Working on the Rails

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Working on the Rails

Periods of mass immigration generally trigger resistance on the part of the native-born population or “older,” more established immigrant groups. With the arrival of the famine generation in the mid-19th century, the Irish encountered fierce opposition and a nativist backlash. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the arrival of large numbers of eastern and southeastern European immigrants spurred discussions as to how to incorporate these immigrants into American society.

The collection of resources assembled in this unit is designed to have students explore the role of these vital yet marginalized workers. From the Irish track workers of the mid-19th century who filled the ever-growing demands of the burgeoning railroad industry to the new wave of Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these laborers filled some of the least desirable and most dangerous jobs constructing and maintaining railroad lines. Use the resources in this unit to discuss attitudes towards and perceptions of Irish and Italian laborers

Essential Questions

How does continuity and change within the United States history influence your community today?
Why is time and space important to the study of history?


Students will:

  • Distinguish different points of view for historical events and understand that what gets recorded influences historical perspective by reading about the same subject from different perspectives 
  • Compare and contrast the experiences of different immigrant groups working on the railroad through the use of primary sources 
  • Synthesize the information they gather from primary resources to evaluate the change in immigrant labor on the rails over time

Suggested Instructional Procedures

  1.  Provide the class with a background on immigrants working on the railroads. Reference the “Working on the Rails” article and provide context concerning the 19th century and 20th century nativist and Americanization campaigns. Both movements were based on the fundamental belief that newly arriving immigrants did not conform to or in some way undermined an American ideal. The nativist backlash the Irish encountered in the 19th century reflected the native-born population’s belief that the Irish were inherently different from mainstream America and incapable of assimilation. The Americanization campaign of the 20th century acknowledged that newly arriving immigrants were capable of becoming American through the acquisition of social customs and English language skills. During this period, schools, settlement houses, and employers took on the task of Americanizing newly arriving immigrants. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s support of English-language classes as well as its profiling of employees who had acquired their citizenship should be discussed in the context of this movement.
  2. Have students read "Every Day Life of Railroad Men" to better understand the kind of work railroad workers did. 
  3. Give half of the class the “Riots on Railroad” reading and Irish ballads. Give the other half the “The PayMasters Car” and “What Italians are doing on the Railroad.” Provide the students with the appropriate worksheet for their category, and have each group read and discuss the readings and questions on their worksheets.
  4. When the students have finished, pair Irish and Italian students in groups of two or four. Students should take on the role of their immigrant group to explain their experiences to the students in the opposite immigrant group. Topics to discuss include the hazards, working conditions, anti-immigrant attitudes, job mobility, education and training, wages and benefits, and treatment.
  5. Return to the large group. Ask students how they reacted to hearing the experiences of the opposite immigrant group. Ask students why they think the experiences changed over time? Discuss the differences and put them into the context of 19th century nativist and 20th century Americanization campaigns. 


  • Americanization: A process whereby immigrants become assimilated into American life. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Americanization was an organized social movement. Some proponents feared the huge influx of immigrants and felt that they must reject their own cultural heritage and adopt American values and customs. Others took a positive view of what immigrants could contribute culturally to American life. These people wanted to ease immigrants’ adjustment to their adopted country.
  • Ballad: A narrative form relating a dramatic event that can be sung or recited. Folk or traditional ballads are ballads that originally were passed down orally from one singer to another generation after generation. This meant that both the lyrics and tune of a ballad might change over time and result in many different versions of one song.
  • Emigrant: Someone who leaves one country to settle in another.
  • Immigrant: A person who comes to a country where they were not born in order to settle there.
  • Nativism: Anti-immigrant sentiment or a governmental policy favoring the interests of established inhabitants over those of immigrants. Historically refers to white, native-born, Protestant Americans' hostile and defensive reaction to European immigrants.
  • Tarrier: A term used to describe the Irish men working on the railway, relating them to one who tarries, or avoids work. It could also refer to the old spelling of the word “terrier,” a small, feisty dog. 
  • Trackman: A worker employed to maintain or inspect railroad tracks.

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