Is this History Channel statistic correct?

“Between 1890 and 1917, over 230,000 railroad employees were killed and over 2 million injured.”

So over a 20 year period, almost 3 percent of the country’s population (76million at the time) was not only a railroad employee but was killed or injured on the job?

Pure speculation, but I figure a bump is warranted anyway…

First, 28 years cover 1890-1917.

Secondly, I can easily see the 230,000 figure as injuries were common.

Finally, perhaps, that 2 million figure covers multiple injuries for the same person.

Sounds a bit high.

Back in the 1990’s, I worked on the Safety Reporting system for a large railroad, with many thousand employees. We had a serious injury about every 10 days, and about 1 death per year. And that was enough to give us one of the worst records in the railroad industry. (The company tried to blame this on the weather, saying the snow & ice in our region made it more dangerous. But that wasn’t true; the Canadian railroads had the same or worse conditions, yet had better safety records.)

Also, I’d be curious as to the statistics with regard to actual US citizens. As I recall, many/most were Chinese immigrants whose citizenship might have been “pending”.

From what I’ve seen/heard/read, the RR companies were ruthlessly cruel to the Chinese, and many died from mere exhaustion or dehydration. So it didn’t necessarily take an accident to kill somebody.

ETA: Heck, they could have been citizens, but if they kept dying off every year as they came to work, that wouldn’t really affect the population of the nation. I know that’s far fetched, but it could have some merit.


Wow. Sucks to be THAT dude…


Just a quick aside (sort of), but railroads were not all that safe back then - they were pretty much unregulated, and the cars and locomotives weren’t exactly crash-tested. Look up the word ‘telescoping’*, and how it relates to railoads. Pretty horrendous way to go, and not all that uncommon in the early railroad years.

Yeah, but “telescoping” affects passengers, not crew. Weren’t there only like two per locomotive, plus one per caboose?

I think these (in the OP) injuries and deaths occurred mostly during building the railroads in the first place.

Still hoping for someone with more legit knowledge than I to ring in on the Chinese cruelty thing I brought up…

No, there would have been more than that. You’d have had dining car crews, mail handlers, security personnel, and conductors (or whatever you’d call the guys who did ticket taking and checked on things in the cars).

Don’t forget that at that time safety regulations didn’t exist, so if someone died, well, that was just too bad for them, and no one did an investigation to see what could be done to prevent it from happening in the future.

From what I understand coupling cars in the yard is pretty much the most dangerous thing you can do with trains. Especially with the old style coupling mechanism, which was essentially a pair of rings, one on each car, connected together with a pin. The two cars would be moved together and at the right moment a railroad worker would drop an iron pin into the hole. Of course, the cars weigh several thousand tons so ouchiness ensues.

Here’s a link to the National Railway Historical Society site. They have a section about genealogical research which has this to say

Bolding is, of course, mine.

Here’s an interesting site, being a “Statement of each Casualty within the State of California resulting in Injuries to Persons, and the extent thereof, from January 1st to December 31st, 1878.” (Linkety link) What strikes me about this list is that people seem to have sustained either “slight” injuries or been instantly killed. For instance on March 8 Mr. A. C. Smith had his “hand slightly crushed” while coupling cars. I’m not sure what it means to have a hand slightly crushed, but it can’t be good. Also, looking at the last and third to last entries on the first page, there are a pair of men, one of whom had his foot amputated and the other had it cut off. Maybe the train did the honor in the latter case and a doctor in the former?

Some of my favorites include:
May 16th: Byron Scott crushed between cars. Result? Foot slightly injured.
June 12th: Mrs. Graham struck by train. Result? Very slightly bruised.
August 21st: William Cohen struck by train. Result? Thumb broken.
September 21st: Edward Bracket, railroad employee, had his arm amputated getting on the train.

