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Transportation and railroad department records

Identifier: Y.USA.32


SCOPE AND CONTENTS OF THE COLLECTION Materials in this collection span the life of the YMCA's railroad and transportation departments, from before its official start in 1877 to its end in 1989. The bulk of the records come from the Railroad Department, during the time when railroads were the primary mode of transportation for both people and goods. The material is organized in three sections: administrative materials, convention and conference reports, and railroad department branch records.

The administrative materials give a general outline of the functions of the Railroad/Transportation department, as well as information about programming at branches. Included are minutes and reports from the transportation committee, and also from secretaries. A significant sub-sections of the records, primarily correspondence and reports, consists of materials on the Continental Membership campaign, which was used to increase membership numbers. Another sub-section describes the work done with the American Merchant Marine. Other material of particular interest deals with expanding railroad work into Russia; these materials include correspondence between the secretary assigned to work with the Russian court and the YMCA in the United States, notes, and reports.

The convention and conference reports section contain reports from national and international conventions and conferences spanning the history of the department. Though names of gatherings changed frequently, they are arranged in chronological order.

Railroad department branch records contain information about some of the independent branches under the auspices of the Railroad Department. Branches are listed alphabetically by state and then city. There are also some materials from "city YMCAs," which were not affiliated with the Railroad YMCAs. Materials include publications from the branches, information about the buildings, committee minutes and records of activities held at the branch. Larger branches, such as ones in Chicago, New York City and Saint Louis, have multiple folders.


  • 1858-1989
  • Majority of material found within ( 1900-1960).


Language of Materials


Use of Materials:

This collection is protected by the Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). It is the user's responsibility to verify copyright, ownership, and to obtain all the necessary permissions prior to the reproduction, publication, or other use of any portion of these materials.


HISTORY OF TRANSPORTATION DEPARTMENT As settlers spread across the Great Plains, missionaries of every denomination followed them, often directing their first efforts to the laborers who built the railways. YMCA staff soon realized that this mode of transportation provided an opportunity for them to travel to unsettled territories to establish more associations, and also to provide services to working men who were away from their familiar homes, families, and churches. The first traces of YMCA work on the railroad can be traced back to 1868, when 8 members of the Omaha, Nebraska association "prospected" the Union Pacific line as far as it was completed at the time, holding revival services at Laramie and Cheyenne, Wyoming, as well as further west on the line for construction workers.

The first organized effort which later lead to a program specifically for railroad employees can be traced to an idea of Henry W. Stager, a train dispatcher of the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway. He was shocked by the callous attitude of a crowd viewing the body of a worker killed in an accident in the old Union Station in Cleveland, which disparaged the victim as "only a railroad man." The Cleveland YMCA was expanding its outreach at that time and had already been conducting Sunday services for railroad men and their families. A meeting of interested persons was called and the first Railroad YMCA was organized on April 14, 1872. George Cobb became the secretary and a reading room was dedicated at the Union Depot on June 1, 1872.

Richard Morse, who was the general secretary of the Executive Committee, later that year devoted a layover in Cleveland to an inspection of the reading room. Enthused by what he saw, he later asked Cornelius Vanderbilt to devote a room in the recently completed Grand Central Station in New York City to YMCA work. Enthusiasm gained momentum at the International Conference the following year, when George Cobb was granted five minutes to talk about railroad work, which he utilized fully by starting to talk on his way to the platform and finishing upon arrival back at his seat.

Over the next few years railroad associations were organized in Chicago, Erie, Baltimore, Boston and Detroit, as well as others organized by traveling secretary Lang Sheaff. Sheaff and other International Committee members prevailed upon Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., who had recently become a director with the New York association, to open a room in Grand Central Station. A room was given, but more importantly came the continued financial support of the Vanderbilts.

In June 1877 the International Committee and delegates at the International Convention decided to begin railroad work on a national basis. With funds from Vanderbilt, Edwin D. Ingersoll was hired as international secretary. The first railroad convention was held in Cleveland in October of the same year. At the second convention held in 1879, the relation of the railroad movement to the YMCA was worked out. The debate was whether the railroad branches should sever connections with the YMCA or stay in the fold: in the end it was decided that the work carried out would be most effective as a department within the YMCA.

After 1889, railroad work expanded with Clarence J. Hicks assuming the position of Railroad Secretary. The railroad department now began to directly approach railroad companies to establish YMCA branches at as many divisional points along a line as feasible. With this new approach, the railroads dealt directly with a representative of the national-level railroad department instead of each railroad association individually. John Moore assumed the secretaryship of the Railroad Department after Hicks' retirement in 1911. By this time local associations numbered 230, which were served by 518 secretaries and a combined budget of over one million dollars, of which nearly forty percent was provided by railroad companies, the rest by members.

At the turn of the century the American model for railroad work was experimented with abroad. The first attempt in Japan between 1891-1893 was unsuccessful, but in 1892 a railroad association was established in Coimbatore, India. On the success of India invitations came from Great Britain and France to advise on American applications. Work was also done in Russia and an association was established in Mexico City in 1902, with an American secretary.

The railroad Ys provided practical things such as clean beds, good meals, and hot showers, but also addressed the educational, spiritual, and recreational needs of the workers with Bible study, instructional courses on a variety of subjects, organized sports, and other activities. The YMCA's effective work with railroad men led it its establishing the Industrial Department in 1903, expanding its reach to miners, lumbermen, and other industrial workers.

In 1920 the name of the Railroad Department changed to the Transportation Department to "make its name conform to the inclusive character of its work." A merchant marine department was set up, with five posts in the U.S. and eight abroad.

Railroad associations were reduced by the depression and the changes in railroading. In the years 1930-1939, the number of association had gone from 196 to 117, members from some 118,000 to 87, 462 and expenditures from $5.6 million to $3.6 million. By 1952 the number of associations was 116 and membership had rebounded to 129,093. Thirty years later the number of associations had shrunk to only 23. In the wake of the organizational changes associated with the move of YMCA headquarters to Chicago in the early 1980s, the Transportation Department was reorganized in 1983 as the separately incorporated Transportation YMCA of the USA. Due to the consolidation of rail lines and the changes in railroad technology, the Transportation Department disbanded in 1989.


Hopkins, C. Howard. History of the YMCA in North America. New York: Association Press, 1951.

"Transportation YMCAs Centennial Dedication," program, 1972.

Winter, Thomas. Making Men, Making Class: The YMCA and Workingmen, 1877-1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.


13.5 Cubic Feet (18 boxes)


Records of the Railroad Department and later Transportation Department. Material includes secretary reports, information on the potential expansion of railroad work into foreign countries, as well as convention and conference reports. Also included is information on selected railroad branches, which ranges from a note card outlining basic information about the building to multiple folders containing minutes, reports and publications.


ORGANIZATION/ARRANGEMENT OF THE RECORDS These documents are organized into the following sections:

  1. Administrative Materials
  2. Convention/Conference Proceedings and Reports
  3. Railroad Department Branch Records

Physical Location

See Detailed Description section for box listing.


A scrapbook from the 12th International Railroad Conference (Detroit, 1905), is separately shelved in the Kautz Family YMCA Archives memorabilia collection.

The following related materials are available at other archival repositories:

New Haven Railroad YMCA collection (1878-1945). New Haven Colony Historical Society, The Whitney Library, New Haven CT

Railroad Young Men's Christian Association (Albany, New York). New York State Library.

Processing Information:

Processed by: Chan Harries, May 2005.

Catalog Record ID number: 4555118

An Inventory of Their Records
Finding aid prepared by Chan Harries.
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Collecting Area Details

Contact The Kautz Family YMCA Archives Collecting Area