Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen

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Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen

United States 1883


One of the largest of four transportation unions in the United States, the Brotherhood of Railroad Brakemen (BRB) was established on 23 September 1883 by eight railway workers who met in a caboose in Oneonta, New York, in the yards of the Delaware and Hudson Railroad. The organization changed its name to the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen (BRT) in 1890 because so many of the members it represented had been promoted from brakemen to conductor or had changed positions since their initial enrollment. Eugene V. Debs, then national officer of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, encouraged the eight men to form a national organization of brakemen rather than joining a local chapter already functioning in Albany.


  • 1863: The world's first subway opens, in London.
  • 1869: The first U.S. transcontinental railway is completed.
  • 1873: The typewriter is introduced.
  • 1876: Four-stroke cycle gas engine is introduced.
  • 1878: Thomas Edison develops a means of cheaply producing and transmitting electric current, which he succeeds in subdividing so as to make it adaptable to household use. The value of shares in gas companies plummets as news of his breakthrough reaches Wall Street.
  • 1881: In a shootout at the O.K. Corral outside Tombstone, Arizona, Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp, along with "Doc" Holliday, kill Billy Clanton, Frank McLowry, and Tom McLowry. This breaks up a gang headed by Clanton's brother Ike, who flees Tombstone. The towns people, however, suspect the Earps and Holliday of murder. During the same year, Sheriff Pat Garrett shoots notorious criminal William Bonney, a.k.a. Billy the Kid, in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
  • 1883: Brooklyn Bridge is completed.
  • 1883: Foundation of the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of Labor by Marxist political philosopher Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov marks the formal start of Russia's labor movement. Change still lies far in the future for Russia, however: tellingly, Plekhanov launches the movement in Switzerland.
  • 1883: Life magazine begins publication.
  • 1885: Belgium's King Leopold II becomes sovereign of the so-called Congo Free State, which he will rule for a quarter-century virtually as his own private property. The region in Africa, given the name of Zaire in the 1970s (and Congo in 1997), becomes the site of staggering atrocities, including forced labor and genocide, at the hands of Leopold's minions.
  • 1889: Indian Territory in Oklahoma is opened to settlement.
  • 1893: Henry Ford builds his first automobile.

Event and Its Context

Prior to the establishment of the BRB, there were three transportation brotherhoods operating in the United States: Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (1863), the Order of Railway Conductors (1868), and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen (1873). All operated as fraternal organizations offering brotherhood and mutual insurance to members. Members also participated in rituals stemming from a Masonic tradition that were similar to those of other fraternal brotherhoods.

Insurance companies refused to offer death or disability coverage to railroad workers because the high incidence of morbidity and mortality would break their business. Mutual insurance organizations such as the BRB formed because the nature of the brakeman's job was so dangerous: crippling injuries, amputations, and accidental death were everyday incidents. At the engineer's signal, both head-end and rear-end brakemen began a precarious trip along their respective sections of the speeding train, leaping from car to car and manually applying and releasing handbrakes on each car. Due to the precarious rocking and shifting of the boxcars, life expectancy for brakemen quite often was less than one year. Brakemen frequently inserted themselves between cars that could quickly come to a halt, crushing their bodies between them. Mishaps also occurred when the job required the brakemen to run over ballast and railroad ties alongside the moving train.

The BRB offered members death insurance benefits of $300 at a time when wages averaged little more than one dollar per day, which was an excellent wage in 1883. Many men were willing to undertake the dangerous conditions to support their families. Nationally, one-third of brakemen were killed in 1883. The insurance appealed to brakemen because as much as 70 percent of men in the position had to expect injury or death.

Beginning in 1887, the steady growth of BRB membership set in motion the organization's evolution from a purely benevolent society to a trade union. Eight men met to discuss their disappointment with the operation of the Capital City Aid Association, which failed to address the current concerns of the brakemen, though it was originally established by brakemen. Those eight men were William Gurney, Daniel Hopkins, Elmer Wessel, H. S. Wilber, Charles J. Woodworth, Union C. Osterhout, Daniel J. McCarty, and Eugene McCarty. The initial meeting in Charles Woodworth's caboose Number 10 in June 1883 spawned a larger meeting in September at Blend Hall in Oneonta, where participants founded the Grand Lodge.

The BRB's goals were simple: promoting unity and improving the welfare of its members. The preamble specifically mentioned protecting each member's family through benevolence and fostering an amiable association between the company and members. The Brotherhood's motto was "Benevolence, Sobriety, and Industry."

The Grand Lodge was originally called the Eugene V. Debs Lodge No. 1, after the man who inspired the formation of the brotherhood. Though formed in Oneonta, the Grand Lodge moved to Chicago in 1884. Additionally, Lodge No. 1 was renamed for Daniel Hopkins, one of its original lodge members and founders. Debs is often credited as the founder of the brotherhood, though he was essentially an organizer. Between the first and second annual conventions held in October 1884 and October 1885, the organization grew from 39 lodges with 900 members to 160 lodges with 4,500 members. That same year the BRB became an international organization when it granted the first Canadian charter to a lodge at Moncton, New Brunswick. In December 1885 the Grand Lodge moved from Chicago to Galesburg, Illinois.

The importance of insurance became so overriding that the insurance department formed in 1885 and increased death coverage to $600. As membership strengthened yearly, the BRB collected more membership dues and increased death disbursements. In 1886 benefits increased to $800 with national membership at 8,000.

