Stanford University
Publications > Table of Contents > Conflict on the Q!
Conflict on the Q!

Dismissals of Burlington Railroad Workers, 1877-1888
Eli Katz 1 & Danny Towns 2
1. Stanford University, Spatial History Lab, Undergraduate Research Assistant
2. Stanford University, Spatial History Lab, Undergraduate Research Assistant
Life on the Western railroads was undeniably difficult. Gilded Age rail workers were confronted with rapidly changing and diverse technologies, companies widely regarded as monopolies, and evidence that their lives were of little value to their employers. Labor disputes were common. Frustrated workers struggled to maintain solid footing in their battles against management. Large railroad corporations, in turn, faced intense competition when traffic agreements broke down, severe downturns in a boom and bust economy, and violent labor uprisings as a new industrial order grew in the United States.
The Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad company was one of the large conglomerates to emerge during the 1870s and 1880s. The CB&Q, also dubbed "the Burlington" or simply "the Q", built, rented, and acquired line from Chicago to Denver, ultimately spanning ten states. Their tracks stretched many thousands of miles. To cope with such a large system and to keep track of so many employees, the company produced a mountain of documents, many of them relating to labor. Thus, there exists rich potential for a historical study of labor relations throughout the Burlington system.
Among these documents are maps, narratives, financial reports, and newspaper articles, each exposing some elements of the system’s history. Between 1877 and 1892, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad Company kept a master list of men dismissed from the company’s network of owned and leased track.1 The discharge list, a product of the growth in bureaucratic administration at the time, survives as a massive data table, ripe for digital analysis. A section of the dismissal log is shown below:
Figure 1. Excerpt from Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy RR Co. Dismissal Log
The complete list contains over eight thousand entries. The list only includes dismissed workers; those fired and told never to come back. It does not contain the names of those dismissed in seasonal layoffs or mass layoffs during economic downturns. Each entry contains geographic data since it lists the division in which the employee worked. Furthermore, each record shows the worker’s occupation within the Burlington Company. These occupations can be organized into two broad classes: skilled and unskilled workers. Unskilled laborers worked on track construction gangs, as station helpers, or as yard laborers. Skilled workers, on the other hand, performed more difficult tasks essential to efficient and safe operations. The trainmen–conductors, engineers, firemen, and brakemen–worked on moving trains. The shopmen used their skills to manufacture and repair railroad equipment, and the switchmen were responsible for guiding traffic through traffic connections and junctions. Lastly, each dismissal lists a specific cause, a section populated by colorful descriptions like "deadbeat," "too much mouth," and "a bad man." With these three dimensions–location, occupation, and cause–the discharge list provides an astonishing depth of information. How can the list be made legible and informative?
Figure 2. Dismissal Data Word Frequency Chart
The word chart above encapsulates the dismissal data in a way that comprehends thousands of entries at once. Shown are the words used in the "cause" section of the dismissal log, weighted by prevalence. It is apparent that alcohol possession and abuse were offenses worthy of dismissal, and the sheer quantity suggests that drinking was pervasive on the Burlington line. While this is very likely true, the mere fact that railroad workers drank conceals as much as it reveals. How many men were dismissed for drinking on the job? How many for drinking after working hours?
As a primary source, the dismissal log describes each event through the eyes of foremen and managers, not those of dismissed employees. Consequently, uncertainty arises; perhaps a dismissal citing alcohol served as code for some other cause such as union membership or agitation. The theory is plausible of a number of reasons. First, because of the railroads’ claim that workers were on call twenty-four hours a day, a railroad could constantly monitor the behavior and availability of their workers. Second, the plethora of terms used to describe drinking might actually distinguish between drinking on the job and frequenting a saloon. Finally, the disproportionate references to drinking as compared to work actions and striking during a period of labor turmoil might mean that managers used drinking as an excuse to cover the firing of workers for other reasons. Despite substantial labor conflict on the CB&Q at this time, the company documented far fewer dismissals for striking than for alcohol violations, leaving the dismissal log weighted toward whiskey and drunkenness.
Still, intoxication was a real problem and discipline often followed. The Burlington Company was certainly swift to crack down on anything alcohol related, but the "brotherhoods," as the trainmen’s unions were known, also had a strict policy in regard to drinking. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen declared in a bylaw, "Any member who shall use intoxicating liquors to excess, or shall be found guilty of drunkenness...shall be suspended for the first offense...or for a second offense, the offender shall be expelled."2 When railroad company managers fired men for drinking, they maintained a strict policy against rehiring these workers after their first offense. On the nineteenth-century railroads, both companies and unions recognized the incompatibility of drinking and operating trains, but they confronted a workingmen’s culture where alcohol was common.
It is likely that heavy drinking was a respite from the hardships of railroad work. C.H. Salmons, writing about the skilled worker in The Great Burlington Strike, observes that "the most of the work to be done is so difficult as to require experience, or skilled labor; it is largely of a kind to impair health and to shorten life, and it exposes the laborer to great irregularities of work, and to a frightful percentage of fatal accidents."3 In an age before the availability of ibuprofen and aspirin, alcohol was one of the few ways to relieve the stress and pain accumulated over a life on the railroads.
Following the Panic of 1873–a multinational economic downturn sparked by faulty railroad investing, among other things–the skilled workers on the Burlington began to face pressure to cut their relatively high wages. In 1876, the CB&Q slashed wages by ten percent, prompting a committee of engineers to visit Galesburg and confront their bosses in person. The engineers submitted a list of grievances to a panel of directors. Their complaints included the pay reductions of 1876, a long apprenticing period during which engineers received lesser pay for equal work, and the running of overloaded trains in unacceptable conditions.4 The directors refused to address these issues, and the pay cuts stood.
