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Hello Ms. Brook,
The National Archives and Records Administration holds permanently valuable records of the federal government. Since railroads are private entities, albeit ones with significant mingling with government, the chances of NARA holding any records of your ancestors’ employment experience are quite slim.
Had any of your ancestors been employed by a railroad after 1936 there may be a record of pensions or related materials with the Railroad Retirement Board.
Fortunately railroads are a high interest research topic and there are many other resources at your disposal.
This familysearch Webpage provides some basic information. It recommends consulting railroad directories that may include your ancestors if they were senior enough. Another method would be to contact railroad company records repositories. These collections are not in a single place and their titles may only reflect the railroad companies’ name at the time the record were deposited rather than what it was historically.
Here is another online resource:
http://www.genealogytoday.com/guide/railroad-employees.html : List of Short Lines across America
The Library of Congress and the National Archives both have extensive railroad map collections. Please see this LoC page and please email email@example.com to begin the identification process.
We hope these resources provide a helpful start. Best of luck with your research!
Compiled by Alex Champion
Alex is spot on with the response regarding permanently valuable records retention and private company contractor records. However, the National Archives at St. Louis do hold some Railroad employee records. We have the records for the Alaskan Railroad, US Railroad Administration, Railroad and Airline Wage Board, and the Railroad Retirement Board.
Please feel free to send us a request for Official Personnel Folders if the individual you are looking for worked at any of these railroad agencies and we will be happy to perform a search for you.
Cara Moore Lebonick
National Archives at St. Louis
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If you have not already done so, you may wish to review Reference Information Paper 91 - Records Relating to North American Railroads. It can be freely downloaded at https://www.archives.gov/files/publications/ref-info-papers/
In addition to what the other commentators have suggested, there is one other possibility. Injured passengers and employees would sometimes file a civil case against the railroad in a US District Court or US Circuit Court (both courts are found in record group 21). The case file sometimes will include information about the incident and the injured person. Be aware that the court records are NOT segregated by type of case, so any cases involving railroad accidents are mixed in with every other issue that was brought before the court.
These cases were not always filed. Finding the cases that were filed can be challenging because each court indexed and organized their records somewhat differently in the 19th century. In many cases, the indexes to the case files did not survive or did not make it to the National Archives. Additionally, the indexes are often handwritten in large books and only alphabetized by the first letter of the name, so it is easy to miss details when browsing hundreds of pages of lists of parties.
You probably want to contact the National Archives facility that has the records for the nearest Federal court to where the accident took place, as well as where the railroad was headquartered. St. Louis is with the National Archives at Kansas City and Memphis is with the National Archives at Atlanta. If you know the railroads, it should not be too difficult to find out where the headquarters was located through the internet and secondary sources.
The case would have been filed as civil case, although during this time the civil cases are often split into equity and law cases. I have mostly seen these in US Circuit Court records, but they may also appear in the US District Court records. Both are in record group 21.
If you are lucky, there may be an index for the court records that would include the name of the plaintiff (presumably your ancestor). If there is not an index, there should be a docket that is organized chronologically from the date the case was filed (which could be several years after the accident).
The staff may be able to help you remotely, but due to the nature of the records (especially if there is not a comprehensive index), you may need to come in and conduct a more extensive review yourself (or hire a researcher for hire).