The BRB established the Railroad Brakeman's Journal, a periodical edited and managed by Ed O'Shea, a charter member of the Galesburg, Illinois, lodge. Printed in Galesburg by the Brotherhood Steam Print, the journal supplied members with information and functioned as an instrument for recruitment. Circulation fluctuated but averaged about 8,000 each month. Issues listed monthly claims that the BRB paid out, as well as recent deaths and injuries and their causes.

In 1890, under the leadership of Stephen E. Wilkinson, the BRB took the name Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen (BRT) when it expanded to include railroad workers in more than 14 trade classifications. Elected at the 1890 annual meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota, Wilkinson strengthened the BRT's conservative stance as he strongly advocated arbitration and opposed strikes. Wilkinson was one of the first union leaders to negotiate contracts for employees. He put into action a regulated system of promotion for members. A worker hired as a brakeman or a flagman could eventually become a conductor. Conductors held a prestigious position on the train; the train could not physically move without the conductor's command. They controlled the train yet could not direct the engineer's operation of the locomotive.

The BRT did not initially function as a trade union, and brotherhood leaders maintained cordiality with company officials. In this manner, the BRT's comport was similar to its counterpart railway brotherhoods in that it did not fraternize with other labor unions. In fact, there was little cooperation between the four railroad brotherhoods though essentially they functioned as one by ignoring collective bargaining with management and continuing their foci on insurance and welfare benefits of their members. Railroad company officials did not legitimately recognize the organization. BRT members were often discriminated against or fired once management learned of their affiliation.

The Pullman strike of 1894 cost the BRT between $9,000 and $20,000, with the exact number in dispute. Many were purged for supporting the strike and others lost their jobs in the economic depression brought on by the Panic of 1893, which was caused in part by excessive railroad investments and the inability of rail companies to operate efficiently. Effects of the panic were felt nationwide until 1897.

Members who gathered at annual convention in May 1895 at Galesburg expressed their displeasure with Wilkinson's leadership, and he resigned. Patrick H. Morrissey, the next grand master of the BRT, worked toward rebuilding the union after the Pullman strike, as well as cooperating with other railroad unions to form solidarity for its members.

After talks between the major transportation unions during 1968, union presidents announced in August 1968 that they would merge and designate themselves as the United Transportation Union, which was established on 1 January 1969. Eventually merging with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, the Order of Railway Conductors and Brakemen, and the Switchmen's Union of North America to form the United Transportation Union in 1968, the BRT ceased to exist.

Key Players

Debs, Eugene V. (1855-1926): Born in Terre Haute, Indiana, Debs left school at age 15 to work in a railroad engine house and later became a locomotive fireman. He traveled through Oneonta, New York, in 1883 and encouraged local brakemen to form a union, the BRB. Debs served the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in several roles, organized the American Railway Union (ARU) in 1892, and was instrumental in forming the Social Democratic Party, Socialist Labor Party, and Socialist Party of America.

Morrissey, Patrick Henry (1862-1916): Born in Bloomington, Illinois, to Irish immigrants, Morrissey was initiated to the industry by his father, John, who was a section foreman on the Chicago and Alton Road. Patrick began his railroad career as a call boy while he attended high school. In 1880 he became a full-time employee on the Chicago and Alton, working as a clerk for the roundhouse foreman, a passenger brakeman, freight brakemen, and freight conductor. He became a member of the BRT, holding several offices in the organization, and eventually serving as the second grand master of the BRT (1895-1908). He restored the BRT and reconciled the membership after the Pullman strike in 1894.

Whitney, Alexander Fell (1873-1949): Born in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Whitney left high school in 1888 to become a news agent on the Illinois Central Railroad. He worked as a brakeman on several Midwestern railroads (1890-1901). He joined the G. F. Boynton Lodge 138 of the BRT in 1896 and served the BRT in many roles over the years, eventually becoming its president in 1925.

Wilkinson, Stephen E. (1850-1901): Born in Monroeville, Ohio, Wilkinson served the Union by guarding the railroads during the Civil War. After mustering out he entered service as a switchman on the I.B. and W. Railway, which later became the Philadelphia and Erie Railroad. Known as the "Old Man," he was a charter member and first master of Lodge No. 27, organized in Peoria, Illinois, on 16 August 1884. A delegate at the first annual convention, he was appointed to fill the vacated grand master position of the BRB on 10 July 1885, and was elected grand master at the second annual convention in 1885, a position he held until he resigned on 1 August 1895.

See also: Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers; Panic of 1893; Pullman Strike.



Fink, Gary M., ed. Biographical Dictionary of American Labor Leaders. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974.

Madison, Charles A. American Labor Leaders: Personalities and Forces in the Labor Movement. New York: Harper & Brother Publishers, 1950.

McCaleb, Walter Falvius. Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, with Special Reference to the Life of Alexander F. Whitney. New York: A. and C. Boni, 1936.

Seidman, Joel Isaac. The Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen: The Internal Political Life of a National Union. New York: Wiley, 1962.

Tallion, Paul Michel. Culture, Politics, and the Making of the Railroad Brotherhoods, 1863-1916. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms, 1997.


Simonson, Mark. "Caboose Serves as Reminder of Our Rich Railroad History." [Oneonta] Daily Star, 28 February 2000.

Additional Resources


Licht, Walter. Working for the Railroad: The Organization of Work in the Nineteenth Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.

—Rebecca Tolley-Stokes