Steam locomotives

The Order of Railway Conductors and American Freemasonry’s Influence upon Labor Unions

One of my favorite objects in the collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library is this minute book from the Order of Railway Conductors (ORC), Lincoln Division, No. 206. Besides being one of my first acquisitions as the newly appointed Archivist for the Museum and Library in October of 2014, my research for this object provided me with a new appreciation for the work performed by railway conductors and in the role that these men played in the development of fraternalism.

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Order of Railway Conductors Minute Book, Lincoln Division, No. 206, 1941-1960.
 

As I learned from this online exhibit by the National Museum of American History, the job of railroad conductor in the mid-nineteenth-century was much more difficult and important than I had originally imagined. In addition to collecting tickets, the conductor served as the train’s “captain.” He supervised the train’s crew and determined when a train “could safely depart” the station. He also was the person “in charge during emergencies,” such as train derailments. The conductor’s role was the equivalent of a ship’s captain in many ways, and many of the first men to become railway conductors in the “1830s had previously worked as steamboat or coastal packet captains.”

In addition to the many duties mentioned above, a conductor’s workday was extremely long, highly dangerous, and offered little pay, and it was in response to these hardships that the first “Conductors Union” was formed by a young twenty-two year old conductor, T.J. Wright, in the spring of 1868 at Amboy, Illinois. While Wright’s fledgling organization only lasted a few months, his idea to organize quickly spread across North America, and by November 1868 the Conductors Brotherhood, the original name of the Order of Railway Conductors, was formed in December 1868 at Columbus, Ohio. The new organization “was not a labor union,” in the conventional sense, however, but a “fraternal benefit and temperance society” organized upon Masonic principles as historian Paul Michel Taillon explains in his book, Good, Reliable, White Men: Railroad Brotherhoods, 1877-1917. The typical ORC Division or local lodge was modelled after the Masonic Blue Lodge: An “altar with a copy of the Bible on it stood at the center of the brotherhood lodge room. At the far end of the room sat the lodge master, at his ‘station,’ on a raised platform with a table and gavel.”

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Letter to the Members of Lincoln Division, 206, on the Passing of Brother Allton, February 1943.

While fraternal and beneficial features always remained strong throughout the history of the Order of Railway Conductors, events within and without the organization would change it in significant ways. In the year 1890, the old leadership was replaced, and a “more aggressive program of trade regulation was adopted.” Furthermore, ORC would adopt the strike clause, which had previously been forbidden and punishable by expulsion from the Order. Technological changes in the railway industry also had a great impact upon the Order, which were only delayed by the outbreak of World War II. The conversion to diesel locomotion after the war brought “greater operating efficiency,” a Life Magazine article reported in 1949, and with this operating efficiency came a reduced need for the many men (and trains) that kept America moving. Placed within its historical context, this minute book by Lincoln Division, No. 206, covering the years 1941-1960, captures the postwar decline of the Order, which by 1969 had merged with the several small railway unions to form the United Transportation Union.



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Order of Railway Conductors Minute Book, Lincoln Division, No. 206, 1941-1960. Museum Purchase. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, FR 200.001.

References

Ehrlich, Leslie, and Bob Russell. “Employment Security and Job Loss: Lessons from Canada's National Railways, 1956-1995.” Labour/Le Travail 51 (Spring 2003): 115-152. 

“Locomotive Graveyard” (1946). Life, December 5. https://books.google.com/books?id=VkEEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA155#v=onepage&q&f=false Accessed: 12 December 2015.

National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution (no date). “Railroad Conductor.” America on the Move: Lives on the Railroad. http://amhistory.si.edu/onthemove/exhibition/exhibition_9_5.html Accessed: 12 December 2015.

Order of Railway Conductors and Brakemen (1968). O.R.C & B., 1868-1968: Serving the Man on the Road for 100 Years. Cedar Rapid, Iowa: Order of Railway Conductors and Brakemen.

Steward, Estelle M. (1936). Conductors of America, Order of Railway. In Handbook of American Trade-Unions, (pp. 253-256). Washington, D.C.: United States. Bureau of Labor Statistics. https://books.google.com/books?id=iCGWrdBpT_8C&dq=%22order+of+railway+conductors%22&q=%22order+of+railway+conductors%22#v=onepage&q=%22Organized%20at%20mendota%22&f=false Accessed: 12 December 2015.

Taillon, Paul Michel (2009). Good, Reliable, White Men: Railroad Brotherhoods, 1877-1917. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.