Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers

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Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers

United States 1863


On 8 May 1863, 12 delegates from several regional railroad employee organizations met in Detroit, Michigan, to form the Brotherhood of the Footboard. Later changing its name to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), the labor union aimed to create unity among railroad workers, strive for better working conditions, and establish certain social protections for its members. The union's first year saw a number of unauthorized, failed strikes and a lack of solidarity among disgruntled workers who were reportedly more interested in vengeance against their own employers than in creating unity among fellow engineers. Despite this chaotic start and attacks against the BLE leadership, the union instituted constitutional changes and grew to nearly 10,000 members within a decade.


  • 1844: Samuel Laing, in a prize-winning essay on Britain's "National Distress," describes conditions in a nation convulsed by the early Industrial Revolution. A third of the population, according to Laing, "hover[s] on the verge of actual starvation"; another third is forced to labor in "crowded factories"; and only the top third "earn[s] high wages, amply sufficient to support them in respectability and comfort."
  • 1849: Elizabeth Blackwell becomes the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree.
  • 1854: In the United States, the Kansas-Nebraska Act calls for decisions on the legality of slavery to be made through local votes. Instead of reducing divisions, this measure will result in widespread rioting and bloodshed and will only further hasten the looming conflict over slavery and states' rights.
  • 1857: The Sepoy Mutiny, an unsuccessful revolt by Indian troops against the British East India Company, begins. As a result of the rebellion, which lasts into 1858, England places India under direct crown rule.
  • 1860: Louis Pasteur pioneers his method of "pasteurizing" milk by heating it to high temperatures in order to kill harmful microbes.
  • 1862: Victor Hugo's Les Misérables depicts injustices in French society, and Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons introduces the term nihilism.
  • 1864: General William Tecumseh Sherman conducts his Atlanta campaign and his "march to the sea."
  • 1864: International Red Cross in Geneva is established.
  • 1864: George M. Pullman and Ben Field patent their design for a sleeping car with folding upper berths.
  • 1866: Austrian monk Gregor Mendel presents his theories on the laws of heredity. Though his ideas will be forgotten for a time, they are destined to exert enormous influence on biological study in the twentieth century.
  • 1870: The Franco-Prussian War begins. German troops sweep over France, Napoleon III is dethroned, and France's Second Empire gives way to the Third Republic.
  • 1873: The gold standard, adopted by Germany in 1871 and eventually taken on by all major nations, spreads to Italy, Belgium, and Switzerland. Though the United States does not officially base the value of its currency on gold until 1900, an unofficial gold standard dates from this period, even as a debate over "bimetallism" creates sharp divisions in American politics.

Event and Its Context

Railroad Grievances Leading to Union

Railroading in nineteenth-century America was a poorly paid, hazardous activity. Locomotive engineers, who spent their days and nights covered in grime and exposed to the elements, were often deprived of sleep, yet they were expected to stay alert so as to avoid accidents. Derailments, collisions, and mechanical problems were constant, and engineers were required to spend their "free" time servicing and maintaining the trains, inspecting, and repairing when necessary every single piece of the engine truck. While the hours were long, engineers were paid not for the time they were on duty, but rather for the actual time they were on a run. In the early 1860s a locomotive engineer could expect to run at least 2,500 miles monthly if he wanted to earn the going rate of $60 per month. Engineers waiting at the end of the line were required to pay their own expenses while waiting for the next train home. Moreover, job security was at management's whim, since railroad managers did not respect the idea of seniority.

