Sunday, June 20, 2021

Office forces

 Regular readers of this blog will remember that I have often alluded to the virtual armies of clerks once employed by railroads to do paperwork (as did many other industries). Of course the great majority of railroad paperwork had basically nothing to do with what we model, and so can merely be recognized from afar. But that is less so for paperwork relating to freight traffic.

One of the paperwork-related manpower categories (and yes, the majority of them were men, as late as the transition era), was yard clerks and station clerks. We often imagine the station agent handling the entire business of his station himself, from passenger tickets and baggage, to LCL and express matters, and all the waybilling and freight billing from his local freight shippers and consignees. In sufficiently small agencies, this would be correct. But with size came considerable division of labor.

An interesting example of a modest-size station, Martinez, California on the SP, was used for a cover story in the SP employee magazine, Southern Pacific Bulletin, in the issue for February 1951. The agent was Ed Bryan. In the photo below, he is shown in front of the counter at far right. Behind the counter, in the front row, from left, were J.P. Fernandez, telegrapher-clerk; Minnie Mathias, janitorial; Mildred E. Bergquist, freight clerk; B.K. Harris, rate clerk; and E.A. Felton, chief clerk. In the back row, from left, were H. Gustafson, ticket clerk; L. Ficklin, baggageman; W. McGarvey, demurrage clerk; and A. Garrett, warehouseman. This was described as most of the staff.

For a more general illustration, I want to show a chart from the valuable resource, The Station Agent’s Blue Book, by G.B. Kirkpatrick (Kirkpatrick Publishing Co., Chicago, 1928). This chart is from the book’s page 6, and shows the division of responsibilities of clerking work. I know the lettering is small, so you can click on the image to enlarge it.

Note here that the agency is large enough to have an Assistant Agent, under whom are a Chief Clerk and a General Foreman (for the freight warehouse(s) and team track work). There are seven departments under the Chief Clerk: a cashier, a station accountant, an inbound freight department, asn outbound freight department, a car record accountant (demurrage and per diem clerks), a claims department, and miscellaneous.

 I have alluded to many of these jobs before. For example, in one post I showed photos of the personnel in the Los Angeles yard office of the SP, and identified the clerks by job titles (many corresponding to the chart above). That post can be found here: . In another post, on the topic of Car Distributors, I again went into the varieties of clerk responsibilities involved in the supplying the cars for freight service (you can read that post at this link: ). 

What can we do with kind of detailed information? Few if any of us would want to try and model the paperwork (and the operating jobs) represented in the chart I showed above.  But it is nevertheless important, I think, for us to realize all the things that had to be done when railroads handled freight, before the advent of computer technologies which tremendously reduced the numbers of these employees. On our layouts, of course, we don't bill for freight charges or demurrage, don’t have to check tariff rates or respond to damage claims, or manage paperwork in a freight house. 

Even fewer of us have been concerned with all the complexities of passenger service, compared to freight, but on the same page of The Station Agent’s Blue Book mentioned above, is a corresponding chart for passenger operations. It is necessarily a smaller chart, but even here, it indicates the scale on which prototype clerking operations could take place. Of course, the Agent might be same person as on the freight side, but the Chief Clerk here would likely be a separate person for passenger duties.

My only point in showing all these prototype complexities is to remind us of what we are actually modeling. A real railroad managed an immense range of duties and an overwhelming amount of record keeping. What we can do in our model operations can only be a fraction of that reality, but I think it’s still useful to be aware of the reality.

Tony Thompson


  1. Very interesting-armies of clerks, rivers of paper. We don’t think about this much. Everything today seems to happen by magic.
    -Jay Styron

  2. The job of Minnie Mathias is one that is required for my layout.