Labor Images From World War II Alive In Railroaders


Railroaders: Jack Delano’s Homefront Photography, edited by John Gruber
Center for Railroad Art & Photography
Railroaders exhibit, Chicago History Museum, through August 2015

By Mike Matejka, Grand Prairie Union News

High quality art and photography books abound – but when was the last time you saw one featuring workers?

World War II railroad workers are the focus in Railroaders, produced by the Center for Railroad Photography & Art.  An accompanying exhibit is on display at the Chicago History Museum through August 2015.  More exhibit details are at

During the grim, early days of World War II, photographers were sent out to portray a determined nation, supporting its soldiers overseas.  Incredibly vital were the nation’s railroads – before Interstate highways and with gas and rubber rationing, almost everything and everyone moved on steel rails.   The railroads were in constant motion and facilities, workers and equipment strained for the war effort.

The Office of War Information dispatched photographer Jack Delano, who previously had photographed migrant farm workers in North Carolina, to portray the railroads.  In 1942-43, Delano shot over 2,500 black and white negatives and 250 color transparencies.  There were some pictures of locomotives and stations, but most featured every day workers.

The photographic portraits here are an incredible testament to hard work.  In switch yards, locomotive cabs, roundhouses and cabooses, Delano found his workers, covered in soot and grime, their faces lined from years of outdoor labor.   There is dignity in every photograph and together these images are an American patchwork quilt – immigrants and native born, male and female, multi-racial.

For five years the Center searched for descendants of the photographed workers.  Through families, this book has recreated a life story: where these workers were born, what railroad they worked for, their union affiliation, their children and their homes.   Many 1940s photographs are matched with a contemporary family photo by Delano’s son Pablo.

The exhibit is worth a trip to the Chicago History Museum.  The book, with its stunning photographs and worker stories, can be read and re-read again.  The book is beautifully crafted and extremely high quality.  Most rare in this day and age, the book is printed in the U.S.A. in a union shop.

railroad worker

Average working people go to work daily and their labor creates and sustains our world.  One’s job is not one’s life, but work helps define us.   This book beautifully captures hard-working 1940s Americans and then constructs their story.   Working people reading this will find themselves and their families, no matter their trade or occupation, reflected in this outstanding photographic voyage.

The photos in the book are public domain, having been taken under US Government auspices during World War II.  To find a photo from this series, go to the Library of Congress website under Jack Delano and you’ll find many at


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1 Response to Labor Images From World War II Alive In Railroaders

  1. Glen Krajca-Radcliffe says:

    A very fitting tribute to a great generation,a great group of workers, and a great photographer.

    I am railroad fan particularly of the period of 1930-1970. Delano’s photos hold a special meaning for me as my grandfather was a dispatcher for the C&NW first in Marshalltown but mostly in Boone. Both my father and uncle worked as telegraphers during high school and while Iowa State just before the war.

    As a feminist (hence my legal use of a hyphenated name) the photos of the women in the Clinton shops is finally gaining wider knowledge. No less important than the famous “Rosie the Riveter” these women did their jobs and then were patted on the head and told to go back to the kitchen upon the war’ end.


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