carol Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division.

The railroad’s development was spurred further by the Civil War, as both the North and South needed rail transport to support their armies. But the great push to establish a transcontinental railroad was not realized until after the war.  The Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads were the first to realize this goal.  The two railroads came together in Utah, where Mormon setters in that territory helped bring both lines together.  “Echo Canyon” was sung by Mormon workers on the Union Pacific Railroad, building the tracks eastward. This version was sung by L.M. Hinton and collected by Austin Fife in Utah in 1952. The railroads were joined at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869. The photograph shows a museum exhibit with the trains of each railroad facing each other on the tracks as they did on the day of the celebration. To complete the picture, you need to imagine the trains covered with railroad workers sitting on top of the locomotives, nearly concealing them, as the golden spike was hammered into a specially prepared tie of California laurel by the President of the Central Pacific Railroad, Leland Stanford.

The expansion of the railroads from east to west brought great changes as immigration westward became easier. Railroads contributed to the extermination of the buffalo, not only as hunters could make their way to their prey, but as rail shipment facilitated the collection of tough skins to be made into belts to run the machinery of the industrial revolution. Westward migration became easier, and western businesses could ship goods east.  Expanding populations sped the taking of American Indian lands.  The cattle drives that still resonate as a signature of western American culture were no longer needed by the end of the nineteenth century as the rail terminals became more readily accessible. But the great train songs of the period remained, and continue to influence music today.

Read part two of this article, on the symbolism and cultural significance of trains and railroads.


1. To learn about the folksongs of the canals, see the online collection, Captain Pearl R. Nye: Life on the Ohio and Erie Canal.

2. To learn more about this ballad see Américo Paredes, “‘El Corrido de José Mosqueda’ as an Example of Pattern in the Ballad” in Western Folklore, Vol. 17, No. 3, July, 1958, pp. 154-162.

3. Cohen, Norm, 1981. Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong, University of Illinois Press, p.100.


Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937-1942. See the recordings of works songs sung by Zora Neale Hurston.

Kennedy, Martha H. “Pictures to Go: Viewing Trains as Metaphors,” in Picture This: Library of Congress Prints and Photos, September 23, 2015.

Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip. This collection includes many songs recorded in prisons, including work songs related to railroad work.

Comments (4)

  1. Charlie Bowman, from Grey, Tennessee, recorded “Roll On Buddy” with his brothers in 1928. He said that he heard African-American railroad workers singing while working in 1905 and put that together as “Roll On Buddy.”

  2. Quite Interesting !!

  3. Interesting articles for railroad buffs!

  4. Thank you for all of the work that went into this post. There is a new-found romance for rails – and it is wonderful to have this information to share with young and old aficionados, alike.

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