History of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen

This chronicle is based on the archives of the organization, and was originally published in the Locomotive Engineers Journal on a regular basis beginning in January of 1941. Of primary significance in the compilation of this series are the Proceedings of the Conventions and the monthly Journal, which began publication in January of 1867. Also used as a basis for this series was the Monthly Statements, which were published from 1904 to the time this series was published in 1941. Original authors also relied upon immense files of correspondence, which contained a wealth of data dealing with events as they were poured into the mold of the times. Accordingly, the basis upon which this narrative rests must be accepted as authoritative.


Part 1 of a Series

The story of Organized Labor in the United States could not be written without giving a leading place to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. It was a pioneer organization - and bore all the hardships of the pioneer. History shows that until Organized Labor came to be a force to be reckoned with, the employer imposed his will on workers, and the working of that will left them only a short way removed from serfdom. Our social and economic life is indeed little more than a record of the struggles of men to survive.

The purpose of these is to set forth the essential facts concerning the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers since its organization, and to show the role it has played in the functioning of our society. The Brotherhood with its thousands of members makes up no inconsiderable element in our population; and it is now, as always, doing its part in promoting the welfare of its members and their families.

At the time of the rise of the Engineers, living conditions, employment, and the general economy of the United States were all disorganized and bordering on chaos. Agriculture, industry, and the railroads were in a terrible plight. This state of things can be attributed for the most part to the confusions rising out of the industrial developments that took place between 1830 and 1860. It was a transition era. Other confusions, too, grew out of changes wrought in our social world - slavery playing no inconsiderable role.

Business adhered strictly to the philosophy of so-called "rugged individualism." Business was built on that basis, which meant - get all you can regardless of how you get it. Labor was accordingly regarded as a commodity to be bought and sold on the market. A price was fixed on the services of every man.

In the 1830s women were working in industrial plants for as little as $1.25 per week, and railroad workers were throwing switches for from 50 cents to a dollar a day. And these work days ranged from 10 to 18 hours! Analyses of working conditions and wage scales for the years 1830 to 1860 reveal a frightful state of affairs.

We, in this day, look upon Organized Labor as part and parcel of the social order, but we should understand that 80 years ago, "organized" workers - even though small and insignificant groups - were regarded with suspicion. They were labeled radicals. They had practically no standing before the law; the statutes all ran to the defense of property. Such a thing as a written contractual relation with an employer was almost unheard of. Conditions of employment were always prescribed by the employer. There was no thought of a group meeting with the management for the purpose of discussing working relationships. This was an idea utterly foreign to the thinking of the peoples of the time.

It has required a wide stretch of years to educate the workers as to their rights, and to bring employers to recognize those rights, as is now done in collective bargaining. This footing is a profound one and reaches down to the bottom of present day economic society.

The old Firemen's Hall at the southwest corner of E. Jefferson and Randolph in Detroit where the BLET was founded in 1863.


Background of the Brotherhood

The conditions had long been in preparation, which gave rise to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. It appears that during 1854 there arose a controversy between the locomotive engineers on the Baltimore & Ohio and the officials of that road, which resulted in a strike. Sixteen locomotive engineers lost their positions.

A strange tale is told of one of the early efforts of engineers to organize. In the summer of 1855 there appeared a notice in the Daily Sun of Baltimore that a convention of locomotive engineers would be held in Newark, N.J. Unhappily, no specific date was given for the meeting, but the mere fact that announcement was made that one would be held aroused great interest among engineers, inasmuch as working conditions and wages were very bad, and there was widespread discontent. In view of the Newark notice, a call was issued for a meeting of engineers to convene in Martinsburg, Va., (now West Virginia), for the purpose of electing delegates. In response to this, a number of engineers reported at Martinsburg. James C. Clark was chosen chairman of the gathering and E. Winters, secretary. The whole problem of organization was canvassed; and then the engineers proceeded to elect Alexander Lepze and Christian Smith as delegates to the Newark convention.

In due course these delegates proceeded towards Newark without definite information. They got as far as Philadelphia and thence by steamer to New York. From New York they crossed to Paterson, N.J. There they met a number of engineers of the N.Y. & Erie R.R., but no one knew anything about a convention. But Brothers Lepze and Smith were not to be stopped, so they proceeded to Newark where they looked up several engineers. Even there none had been advised of a meeting. So it soon appeared to Lepze and Smith that they were on a wild goose chase. On their return journey, they stopped again in Paterson and discussed with a number of engineers the advisability of holding a convention in the near future, and there was universal approval of the suggestion.

On returning to Martinsburg, a meeting was called and a report made by the delegates of their experience and of the interest everywhere manifest in the proposal to organize. A resolution was then offered and a meeting called to be held in Baltimore on November 6, 1855. It was determined at the Martinsburg gathering that the engineers on each division of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad should appoint four representatives to attend the convention. Notices were also sent to engineers on other roads and when the doors opened, 71 delegates presented themselves.

