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What would people do in 1860s railroad towns?

In a place similar to frontier America, it seems towns are built around very clear purposes. A majority of people would follow the town specific profession. Ranchers. Mine workers. Fishermen. Sawmill workers.

What about railroad towns though? With no particular quality other than being a reloading point. A lot of people are gonna be railroad workers, warehousemen and tradesmen. That's for sure. However I feel like those jobs alone wouldn't provide enough purpose for the rest of the town - or work for the general population.

What could make up the bulk of such a town? Will it just be lots of tiny business à la barber, carpenter, tailor, etc.? Or is there a profession the frontier common folk might default to?

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closed as too broad by John, JBH, ltmauve, jdunlop, RonJohn Jun 16 at 22:11

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ I think you might just want to look up everything you need for both survival and personal life. Groceries means you need a store that sells them. You usually have entertainment like a bar and/or brothel. You also have someone who's a barber, a sherrif or similar police like spokesman, a mayor, administrative functions, people who may create local food, clothing abd equipment. A smith or similar, some people who build houses or the wood for it etc. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Jun 16 at 13:18
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    $\begingroup$ This question belongs on the history site. history.stackexchange.com there are entire studies on the progression of such towns. $\endgroup$ – John Jun 16 at 16:30
  • $\begingroup$ @John I didn't really consider this as I intend to create a world similar to frontier America - not have my story take place in the actual U.S. But thanks for the hint. I'll go check it out. $\endgroup$ – McMurphy Jun 16 at 16:51
  • $\begingroup$ This is too broad and we need to convert this from an off-topic infinite list of things to an on-topic finite list of things. Such a town would have hundreds, if not thousands if different jobs being filled by people. Asking for the "most common" jobs is primarily opinion-based. What research have you done? What is the actual worldbuilding problem you're trying to address? $\endgroup$ – JBH Jun 16 at 17:43
  • $\begingroup$ What do you mean by a "reloading point"? A trans-loading station due to break-of gauge? Or a refueling/re-watering station for steam locomotives? Or do you just mean a freight depot? Or something else? Very few towns were built with the railroad as their primary industry - most towns were (and remain) agricultural market towns that happened to be purposely-sited along a new railway. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Jun 16 at 18:18
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At first the town would just be a place for railworkers, and the products they consume. So, saloon/hotel, general store, whorehouse. Maybe services related to the construction of track and operation of the trains, like loggers, and people to load and unload cargo. This logistic-based work, including warehouses and goods handling, are likely in the very beginning. There will likely always be some building construction work too.

All these people require food, of course, so trappers and hunters will appear and start selling their catches. Assuming the land supports it, farming and ranching will also eventually appear and employ a lot of folk. A ranch is in many ways nearly a self-sufficient little village where all the "hands" are skilled in the basics of several professions.

Having a few ranches will mean there are now enough customers to support dedicated, more skilled professionals such as wainwrights, tanners, rope makers and other craftsmen, horse care/farrier, trading post, church, sherrif, blacksmith, carpenter, tanner.. ie the very essential basics that the farms have had to do themselves up to now. The railroad would still be used for importing all the non-essential products and services at this point, but now the town can start to survive on its own, without being entirely dependant on the railroad. You will still see a focus to support services for the railroad, but economies slowly diversify as they grow.

If the town gets bigger (limiting factors would include geography, climate, availability of attractive land, politics, railroad activity, security, etc), more luxury services like dedicated doctors, midwifes, moneylenders, undertakers, schoolhouse staff etc would start to become economically viable. More stores, more trade, as trade will always be strong due to the railroad. Tailored goods may still be imported, at least until the town grows big enough to support it economically. Barbers seem like a luxury reserved for very large and established towns, as they need a large minimum population. White collar workers would appear as the real money starts to flow, managing taxes, land use rights, settling legal disputes. Banks, jail, other entertainments, and specialists in different fields would be added later.

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    $\begingroup$ Op specifically mentions a railroad reloading point. I assume the construction phase is over. A reloading point would need a lot of wood, and the infrastructure for handling it, so, cutters, horses, wagons, and their food supply. That's where I launch my town from. The rest of your comment is was my answer states, farms, then support for the farms. $\endgroup$ – Innovine Jun 16 at 18:14
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Railroad towns could have a lot of various trades going on, depending on different factors, including location. For example: If your railroad is near to a region with good agricultural resources, you'd probably have some farmers settling the outlying areas. These farmers would then depend on the town to ship their produce and supply their needs (medicine, cloth, maybe more seeds, etc). This would open avenues of trade for merchants supplying to the farmers. Then, if the merchants are successful, wholesalers might reach out to the merchants. So, with a resource-heavy town, I think you'd see a snowball effect of all kinds of trades popping up.

You also have cool opportunities for conflict, as railroad towns could invite lawlessness and corruption.

