Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2023


Railroad construction labor has historical ties to the worst types of “common” or “unskilled” wage labor and to the labor of enslaved peoples and convicts. It is linked, as well, to canal construction labor. Charles Dickens, writing to a U.S. audience in 1842, noted that without Irish immigrants, “It would be hard to keep your model republics going . . . for who else would dig, delve, and drudge . . . and make canals and railroads, and execute great lines of internal improvement!” Railroad officials and contractors enlisted a moving army of “wild” Irish immigrants and Famine-era refugees, luring them from County Cork and County Longford in Ireland, from Canada, and from neighboring canal and railroad projects in America. Augmented by indigenous peoples, African Americans, and Asian immigrants, the results of this movable construction labor force were impressive.


Originally published in Silkroad's American Railroad Booklet