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How To Find & Read Railroad Death Records

American history is rich with the development of railroads, which played a critical role in transportation and commerce. However, accidents were an unfortunate consequence of this booming industry, with many families losing loved ones in railroad incidents. 

For descendants of the deceased, finding information about their relatives can be challenging, especially if the incident happened long ago. This article will guide you on how to find relatives who perished in railroad accidents, the different types of records available, and how to access them.

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Different Types Of Railroad Death Records

There are different types of railroad death records to learn about how your loved one perished en route.

Coroner’s Reports

In cases where a death resulted from a railroad accident, the city’s jurisdiction may have created a coroner’s report. These reports outline the cause and manner of death, the condition of the victim at the time of the accident, and any contributing factors.

Depending on your state, coroner’s reports may not be publicly accessible. In this case, you may have to petition to unseal these records.

EMPLOYEE RECORDS

If your relative worked for a railroad company, you can access information through their employee records. While these document accidents and incidents, they may not provide comprehensive details about your loved one’s death.

If you still can’t find any information, you can also reach out to living witnesses.

Legal Records

In cases wherein railroad accidents led to lawsuits and other legal proceedings, you may find these documents with your local government.

Newspaper Articles

While not an “official” recounting of the accident, newspaper articles can provide context for incidents and may even list any witnesses involved.

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Where To Access Railroad Death Records

You’ll find railroad death records from the following sources.

National Archives & Records Administration (NARA)

The NARA has an extensive collection of records dating back to the beginning of the railroad industry. These documents include accident reports, employee rosters, and information about thousands of railroad companies. Fortunately, many of these older records are now accessible online for public reading.

State Archives

You can consult state archives if you don’t find what you’re looking for on NARA. State archives typically have accident reports, coroner’s reports, and other legal records related to the railroad industry.

Railroad Company Archives

Another option for learning more about railroad deaths is to contact the railroad company your relative was involved with. If you can’t access the records from the company itself, you can find older documentation in historical societies or museums.

Online Resources

Websites like AncestryDNA, Family Search, and the Library of Congress may provide digital records regarding deceased family members.

How To Access Railroad Death Records

Accessing railroad death records can depend on various factors, such as the period and location of the incident, as well as the agency or organization responsible for maintaining the records. Other factors that can make it challenging to access railroad death records include the following:

  • Privacy laws, such as if the deceased’s immediate family members request to keep their loved one’s death records sealed
  • Damage and loss of documents over time
  • Broken chains of custody, during which the death was not recorded

If you struggle to find accessible online or in-person records, you might want to consider working with a professional researcher. These professionals can access otherwise confidential record-keeping systems like aids and indexes.

In addition, professionals have the knowledge and experience to interpret these records for you, connecting the dots in ways you might not have spotted.

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How To Read Railroad Death Records

Now that you have access to railroad death records, it’s time to read and interpret them. 

Doing so can be challenging, as these documents often use complex terminology specific to the industry. Use these tips to analyze the records you gather.

Familiarize Yourself With Industry-Related Words

Some words you should know include the following:

  • Rolling stock: Railway vehicles (e.g., locomotives, passenger cars, freight cars)
  • Derailment: When a train falls off its tracks
  • Coupling: The connection between railway vehicles
  • Signal: Used to communicate information about train positions
  • Brakeman: An individual responsible for controlling the train’s speed and stopping it when necessary

Note Dates & Locations

Cross-referencing specific dates and locations can provide context into the accident’s circumstances. For instance, if any nearby trains experienced a similar derailment, it might be safe to assume something was wrong with the tracks surrounding that area.

List Any Individuals Involved

Railroad records may include information about the individuals involved in the incident, such as their names, ages, occupations, and addresses. You can use this information to connect with surviving family members who may know about the incident.

Compare Against Additional Resources

Sometimes, the information you find may need more context or specific details. If so, compare these death records with other resources like newspaper clippings, historical accounts, and court records.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, railroad death records provide a window into the often-overlooked history of transportation accidents and their impact on individuals and communities. In addition, they can provide much-needed closure for family members who never learned the circumstances of their loved one’s death.

Understanding the types of records available, their terminology, and the resources for accessing them also provides researchers ample benefits. These professionals can better appreciate the dangers and challenges of railroad travel and transportation throughout history. Whether accessed in person or online, railroad death records offer a valuable tool for uncovering and preserving this critical aspect of our shared past.