When the first train rolled into Ogden March 8, 1869, citizens of the small town had just a small glimpse into how the world around them was about to change. When interviewed 50 years later in 1919, many adults remembered how scared they had been as children to see the massive engines and to hear the loud train whistles. The joining of the transcontinental railroad connected the East and West and united the country in a way not seen since. Ogden became known as “Junction City” and experienced an incredible influx of people, goods and services. The population of the city jumped from 1,464 in 1860 to 3,127 by 1870 and continued to double each decade following.
The influx in population brought people from various cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds, all looking to call Ogden home. The Chinese stayed in Ogden and worked on the railroad as it provided a good wage, so men could continue to send money home to their families, at least until the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Japanese immigrants began to arrive in 1884, and many of them replaced Chinese workers to maintain the tracks and equipment as well as serve as section foremen. Immigrants from Greece came to Ogden and worked in the ice houses connected to the railway. For many Italians, the railroad provided safer and better paying jobs than the mining companies.
With the increase in passenger travel, George Pullman created Pullman sleeping cars and hired African Americans to work as porters and waiters on the trains. The cars accommodated 26 million people a year during its peak in the early 20th century. The porters and waiters provided service to the travelers, including meals and bed turndowns. As Sarah McClellan, wife of a Pullman Porter, explained during the Whistle Stop tour lecture on the Pullman Porters, “A lot of blacks from the South came to Utah during the second migration for two reasons: one was to work for the railroad, the other for Hill Air Force Base. The railroad provided pretty decent employment.” With the influx of African Americans into Ogden, women like AnnaBelle Weakley and Leager Davis provided housing for the workers in the Porters and Waiters Club at 127 25th Street and the Royal Hotel at 2522 Wall Ave. Ogden was segregated at the time, and there were only a few places where they could stay.
Traqueros were Mexican and Mexican American workers who were employed by the Denver and Rio Grande and Southern Pacific railroads. Traqueros were section hands who reached peak employment with the railroads in the 1910s. Many of the men and their families lived in old boxcars west of Union Station as their jobs included maintaining the lines of the railroad. As railroad labor historian Jeffrey Marcos Garcilazo noted, “Boxcar housing appeared in two basic forms: The first type provided temporary housing for grading and construction gangs, and the second type … permanent housing for section and extra gangs.”
Even local women found positions with the railroad. The women started in jobs like clerks and telegraph operators but also worked as laborers, car cleaners and engine wipers during the war years. Frances McCarty Lyon was the telephone operator working on the night the train station in Ogden burned down, Feb. 13, 1923. She received word the station was on fire and put in emergency calls to the local fire departments and the Union Pacific agents. She stayed working her station, but water from the firefighters shorted out her switchboard. She was steadfast in her job and returned the next day and found a telephone and a desk and to go back to work. Miriam Spackman Bowles worked for the railroad for 20 years as an engine wiper, turntable operator and janitor. Edwarda Briseno Sanchez worked for nine months during World War II as a laborer and engine wiper. Often the stories of the women working on the railroad have been lost to history with many stories remaining untold.
Studying the transcontinental railroad and its impact on the local area over the last 150 years, it has become clear that Ogden would not be Ogden without the railroad. The industry brought in people of various ethnicities, jobs and goods that all helped shape the local community and economy. Just as Ogden celebrated the railroad for its 50th anniversary in 1919, 100th in 1969, the 150th will be a celebration to remember. There will be exhibits of historic images and artifacts, lectures about the railroad and workshops to attend. Dick Kreck will discuss his book “Hell on Wheels” at 7 p.m. May 10 at the Union Grill Restaurant located at 315 24th Street. This is co-sponsored by the Friends of the Stewart Library, Union Grill and Ogden Union Station. Tickets are available through the Weber State University Stewart Library Special Collections Facebook page.
Join us at the Heritage Festival May 9-11, downtown at the Union Station Museums and 25th Street. Share your stories about the railroad in Ogden, and bring your photographs to be scanned and added to the historic archives of the area. Together we can make sure the stories of all those who were impacted by the railroad are included in the history for generations to come.