The engineers did not strike in 1876, but they and other skilled workers waged a kind of guerilla war in which disputes over work conditions, the rules of work, and reasonable wages might lead to small victories that raised or maintained previous wages. For employees, however, escalating these isolated conflicts into large strikes proved to be risky and difficult. The dismissal data show that workers were fired for striking. The list contains some casualties from the nationwide railroad strikes of July 1877, when 87 brakemen were fired for striking along the Q in Illinois between Galesburg and St. Louis. Notably, few men were fired in the Iowa division, where only seven striking brakemen lost their jobs. Does this mean that most workers did not strike in Iowa? Given widespread agitation and slowdowns on railroads across the country during the summer of 1877, it seems more likely that the Burlington management did not have a consistent system for reporting dismissals, a testament to the problems of early bureaucratic management. It is possible that the log either disguises a large number of striking workers under a different cause, or it simply did not report a significant portion of the workers actually striking in 1877.
The divisional differences in reporting of the 1877 strikes exemplify the geographic dynamic that arises in the data. The spatial graph below shows all data between 1877 and 1888 on bar graphs located near their corresponding rail lines:
Figure 3. Spatial Graph of CB&Q Dismissals
For references, please see end notes 5 and 6.
The bars show the volume of dismissals on each Burlington divisional unit, broken down into skilled workers (purple) and unskilled workers (green). The extent of the Burlington network by 1888, denoted in red lines, is also shown. There was realignment and addition of divisions throughout the time period, so the text box at the bottom lists the years that each division exists in the data. Uneven lengths of dismissal logging certainly account for the variation in volume of dismissals from division to division. Differences in traffic, track length, and the numbers of men employed at each division likely caused variation as well. Nonetheless, one pattern is readily apparent: the number of skilled workers fired in all divisions. They comprise a majority of dismissals at each division, reaching above 75 percent on some lines, like the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad in Nebraska. Only the Chicago and Iowa Divisions, as well as the affiliated Kansas City, St. Joseph, and Council Bluffs Railroad (KC, St. J & CB), had more balanced ratios of skilled to unskilled workers.
What caused so many unskilled workers to be fired at these three divisions? Digging deeper into the dismissals of unskilled workers provides possible interpretations. Unskilled workers can work in one of four areas: the track construction department, the rail yard, the station depot, or as apprentices and helpers to various skilled workmen. The chart below, which is organized into the six geographic divisions of the CB&Q railroad where the most dismissals were reported, exposes the divisional breakdown of unskilled worker dismissals. The chart:
Figure 4. Dismissals of Unskilled Workers By Occupation Type
The chart reveals the discontinuities from division to division in unskilled worker dismissals. The eastern divisions show a prevalence of yard worker dismissals. In the Iowa and KC, St. J & CB divisions, track workers were dismissed most often. Nebraska’s unskilled dismissals were irregular, dominated by a high number of fired station workers. In general, helpers and apprentices were dismissed less often on the western extremities of the line.
Accounting for these patterns raises questions. It seems logical that the eastern divisions would fire proportionally more yard and station workers. They served a denser population and encompassed national rail hubs such as Chicago and St. Louis, meaning that there were a greater number of yards and stations to fill with workers. Additionally, cities attract young workers, meaning that the higher populated East was likely to hire–and fire–more apprentices and helpers looking to learn their way to a skilled career on the railroad. Both explanations could be corroborated by the data.
Likewise, it makes sense that track workers were fired more often in Iowa and on the KC, St. J & CB division, sections that traversed still lightly settled land. Iowa particularly exemplifies this trend due to both its high percentage and sheer volume of track worker dismissals. Nearly 500 Iowa track workers were fired, mostly attributable to a wave of track worker dismissals in 1879 and 1880 during which 371 laborers were fired, documented, and catalogued. During these two years, track workers shouldered the burden of Burlington expansion as the company built numerous new lines branching off the main Iowa road. It is not surprising that nearly half of these track worker dismissals cite causes like "disobeying orders," "refused to work," and "insubordination." The volume and character of dismissals during 1879 and 1880 in Iowa suggest that underlying worker agitation was a factor.
Unskilled dismissals on the BMR RR Nebraska stand out for one reason. Here, managers documented an enormous proportion of dismissed station workers, more than any other division on the Burlington line in both proportion and total, despite the fact that Nebraska was the most sparsely populated and most rapidly expanding of all divisions. Was the unprecedented rate of station worker dismissal a product of higher demand for station workers in Nebraska? Total employment figures would provide a clue, but the Nebraska Board of Transportation did not release annual reports of state railroads until 1887. Even then, the total number of employees hired did not garner much attention in any state reports. In any regard, it is unlikely that there were substantially more station workers in Nebraska than elsewhere. Alternatively, episodes of labor strife would explain the elevated rates of dismissal, but the data does not show many station worker dismissals cited for striking or agitation. However, the data does insinuate a strict policy concerning alcohol and breaking company rules; nearly 75% of station workers in Nebraska were fired for these reasons. It seems, then, that some Nebraska station managers were exceptionally harsh and meticulous in their dismissal policies. The exaggerated dismissal of station workers suggests that BMR RR Nebraska station managers had different interpretations of an offense worthy of dismissal, an interpretation that bucked the established spatial pattern of unskilled dismissals. Given the young policy of centralized company oversight of employment and the sheer expanse of the Burlington system, it is conceivable that some managers in the vast and removed state of Nebraska put their own spin on the dismissal policy.