Anyway, you can page through the list and pick out the employees (trespassers seem to make up the lion’s share of the accidents) and decided whether this is a lot or few. Just looking at the descriptions of the incidents and the accidents they came from, I have a hard time believing that these are really all the incidents that occured in the state of California during that year. Awfully minor sounding outcomes seem to come from major accidents, so my feeling is that if it didn’t actually make you unfit to work it wasn’t counted as an accident. Get your hand pulped while coupling a car? Oh, that hand’s just minorly crushed. Why ole’ Joe Henderson had his hand crushed not two months back and they dried out the bits and made flour out of his bones. Now that was a crushing…

And this, of course, doesn’t even begin to touch upon the building of the railroads or anybody with a non-western name.

Ah. Good point TuckerFan.

I guess, then, that we must also consider train robberies, as well.

From my Discovery Channel watching, those weren’t uncommon either.

I’m not disagreeing with you, just saying that all of these scenarios could possibly add up to the fantastic numbers in the OP.

I wonder if someone at Discovery confused the totals, and included passengers by mistake?

The number does seem to be inflated

That’s an article about the number of deaths among the Chinese workforce building the Central Pacific Railroad

The article then goes on to document a comtemporary newpaper report of the bones of 1,200 skeletons being transported on a train. It then goes on to cite another article that claims that their were only 50 skeletons on board.

Remember, this would also include any injuries on the job.

My father, a recently retired MBTA worker once hurt his shoulder (more of a reinjury) just getting from the shop floor up on to a train. 3 months out of work and in rehab. He went back to work as soon as he could (odd for a Union, state worker. :D).

Climbing up is not a particularly dangerous action on his part, and something he’d done tens or hundreds of thousands of times in a 30 year career… but it happens, and this train wasn’t even moving, or powered!

Before modern OSHA type rules, I’d bet those numbers were inline, especially if you consider the builders of things like large bridges, tunnels, and remote lines.

Just as a point of comparison, in 1878 45 people were reported killed on the Central Pacific Railroad. That doesn’t include any mass casualty events like two trains telescoping or anything greusome like that. Most of these injuries seem to be hopping onto and off of cars, probably illicitly. Your page spends a lot of time wringing it’s hands about a newspaper article that says there were 20,000 lbs of skeletons being transported for reinternment, but doesn’t ever really make a convincing estimate from other data. Instead it says that someone could do all this sifting through data, but noone ever has because it’s tedious.

The Chinese Exclusion Act had been passed in 1882, and the earliest year covered in the OP’s claim is 1890.

The amount of Chinese labor available for railroad use would be minimal (especially by the pre-Exclusion Act standards), and, assuming the normal statistical correlation is in place, the percentage of the casualties of Chinese heritage would be as low.

I suspect that the issue of Chinese labor is pretty much irrelevant to this discussion. The transcontinental railroads were pretty much in place and Chinese immigration (to be rail construction labor) was already curtailed by 1890.

I strongly suspect that yard workers are going to make up the bulk of the fatalities and injuries. (Anecdotally, I lost a great-uncle very close to that period (ca 1922) who was killed in a coupling accident on his first day on the job. Fortunately, he was young enough to have no wife or kids; the railroad simply noted that stuff happens. Training was “on the job,” so was not really an issue for them.)

From the book, The Economics of Railroad Safety (Google asks for a sign-in, but you can exit the pop-up and still see the information) there is a graph of fatalities on page 12 (click the “Historical Trends” link on the right, then scroll down one page) that shows over 6,000 employee fatalities per year in 1890, almost 10,000 per year in 1900, and around 7,000 per year in 1910.

These stats could include those killed in blasting accidents for the railroad, delivering TNT which is more volatile than dynamite (plus, I am not sure when Nobel invented dynamite), delivering nitroglycerine, and/or cave-ins while tunnelling through the mountains. I’m certain it covers those killed from steam locomotives’ boilers exploding, etc., etc.

Just a train of thought… :wink:

  • Jinx

In addition to the 28 year period noted, above, it should also be noted that the 76 million figure only applies to 1890 while the population had increased to 92.228 million in 1910 and to 106.021 by 1920. (And, of course, with disease, age, and war, (along with emigration), those figures do not represent the total number of people who were living in the U.S. at that time, but only the snapshot numbers of one day in each of three different years.

To forestall any more posts pointing it out, I admit I both simplified the population math and screwed up the number of years in my op. :slight_smile: