In each region of the United States, the most economically oppressed people performed track work. Poor White, Black, Navajo and Hispanic workers have always been hired on for track maintenance starting in the early 1900s. The turnover of personnel was a constant factor for railroad companies as certain groups endured the strenuous work better than others. It was hard dangerous work.
By 1907, more than 4,000 railroaders killed and 62,000 injured. President Theodore Roosevelt urged Congress to enact the Federal Employer’s Liability Act, designed to put on the Railroad industry some of the costs of the legs, arms, eyes, and lives which it consumed in its operation.
A new livelihood came to Navajos when they became the replacement labor for the Traqueros after World War II. Gangs of 100 men traveled mostly in the summer months from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean when major maintenance or construction was need. The Old Steel gangs primarily started primarily with ATSF, which later became Santa Fe. By 1950s, specialized all Navajo gangs worked outside in any weather condition without complaint, even if injured. We have some great stories of working in tornados, extreme heat, and hail storms.
Navajo Railroad workers helping to clear train derailment
Old Navajo Steel Gangs
There were so many Navajos working that by 1954, the AT&SF Railway hired a cultural anthropologist named David Brugge to teach “Spoken English” to the Navajo trackmen. The recreational program was intended was break down the reticence of Navajo workers to keep them out of trouble in areas where they were working and decrease turnover of personnel.
David Brugge was well liked and traveled for a year living alongside the men in box cars but didn’t work alongside with them. Interesting to note that Brugge went on to research Indian Slavery in the Southwest.
The first all-Navajo Steel Gang #1 started in 1955 and Steel Gang # 2 started in 1966. The older people had seniority on Steel Gang #1. And the younger ones were on #2. “One started working on one rail, going up ahead, the other gang follows on the other side,” says one railroader about his time on Steel Gang #2. The two gangs worked like that for Santa Fe until it merged and eventually became Burlington Northern Santa Fe. With the new management, the last all-Navajo Steel gang ended in 1999.