Taken together, the geographic differences in the dismissals of unskilled workers provide insight both from the perspective of fired workers and from the institutional eye of management. Among laborers, the data show that work actions often remained local and confined. Actions along the whole line at the same time were rare. That agitation involved unskilled workers indicates that company managers faced periodic resistance even from their least organized and most easily replaceable workers. For the part of managers, the dismissal log presents evidence of how inconsistent the implementation of a new protocol could be. It seems that in their move to centralize bureaucratic control, the Burlington struggled to organize regular dismissal guidelines across all divisions. Closer investigation suggests that unskilled workers did not organize large strikes, and the uneven geography of their dismissals might occur as a result of reporting practices.
Whatever the underlying reasons for the dismissals of unskilled workers, the overwhelming majority of the dismissals involved skilled workers. The CB&Q documented the discharge of thousands more skilled than unskilled workers. According to annual reports published by state railroad commissioners in Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Colorado, skilled occupations did not account for a majority of the railroad workforce. This means that the company disproportionately fired skilled workers. The disparity can be shown by graphing employment data from state reports alongside occupations from the Burlington dismissal log. Again, skilled workers are in purple and unskilled workers are in green:
Figure 5. Comparative Percentages of Workforce and Dismissals by Occupation
For references, please see end notes 7, 8, 9, and 10.
The most noticeable discrepancy between numbers employed and numbers fired occurs with the brakemen, who represented less than 7% of the workforce but were mentioned in over 31% of dismissals. Conductors and enginemen (13% of workforce, over 18% of dismissals) and switchmen (less than 4% of workforce, over 11% of dismissals) show disproportionate rates of dismissal as well. With unskilled workers, an opposite trend occurs; notably, yard and track laborers comprised 42% of the workforce, but appeared in under 20% of cases on the dismissal log.
Why, then, did Burlington Company managers record the dismissals of brakemen, conductors, and enginemen so much more often? In a 1977 study of this same data, Professor Paul V. Black argued that the firings of skilled workers were more likely to be documented because these men performed tasks critical to safe and efficient operations. Without engineers, trains would not run; without conductors, trains would not run on time; without switchmen, trains would run into one another; and without brakemen, trains would not stop. Because of their prominence, skilled workers were selected relatively carefully. When they violated company rules, managers were expected to punish them. To this end, the dismissal log was a blacklist, a powerful weapon for Burlington Company executives that ensured that incompetent or dissatisfied workers did not return to work on their line.11
There seemed to be a counterintuitive relationship between dismissals and worker organization. Skilled workers were largely organized workers. By 1883, the brakemen, conductors, engineers, firemen, and switchmen all had unions aggressively promoting their cause by instigating work stoppages, providing layoff compensation, and challenging unfair dismissals. Yet, however powerful and transformative these groups were, they did not seem to protect their workers from appearing on the dismissal log. According to the data, those skilled occupation groups were the ones fired at disproportionately high rates. Among the skilled workers, only the shopmen did not have prominent brotherhoods. Their jobs required a great deal of skill and training, but they performed less dangerous work. Shopmen were likely subjected to less intense company oversight. They did not need to explain why a train was late or why they refused to take out a train that was overloaded or ill-equipped. This seems to be reflected by the data: shop workers were 20% of the work force, yet they were involved in only 8% of all reported dismissals.
The trainmen seem to have been the most assertive over their control over work and the most likely to have frequent conflicts with managers over work. In selling their labor to the railroad, trainmen wanted company assurance that their compensation would be regular and reasonable, regardless of economic strife or tenure of service. "The man who is able to perform the work of a first-class engineer should receive first-class pay, whatever that may be," wrote former CB&Q yardmaster John A. Hall in 1889, "and he is a slave who accepts less."12 Demands for steadier remuneration and control over work rules reached a fever pitch by 1877–the year of widespread industrial strikes–at the same time that Burlington executives instituted a no-rehire policy of dismissal logging.13
Confrontations over the conditions of work and managerial monitoring of worker productivity seem to have been most prevalent among the most skilled workers: the trainmen. These disputes on the Burlington fit into a classic confrontation of Gilded Age labor history. On one end stood the workers, who were adamant about maintaining their wages, ensuring fair employment practices, and keeping an increasingly powerful company out of their personal lives. Their adversary was the monolithic Burlington Company, who sought not only to weed out troublesome and incompetent workers but to make sure they could not be hired elsewhere on the line. To do so they implemented dismissal logging, a systematic, computational tactic for centralizing executive power.
This particular policy would span three decades. It stands out among attempts by nineteenth century corporations to assert bureaucratic control over their skilled workers and laborers. Most importantly, it left behind a powerful form of primary source material: a rectangular matrix of historical data. Each entry on this table represents an event in which at least one worker clashed with his bosses. Aggregating thousands of these entries is ambiguous in many ways, but it has great significance set against a backdrop of trade unions, new railroad technology, and American corporate capitalism.
The visualization below is intended as an exploratory tool that can uncover meaningful trends in the data, some of which were addressed in this paper. Each dismissal can be usefully organized into any of four components: time, place, occupation, or cause. The user can interact with these variables, exploring the relationships between one and another or all at once.
Figure 6. The CB&Q Blacklist, 1877-1888
End Notes