The hazards railroad engineers of the time faced were recounted in graphic detail in Lives of the Engineers, with an Account of Their Principal Works, the memoirs of British engineer George Stephenson, as written by Samuel Smiles. In 1861 U.S. readers learned of some of the tragedies endured by railroad men, such as the cautious veteran worker whose leg was cut off by a train, or the engineer who was slowly cooked to death on the head of a boiler. In chapters like "A Victim of Low Wages" and "Human Lives v. the Dollar," Stephenson stabbed at the profit-over-people policies of some railroad managers. Accidents, he asserted, should teach managers that the policy of hiring unqualified men for $25 per month "is suicidal to their best interests." He suggested that an additional $10 per month for all switchmen might be "a good investment" if it saved just one worker a year from death or suffering. "Who then shall say that, though he be grimy and greasy, rough and uncouth, given to tobacco-chewing, and sometimes to hard swearing, he is of no consequence to the world?" Stephenson asked.

Miserable working conditions and declining real wages brought organized attempts at protecting the rights of railroad men. In 1854 engineers on the Baltimore and Ohio went on strike for better working conditions; management responded by firing 16 engineers, replacing them with novices. In 1855, following two failed attempts at organization, 68 engineers from 45 railroads in 13 states met in Baltimore, Maryland, to form the National Protective Association of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers of the United States. This organization lasted five years.

In 1862 grievances at the Michigan Central led more directly to the formation of the subsequent BLE. The railroad had hired A. S. Sweet to be superintendent of machinery; he was known for cutting pay to reduce costs. When workers protested, he fired several senior firemen and replaced them with inexperienced ones. Engineers, in solidarity with the firemen, refused to work on the runs where the regulars had been cut. In April 1863, 13 Michigan Central engineers met at the home of Jared C. "Yankee" Thompson in Marshall, Michigan, to plan a strategy. The men signed a circular saying that if one man were fired, the others would quit en masse; any new members would be required to take the same oath. The movement caught on, and eventually a committee representing disgruntled workers from Chicago, Illinois, to Detroit, Michigan, managed to speak to Sweet, who had initially refused to receive them.

When Sweet asked if the men planned to shut down operations, committee member Sam Hill reportedly answered, "We are here as gentlemen, representing gentlemen, and desire to be treated as such." After detailed deliberation, Sweet granted all of their requests. Word of this local victory spread throughout the ranks of railroad workers, and a general meeting was called for in Detroit on 5 May 1863.

Birth of the BLE

May 1863 brought a new era in the organization of American railroad workers. Engineers from several regional railroad organizations convened for a three-day session in the upstairs meeting room of the Old Firemen's Hall in Detroit. Present were 12 delegates from the Michigan Central, Michigan Southern, Grand Trunk, Detroit and Milwaukee, and the Michigan Southern and Northern Indiana railroads. The men drafted a constitution that, according to the union, combined "democratic control with efficient central administration, thus solving the fundamental problem that had wrecked many previous labor organizations." On 8 May the men joined hands and swore allegiance to a pioneer labor union called the "Brotherhood of the Footboard." William D. Robinson was elected chief engineer.

The brotherhood's constitution held that the organization of five new divisions warranted the creation of a "grand division," consisted of one delegate from each division. With 10 divisions as of 1 August 1863, the Grand National Division of the Brotherhood of the Footboard was formed in Detroit on 18 August. Robinson was elevated to the status of "grand chief engineer."

Membership was not for everyone. The locomotive engineers required that a candidate be a "white man, not less than 21 years of age" with at least one year's experience as an engineer. Moreover, the engineer had to be able to read and write and to be "of temperate habits and good moral character." The union's early constitutions dictated a moral code among its members. The 1884 constitution, for example, censured "occasional intoxication" and deemed "habitual intoxication" cause for expulsion; a later rule prohibited membership to saloon owners or anyone "engaged in the sale or traffic of intoxicants." The 1866 constitution threatened with expulsion any behavior "unbecoming to a man." Such ungentlemanly breaches of personal discipline included profane language, fraud, disrespect toward superiors, desertion of families, breaking agreements, drunkenness, "moral offenses," and general misconduct. Sanctions for moral misconduct were issued at the discretion of the local division.