So, I'd just say, ask yourself about location first. Then about who is in charge of the railroad (as this person might influence the politics of the town), and so on. I think you have a fertile ground to grow your story! You might find this article helpful too: https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2671&context=greatplainsquarterly

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  • $\begingroup$ This is what I was going to post. Whatever it is they are loading onto the train at that point, people are producing that stuff in the area. Those people live in the area. In addition to receiving and shipping out the products of their labor, those local people need the equipment and consumables to support that labor, and also the things they and their families need to live. $\endgroup$ – Willk Jun 16 at 17:26
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When towns in this place and era were being planned, it was in conjunction with the railroad. A "railroad town" was not for railroad workers. They had their own camps for the few months they needed to be nearby, then they moved on.

The town started with farmers. The bread and butter (literally!) of the town. The American government designated areas where they had taken land from those who already lived there and had treaties in place to enforce it (entire books have been written about the ethics and logistics of this). They chose the path of the railroad and decided on where towns would be. The main towns were on the railroad line and would have a station.

So farmers (and/or ranchers, depending on the climate) came in, picked a plot, registered it with the local government office, and set up a claim with a shanty. This could be single men (and sometimes women), entire families, or the father of a family who would bring in the rest of the family shortly.

None of these towns was ever just a junction point. They were all designed to be living breathing towns, with the advantage of being on a railroad line.

Most people were farmers and they could sell excess crops, animals, etc. The railroad brought them seeds (they'd mostly save their own, but not always) and tools. Any resident could order from the Sears Roebuck Co. (though not until 1886, slightly after your time period). Tools of all sorts, household goods, even ready-to-build houses (plans starting in 1895, full kits 1908-1940).

In those earlier years, the trains would bring lumber (if there wasn't a large local supply) and other building materials like nails, tools, glass. If a town had a natural resource (including from surrounding towns not on the train line), they could export it.

Most importantly, the train brought people. New settlers, visitors, and it allowed townspeople to go off in search of seasonal work, visit family, attend specialty schools and so on.

Traveling by covered wagon was grueling. Even on established trails, 10-20 miles a day was common. Solo travelers or coaches on (mostly) good roads, with just passengers and luggage, might cover more distance. In one report from 1861, an 80 mile trip took 17 hours.

1860-era trains on good tracks (near older, bigger, cities) could go 60 MPH, but 20 MPH was a lot more common out west. Trains could travel overnight and sleeping cars became available during this era too. So in 24 hours, one could go around 480 miles.

Before the trains, there were still large towns out west but they might be more spread out. Train stations encouraged settlement.

Only a few workers were needed for the actual trains. A station master and a couple employees. Train maintenance was done elsewhere, though there would be people and equipment for emergency train and track work.

The post office is connected with the train, though existed without it too. Letters, packages, and notification of huge deliveries might come through there.

The telegraph office is also connected with the train and did not exist before the train (the telegraph lines were along the train tracks and set up at the same time). This was the fastest method of communication.

So add in a handful of employees for post and telegraph. More if you had home delivery.

So imagine all the professions/industry of an 1860's town:

  • Farmer & seasonal farm hands
  • Grocer
  • Stores of various types (general goods, fabric, tools/supplies)
  • Lumberyard and builders/craftspeople
  • Schoolteachers
  • Sometimes a local industry like weaving or paper making.
  • Newspaper
  • Granary, flour mill
  • Silage and animal feed storage
  • Blacksmith
  • Medical (both for humans and animals, plus dentists and eye doctors)
  • Midwifery
  • Religious personnel (when the towns were set up, the major churches would assign pastors to towns and church-raising was one of the early tasks)
  • Bars and sometimes restaurants
  • Prostitution
  • Seamstresses/Tailors (especially in towns that had a lot of single men)
  • Home helpers (children who would help households out with childcare, cleaning, misc tasks, usually gender segregated)
  • Town administration (mayor, etc).
  • Law enforcement

And so on. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list.

I strongly suggest the excellent Little House book series, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, who lived through these very events as a child. The books are written for children and much of the "inappropriate" material is missing or hinted at. Plus Wilder's daughter edited the books to be more interesting to readers, so a few facts aren't quite right. But the basic history is sound and it's very illuminating. (Don't watch the TV show as a substitute, it is not historically accurate.)

By the Shores of Silver Lake is the book with the town springing up around the train station, though trains also figure in later books and I would read them as well.

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  • $\begingroup$ This answer has a lot of off-topic info about what trains were used for, and what they were like, which should be removed. $\endgroup$ – Innovine Jun 16 at 18:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Innovine It's called context. Unless you know how trains transformed the American frontier and how they were planned with towns, you can't correctly answer the question (your answer is not historically accurate for this reason). $\endgroup$ – Cyn says make Monica whole Jun 16 at 18:22
  • $\begingroup$ My answer is historically accurate, you just failed to understand it, as you failed to understand what is relevant in an answer. $\endgroup$ – Innovine Jun 16 at 18:30
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    $\begingroup$ Worldbuilding etiquette aside... I found this answer very helpful, thank you. I already took a screenshot in case it gets shortened or anything. :) $\endgroup$ – McMurphy Jun 16 at 19:18
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks @McMurphy. Please note that you can always click on the link to the left of the author's name on a post to get an editing history (if it's been edited). The other person is misinformed about what constitutes a proper answer and, while I often tinker with my posts to improve them, I have no plans to remove anything. $\endgroup$ – Cyn says make Monica whole Jun 16 at 19:24

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