1 The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Co. Dismissal Log 1877-1892. Chicago: Newberry Library Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Archives. 

2Salmons, C. H. The Burlington Strike. Aurora: Press of Bunnell and Ward (1889) 28.

3 Salmons 13.

4 Salmons 42-43.

5 Baldwin, W. W. Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Company: Documentary History. Chicago: Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Company (1928)

6 Poor, Henry V. Manual of the Railroads of the United States. New York: Poor's Railroad Manual Company (1878-1892).

7 The Iowa Board of Railroad Commissioners. Annual Report of the Board of Railroad Commissioners. Des Moines: Iowa State Printers (1878-1888, 1890-1892).

8 Nebraska Board of Transportation. Annual Report of the Board of Transportation for the State of Nebraska. Lincoln: Nebraska State Printers, (1887, 1888, 1892).

9 The Railroad and Warehouse Commission of Illinois. The Annual Report of the Railroad and Warehouse Commission of Illinois. Springfield: Illinois State Printer and Binder (1878, 1880-1886).

10 The Railroad and Warehouse Commission of Missouri. Annual Report of the Railroad and Warehouse Commissioners of Missouri. Jefferson City: Tribune Printing Company, State Printers and Binders (1881-1887).

11 Black, Paul V. "Experiment in Bureaucratic Centralization: Employee Blacklisting on the Burlington Railroad, 1877-1892." The Business History Review Vol. 51, No. 4 (Winter, 1977) pp. 445.

12 Hall, John A. The Great Strike on the "Q". Chicago and Philadelphia: Elliott and Beezley (1889) 37.

13 Black 446.