M. M. O’Rourke, leverman.

Michael Matthew O'Rourke, with my mother. 1954.
Michael Matthew O’Rourke, with his granddaughter, my mother. 1954.

My great-grandfather, Michael Matthew O’Rourke, was a railroad man.  Family lore always indicated that he worked for the Erie Lackawanna Railroad – commuting from his home in Paterson, New Jersey to Jersey City and other points along the way, but by the time I got around to asking my relatives for more details, not much was known or remembered about the actual specifics.

Over the years, I had frequently read articles in genealogical magazines about the Railroad Retirement Board, and how its records were a valuable resource for those looking to find out more about their railroad employee ancestors – but my search was always halted as my great-grandfather does not appear in the Social Security Death Index (railroad workers were issued SSNs starting with 700-728 and, to my knowledge, their information generally does not appear in the SSDI) and in order to obtain records from the RRB, one must have the deceased’s SSN.

Michael O'Rourke - 1As luck would have it, during Christmas, 2012, I was home in Cleveland and discovered a loose sheet of paper among some family photos.  I’m still not positive as to what it may have been – maybe some kind of pay-stub (perhaps one of you in the blogosphere will have a better idea) but staring right at me was my great-grandfather’s Social Security Number.

When I arrived back in New York, armed with this new information, I visited the Railroad Retirement Board’s website and immediately wrote them a letter.  Within only a few days I received a letter back, indicating that records do exist – but they’ve been transferred to the southern region of the National Archives, and that I should contact them for further information.  The process was quite simple and efficient – I sent them an e-mail with the specific details, and they located the file (presumably on microfilm) and told me that there was 81 pages – and the charge for copies would be $64.80.  I opted to pay over the phone with a credit card, and within a week a large package arrived containing just about everything in existence about Michael O’Rourke’s railroad career. I’ve spent some time reviewing the file now and it contained some interesting, though not (yet) revelatory, details.  I learned that great-grandpa was a leverman – and a quick google search reveals this about that position:

Employees who operated an interlocking machine were designated as leverman. These employees were also subject to theBook of Rules and the hours of service law. At busy interlockings (such as at urban terminals), occasionally an additional leverman helper position would be created during busy periods.

Some other interesting tidbits popped up.  For instance, my great-grandmother filled out a great deal of paperwork as the wife of a railroad employee, in order to receive her annuity, in addition to his.  In her application, I found that she lists her father’s name as William Joseph Hancock.  I had never seen the Joseph on previous documents.  Maybe it’ll come in handy, some day – you never know! Hancock, William Joseph   Additionally, it seems the Railroad Board required official vital record documents to prove age, marriage length, etc. – so the documents that were sent to me include copies of death certificates for both my great-grandmother and my great-grandfather, and also their marriage certificate and extracts from church-issued baptismal certificates (used to prove age, I would imagine.)

Michael O'Rourke with railroad men
My great-grandfather, standing on the right, working on the railroad.

While this particular file doesn’t seem to have introduced much new information into my research, I’m grateful to have it.  And – as all branches of my family are (comparatively) recent immigrants to the United States (the earliest any of my ancestors came here was 1854 – after that, it wouldn’t be until 1882, then 1907, with the most recent immigration occurring in 1950) it gives me a particular pride to know that records on my relatives are being stored in the National Archives. If a railroad employee exists in your lineage, I encourage you to see what might be out there – who knows what you may find!

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