Monday, January 30, 2023

I've Been Working on a Section Crew by Zina Abbott


A section crew, which usually is led by a foreman, is a group of five or more men responsible for the building and maintenance of railroad track.

Although probably the case with many, if not most railroads, when the Union Pacific Railroad began laying track across the nation, their focus was on speed and covering as many miles as quickly as they could. They were racing against the Central Pacific Railroad. With no meeting point decided ahead of time—merely someplace in Utah north of the Great Salt Lake—the more miles they covered, the more money they made off of their government contract.

Wood used for ties was green-cut, not seasoned, nor always of the best quality. For the Union Pacific Railroad, much of the track was laid across barren, treeless ground. To find wdod for ties, men were required to either freight in wood cut from farther east—which became cost-prohibitive—or cut trees in mountain ranges miles away and floating the wood down rivers. Rails, spikes, fishplates, bolts were of iron—not as sturdy as steel, which did not become available until later. Even with iron, there were different grades. Not always the highest quality grade of iron that could hold up to multiple crossings by the heavy locomotives and the cars they pulled was used. As soon as the road bed was graded and tracks installed, maintenance began. This was done by section crews.

Even when higher grade materials were used, the weight of the heavy locomotives rounding the curves on a track created a centrifugal force which loosened the spikes holding the rails onto the ties and pushing the rails apart. Ties often were pushed down into the rock used to support them. Over time, the rails get pushed out of position to the point that, if not corrected, could result in a train jumping the tracks and derailing.

The men who continuously worked on the rail beds to keep them in good order were technically called a section crew. In addition to keeping track aligned and ties level to they supported the rails properly, they often had replace degraded rails and ties, redrive loosened spikes, and clear undergrowth that might interfere with the integrity of both the tracks and the equipment.

 Many people know them by their nickname: Gandy Dancers.

Gandy Dancers received this nickname due to two factors.

First was due to the indispensable lining bar which was used to realign the rails. Because the early lining bars were made by the Gandy Shovel Company, that is the name that stuck. The iron pole, five feet in length, weighed thirty-five pounds. The crewmen lined up and each placed their lining pole where the railroad ties and track met. Then, working in a synchronized manner they coaxed them back into their best alignment.

While using the lining bars, the crew used “dancing” movement to stay synchronized. With the crew foreman starting them off with a few taps of his hammer, they used a cadence-style song or chant. Most were in the call-and-response style found in churches, blues music, and, eventually, adopted by the United States military. The leader sang or chanted the first part; the crew responded with the second part. It kept everyone coordinated as they worked, and the witty lyrics helped to keep spirits high in spite of the physical demands of the job.  

Gandy Dancers, or section crewmen (and, during World War II, crewwomen) came from all backgrounds. Railroads in the East and Midwest often pulled section crews from minorities and recently-arrived immigrants. Many in the South were blacks, such as those commemorated in the photograph, above, by these Gandy Dancers at the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs.


In my most recent book, Lauren, Rescue Me (Mail-order Brides) Book 2, I have one scene where, instead of the point-of-view being that of either the hero or heroine, it is told from the perspective of Eric Brown, a section crew foreman. With a minimal of literary license, I wrote this chapter based on an incident that actually happened in August of 1878. It involved the rails he and his crew were to work on—not during the day the chapter takes place, but the following day—and what he noticed about the fishplates. It was a sight he never wished to see. In the color picture of the Gandy Dancers at the Florida Folk Festival, see if you can tell where the fishplates are on the tracks.

Lauren is now available as an ebook, both for purchase and at no additional cost with a Kindle Unlimited subscription. For the book description and link, please CLICK HERE





Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Enamelware of the 1800s by Bea Tifton

Enamelware was a popular cookware in the 1800s because it was light, more durable than porcelain, and easy to clean.
Enamelware began to appear in the 1760s in Germany. It was conventional cookware lined with enamel and touted to be safer for cooking, as it supposedly prevented arsenic and lead from leaking into cooking.  Some critics still complained of enamelware leaching tastes or elements into the food. In 1850 enamelware came to America via the Stuart and Peterson foundry in Philadelphia. This cookware was very basic as opposed to the many patterns and colors that would later be introduced into the United States.

This new enamelware was soon met with enthusiasm, but this soon waned.

Ten years ago the porcelain-lined kettles were considered a great invention for boiling substances that required particular care, and many a thrifty housekeeper has congratulated herself on the possession of one, and then grieved herself sick almost to find it burned black in a few days, through the carelessness of servants, and just as liable to spoil her delicacies as an ordinary tin saucepan.
Lady's Home Magazine, Philadelphia, 1857

Two companies founded by immigrants brought more enamelware to the United States in the 1860s with some improvements. The first one was Lalance and Grojsean, an importer of sheet metal and metal home goods. They set up a manufacturing company in New York and produced agateware, usually blue in color.
Frederick and William Niedringhaus started their company in Missouri, then moved to Granite City, Illinois. The company later became Nesco.
The best-known brands, especially the granite and agate ware names, held onto a strong position into the 20th century. They sold for higher prices. In 1899 Lalance and  Grosjean’s “Agate nickel-steel ware” was much more expensive than Haberman’s “grey mottled enameled ware” L&G's 2 quart lipped saucepan cost 18¢ ; Haberman's was 7¢. Meanwhile, Sears had a set of 17 pieces of "Peerless gray enamel ware" selling for about  $2.70. (

Each item included a certificate assuring the buyer that it was arsenic and lead free.  
The early enamelware was white. Most enamelware has a white lining even if the outerware has another color of pattern. Then white enamelware items acquired a blue or red rim.  In the 1860s,

the Niedringhaus brothers took the science of enameling a step further and developed  what became known as graniteware. While the enamel was still wet, they applied a thin  piece of paper with an oxidized pattern on it. Once the piece dried, the paper fell away,  leaving a design with the appearance of granite — hence, graniteware. (

 Image result for vintage graniteware

The term later became used to mean any speckled white and gray enamelware.

Speckled, swirled, mottled and solid, graniteware came in a variety of colors: red, blue, purple, brown, green, pink, gray and white. As the years passed, each period  had its own style and color. One of the most popular patterns, even with today’s collectors, was called “end of the day.” Whatever colors were left over at the end of the day were mixed together to make a very unusual and unique color.

In the 1930s new materials, such as Pyrex, aluminum, and plastic rendered the enamelware less popular. The metal drives of World War II saw many of the surviving pieces melted down and donated to the cause. Today enamelware is popular among collectors and ranges from quite reasonably priced to very expensive, depending on the type of cookware item.  

Do you have any enamelware in your kitchen?