RR Labor

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Between 1852 and 1856 as many as 10,000 men at any one time built the Illinois Central Railroad the length of the state of Illinois.

Railroad work was tough physical labor. Preparation of the roadbed and transportation of iron and timber were assisted by teams of oxen and horses; but most embankments, ditches, and cuts were made by sweating men with shovels. Rails were spiked down with mauls or sledges amidst a constant and deafening clatter. Workers toiled I I or 12 hours a day, six days a week, for a maximum of 10 cents per hour.

And working conditions were grim. The summer sun in Illinois was merciless to men laboring in its full force. As one commentator on the magnificent undertaking wrote: "The thermometer ranged from 101 to 105 ill the shade every day we were there and had done so for two weeks previous. In addition to this the drouth is so severe that the men have no water to drink except what is hauled by teams from three to 10 miles." Unfortunately, rain brought the danger of flooding, increased the difficulty of the work, and threatened the camps with disease.

It was a similar situation that led Maxwell Bodenheim to write:

The rails you carry cut into your hands

Like the sharp lips of an unsought lover.

As you stumble over the ties

Sunlight is clinging, yellow spit

Raining down upon your faces.

You are the living cuspidors of day,

Dirt, its teasing ghost, dust,

And passionless kicks of steel, fill you.

Malaria, dysentery, and other illnesses were common among workers who slept five in a bed, shared the same drinking cup filled with impure water, and had to solve the most basic problems of sanitation themselves. The most feared and most lethal disease was cholera, which claimed its victims after only a few days, and some within hours. In June, 1854, between 70 and 80 laborers died of the disease at a construction camp in LaSalle, some as they fled into town. The president of the Illinois Central recorded that it took only from three to eight hours from first symptom to death.

The papers regularly wrote of railroad workers injured on the job. Some were crushed beneath rails; others were injured in collisions; a number died as trestles collapsed into the soft prairie soil; and a few were buried alive as excavations caved in.

Under any circumstances, labor was scarce in Illinois during these years. Thus railroad promoters outdid themselves as they implored workers to "come forward and assist in laying his mighty track, receive the bountiful monthly dispensations of the contractors and when the road is finished, purchase a farm, marry a wife, and dwell contented under your own vine and fig tree."

In the early years Illinois Central officials imported large numbers of new Irish and German immigrants directly from the port of entry, New York. Later it was necessary to go no farther afield than Missouri to the west and Ohio to the east to assure an adequate number of workers.

As these vigorous groups of new Americans worked their way from town to town, local residents found them to be dangerously different in ethnic background, in religion, and in social habits. They drank heavily, they brawled, and they deeply resented the commercial interests that drained them of their pay. Vigilante groups were formed in many towns to protect the citizens from the often riotous labor gangs. Many locals quaked in fear when they read that Irish workers at LaSalle received the news of a cut in pay by attacking their foreman and "crushing his skull to a mummy."

At any time, under whatever economic system, the construction of the Illinois Central Railroad would have been a remarkable product of human effort. As for the men who actually spiked down the rails, some fulfilled their dreams of turning their wages into farms Purchased from the railroad or the government. Others stayed with the railroad in more rewarding positions. But for many their remaining years were spent on similar railroad labor gangs in Illinois or other States.



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