During the first years of the union, the leadership sorted out internal conflict and forged an ethos in which engineers saw that "the problem of one engineer was the problem of all." Several strikes at the local level occurred in 1863, none of which was authorized by the union or carried out following consultations with the leadership. Due to "a lack of unity of interest and effort," all the strikes failed. According to the BLE, many of the men were "overanxious to get even with the roads on which they worked," oblivious to the effects their isolated actions could have on the brotherhood's future.

1864 Convention

A year of turmoil brought many grievances to the union's second convention, which was held on 17 August 1864 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The convention was heavily guarded, given local rumors that the convening railroad men were actually coming to free Confederate soldiers held at a nearby prisoner of war camp; delegates were shadowed by squads of Union soldiers, who also stood outside the convention hall.

Despite the union's growth to 54 divisions, disgruntled members had arrived to blame a year of failed strikes on Grand Chief Robinson and other grand officers. At the time of his leadership, Robinson was not an engineer in active service; with the aid of his detractors, he was forced from power when the union approved a resolution requiring all grand chiefs to be working engineers. Robinson was replaced by Charles Wilson of the New York Central. Delegates to the 1864 convention amended the union's constitution to exclude from membership firemen, machinists, and workers from other crafts. The union's name was officially changed to Grand International Division of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers.

The excluded nonengineers later formed their own railroad unions. The Brotherhood of Conductors (later called the Order of Railway Conductors and Brakemen) was formed in 1869. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (later the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen) appeared in 1873.

As the BLE grew over the next decade, the leaders focused on organizing as a single working unit, correcting internal problems, and projecting an image of the BLE as an effective labor organization. In general, the strike was not a preferred method of negotiation and was used only to enforce core demands. Formally authorized strikes were supported through a special strike fund. In general, the brotherhood defended the economic well-being of its members, negotiating hours, wages, and similar issues.

The union also worked toward greater social protections for its members. Labor observers in 1867 noted that in the brotherhood, as in many other trade unions, "the benefit features, so largely developed in the English societies, appear to a limited extent." One major grievance among workers was their inability to buy insurance to protect their families, given that frequent deaths in the trade caused "locomotive engineer" to be classified as a hazardous occupation. In a first step toward recognizing this issue, the 1866 convention in Boston, Massachusetts, established the Orphans and Widows Fund. The milestone event in the struggle for worker protection came the following year with the establishment of the Locomotive Engineers Mutual Life Insurance Association on 3 December 1867. The insurance plan, modeled after a similar one for New York City police officers, was open exclusively to BLE members. The association, founded at Port Jervis, New York, was operated independently of the union. Some 3,000 of the union's 8,000 members purchased insurance policies that year.

In 1865 the BLE founded its first Canadian division. By 1873 the union had 9,500 members spread over 172 divisions; by 1876 there were 12,000 members spread over 188 divisions throughout North America.

Key Players

Robinson, William D. Robinson (1826-1890): An American locomotive engineer, Robinson was a founding member of the BLE and served as its first chief officer from 1863 to 1864. He was replaced under pressure from enemies who blamed him for the new union's lack of organization and unity of purpose.

Stephenson, George (1781-1848): Stephenson was an English railroad engineer and inventor who pioneered steam engine construction. He served as chief engineer on several railways; the miserable conditions experienced by railroad engineers were recounted in a book of his that reached American readers in 1861.

Wilson, Charles: Wilson, an American locomotive engineer, was a founding member of the BLE and served as its chief officer from 1864 to 1874. Under his leadership the union grew to approximately 10,000 members.

See also: Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen.



The American Cyclopedia. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1873-1876.

Smiles, Samuel. Lives of the Engineers, with an Account of Their Principal Works: Comprising Also a History of Inland Communication in Britain. Vol. 3, George and Robert Stephenson. London: J. Murray, 1861-1862.


History of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers [cited 2October 2002]. <>

Michigan Historic Marker: Railroad Union Birthplace [cited2 October 2002]. <>

Van Ophem, Marieke. The Iron Horse: The Impact of the Railroads on 19th Century American Society. 1999 [cited 2 October 2002]. <>.

—Brett Alan King