Railroads were an integral part of the infrastructure throughout Western Kentucky in the 19th and 20th centuries. But what of the men who undertook the backbreaking task of building and maintaining the rails in an era without mechanical aid?
Stan White stands on a small section of railroad track alongside chattering birds and nearby traffic in Cadiz, Ky. The track emerges from an overgrown bush and continues until it meets a grass covered berm. The only thing situated on the track is a single locomotive looking off into the distance as if it is about to depart. This small, 40 foot piece of track holds special significance for Stan.
“This is the midpoint of the Cadiz railroad, it ran from Cadiz to Gracey, it was 10 miles and this was one of the last three locomotives owned when the railroad was abandoned”
Stan’s grandfather had the railroad built in 1902 to make a link between Cadiz and the IC or Illinois Central. His grandfather was president of the company until his death in 1925. Stan says the line was part of the lifeblood of Trigg County.
“And our big business was passengers, In 1920 or 1921 was our biggest passenger year and we had more than 20,000 passengers.”
Stan would become president himself and serve in that capacity until he retired in 1985. And while he was not alive when the track was being laid, he remembers hearing his grandfather recount a time when rail was sorely needed.
“The reason the railroad was built was tobacco. Originally tobacco was hauled to Canton and put on riverboat then the railroad was built through Gracey. That was an all day job, taking the tobacco to Canton on a road that was sometimes impassable in the winter.”
In order to build the railroad, Stan’s grandfather needed hearty men who were willing to do the back-breaking work of laying track in western Kentucky. And while there wasn’t much in the way of mechanical aid, workers weren’t in short supply.
“Well it took a lot of labor, but labor was cheap then.”
Once a general route had been selected, surveyors would come and mark the best place for the track to lay. They would do their best to stick to level ground, but often it was impossible.
“They talk about all the curves in the railroad, well they didn’t have equipment to make big cuts and fills. They went around a hill or followed a creek and meandered.”
Brute force was the only mechanical advantage the men had aside of animals.
“The railroad was built with mules pulling a pond scraper, a big scoop- and a mule pulled it and they’d scoop up dirt, dig it in the ground and make fills or cuts.”
The act of placing the track was backbreaking. Once materials were shipped to the worksite, men were tasked with moving the ungainly wooden cross ties and metal track into place. Often the task of moving the cross ties fell to one man, dragging them along the ground with metal tongs. Others would be tasked with carrying the metal rails and setting them in place. Still others would lift, bend and otherwise manipulate previously joined track so workers could level the ties. Each task was difficult and carried with it a laundry list of potential injury. To the men, an easy day was one in which massive, pre-assembled sections of track would make their way to the work site. Former train engineer John Maxfield says it wasn’t all that easy.
“And so you’d get a dozen guys on each side and you’d pick up this section of track that weighed probably a ton, in unison, and off you’d go.”
Once set, workers would drive the railroad stakes into the cross ties, locking the track into place. This was called ‘spiking’ the track. Passers by who witnessed these men at work noticed the rhythm arising from the worksite and soon a nickname was born. Bob Johnston, with the Paducah chapter of the National Railway Historical Society explains…
“Gandy Dancers is what they called the people that worked on the railroad tracks because they were kind of dancing, They had a rhythm the way they swung that hammer and spiked those rails.”
John Maxfield says gandy dancers used the rhythm inherent in their work to keep crews focused on the task at hand.
“The leader of the track gang, would usually ‘hup, two, three, four’ it was kinda like the army. You’d have sort of a marching song or something. And you’d dance along doing your job.”
Amidst the oppressive heat, searing cold and immense number of dangers, gandy dancers could lay an impressive amount of track in one day. A famed crew in 1869 was once praised in their effort of laying 10 miles of track in a single 12 hour period.
Constructing the track for the railroad wasn’t the end of the manual labor. Locomotive traffic, environmental factors and the occasional derailment helped create a need for constant maintenance. This brought about the need for section teams. These were groups of men headed by a foreman who would be responsible for a set length of track, usually 10-15 miles. These teams would then manage the upkeep of these stretches of track. The Cadiz railroad employed at least 10 men for this task who would work daily to keep the short, 10 mile track in working order.