The meeting was held in a hall of the Maryland Institute, which was tendered the delegates free of cost. This gathering in Baltimore extended over four days. Several resolutions were introduced and approved. The first read: "Resolved, that all Superintendents and Master Mechanics of railroads, or any other persons employing engineers, be respectfully solicited to give preference to those bearing a certificate from this Association, as they pledge themselves to recommend such as are worthy and well qualified." Another, "Resolved; that all public newspapers who regard with favor this movement of the locomotive engineers of the United States, now assembled in convention, be and are hereby respectfully solicited to extend their countenance and support." A third, "Resolved, that it is the purpose of this organization to protect ourselves, the traveling public, and our employers, from the injurious effects resulting from persons of inferior qualifications being employed as locomotive engineers."

Moustaches and beards seemed to go with the ornate engines of yesteryear like No. 634 of the Jamestown, Madison & Indianaoplis. M.G. Bright was the locomotive builder, according to the plate, but the files disclose little else about the time, place and brothers. Pride in work shows clearly in many such photographs.


It was voted by the delegates to this Baltimore convention that:

"We, the locomotive engineers of the United States, in delegate assembled, do hereby agree that we form a national association for our mutual protection and elevation, and do adopt for our government the constitution and by-laws hereunto annexed."

Article 1 of the constitution fixed the name for the organization as the "National Protective Association of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers of the United States." Section 2 named the officers: President, Vice-President, Secretary and Treasurer

Other sections fixed the duties of officers, and outlined the processes to be pursued in the matter of organization - such as in the granting of charters. An article provided that applications for charters should be signed by locomotive engineers, and should be accompanied by $10. Subordinate associations consisting of 100 or less members might send one representative to national conventions. Fees, a form of traveling card and all the necessary paraphernalia of organization were prepared.

Another article declared that no man shall be considered competent to run an engine unless he can superintend or do the ordinary repairs on his engine. Other qualifications:

"No locomotive engineer shall be a member of this association unless he is a sober man and in good standing in society.""No candidate for the post of engineer shall hereafter receive a certificate as such from any subordinate association who cannot read and write with facility the English language. This section shall have no reference to those engineers already employed."

Finally it was provided that "this constitution may be altered or amended at any future meeting of the national association by a two-thirds vote."

Sketch of William D. Robinson, first Grand Chief Engineer of the BLE. He is often referred to as the "Father of the Brotherhood."


Among the delegates to this Baltimore meeting was a man who we shall find to have been the founder of the Brotherhood of the Footboard, eight years later. That man was William D. Robinson. Officers elected were: Benjamin Hoxie, President; J.R. Smith, Vice-President; William D. Robinson, Secretary; Christian Smith, Corresponding Secretary; and Henry Brown, Treasurer. Then the convention adjourned to meet in Columbus, Ohio, on the first Tuesday in October, 1856.

This gathering in Baltimore was composed of locomotive engineers and other railroad workers. In the early issues of the Journal there are a number of references to this National Protective Association, which was dominated by locomotive engineers. In an address made in Dayton, Ohio, in June, 1868, Engineer James C. White pointed out the fact of its existence. A statement about its transactions was rendered by the Corresponding Secretary of the Convention, but it has been lost.

Delegates indeed met in Columbus on the date appointed. There were 30 in attendance and the session lasted three days. Defects in the by-laws were amended and the whole program of the organization was discussed at great length; then the convention proceeded to elect officers for the following year. They were President, T.B. Askew; Vice-President, I.S. Wadleigh; Secretary, J.W. Clark; Corresponding Secretary, Moses Doty; Treasurer, Henry Brown.

A meeting of the National Protective Association was held in New York the following year; the organization continued intact until the outbreak of the Civil War. We are indebted to Christian Smith for this detail of the story. It will be recalled that he had been elected Corresponding Secretary at the meeting in Baltimore. He had obviously been energetic in the performance of his duties.

It is easy to understand why the National Protective Association of Locomotive Engineers of America made no further progress. Railroad management fell upon it hammer and tongs - and the difficult time that followed up to the civil War put a damper on all thought or organization.

Nevertheless, news of the Association of Locomotive Engineers gradually spread over the roads, particularly among the engineers; it became more and more certain that something definite would come out of the movement.

It will be recalled that W.D. Robinson had acted as secretary of the Baltimore convention; and indeed he continued as secretary through the Columbus Convention of 1856. Thus he had in his possession the minutes dealing with the deliberations of the delegates; and he never ceased to talk about the necessity for organization. Robinson at this time was employed on the New Albany & Salem Railroad, where the condition s became so bad the workers' pay fell in arrears for six months. Finally, in the fall of 1862, through a friend, J.C. Thompson, Robinson secured a position with the Michigan Central Railroad whereupon, he moved to Detroit.

Locomotive engineers were then being paid at the rate of but $460 per month, conditioned on their running a minimum of 2,500 miles without regard to the number of hours consumed. Machinists were paid 90 cents a day; and in this connection it must be remembered that the purchasing power of the dollar - due to the Civil War - represented only about 60 per cent of its face value.

Alfred "Sam" Keith, a member of the original committee responsible for calling the meeting in Detroit, May 5, 1863, which resulted in the formation of the Brotherhood of the Footboard, which later became the BLET.

(To be continued...)




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