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A Little Known Part of History - Gandy Dancer Railroad Workers

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

Most Americans have never heard the term "Gandy Dancer". Two years ago I hadn't either. But back in August of 2022 when I posted some photos of an old railroad track, one of my friends replied to my post and said that "You need a Gandy Dancer, or three or four". Well I had no idea what a Gandy Dancer was, but doing an Internet search, I was able to figure it out.


The 19th Century and the Birth of Gandy Dancers

To see the history of American railroad workers, one should start in the 1800's. America grew and changed tremendously in the mid 1800's. Here I will note just three big changes that led to others.

  1. The Industrial Age bloomed and matured and changed America. As factories became common all those factory made goods became available to the public. Millions of jobs were created outside of farming, mining, and forestry. Those jobs appeared much more in the northern states, especially after so many of the south's factories were destroyed in the Civil War.

  2. Railroads and locomotives covered the nation, making those factory-made goods available all over the country. Made possible by railroads, trade within the nation flourished including not just those factory-made goods, but also the farming, mining, and forestry goods.

  3. The Civil War was fought and millions of slaves were freed. This had a two fold effect. First off, in both the north and south, the war demanded supplies - not just weapons and ammunition, but construction material, uniforms, wagons, boots, tents and lots of other things. That drove the economy. Second off, when the war ended four million former slaves became free men and women. That meant that the labor pool now had millions of unemployed people, mostly in the south, but most of them with little or no education, and with great uncertainty of gainful employment.

All that led to railroads needing workers all over the country. In the west, Chinese, Mexican and Native American laborers filled the need for cheap labor. In the midwest and east it was Irish and new European immigrants taking those low paying jobs. In the southeast former slaves and their descendants filled the low income jobs on railroads.

From the mid 1800's and going into the mid 1900's, railroad companies worked "section crews" to build and maintain railroad tracks. As heavy trains traveled on tracks those tracks would slowly and gradually scoot to one side or the other, especially coming into curves. Section crews of about ten to twenty men were needed to take heavy steel bars and, working together, would put those bars under the track rails and scoot them back in line. This required all the men to pull at the same time and stay in rhythm.

group of African American workers from many years ago
Old photo of a crew of Gandy Dancers

In the Southeast where those crews were mostly African Americans, many of them werre descendants of slaves freed after the Civil War. They developed songs to sing so that they could work in time with the rhythm of the song, almost like a dance. Their heavy steel bars were called "Gandy" bars, perhaps because of the name of the company that made them. One man was the "singer" or the "call man". He would chant a song and the others would work in the rhythm of the song and tap, tap, tap, pull hard, as the song went along, almost like a dance. Thus they became known as Gandy Dancers.


The 20th Century and the Disappearance of Gandy Dancers

In the mid 1900's machines were invented to do most types of railroad maintenance and the Gandy Dancers were replaced by those machines. But those machines did not sing or work in rhythm of any music.

The songs of the Gandy Dancer were special, as heard in this video. The filming was likely from the 1950's:

And this video made from a very old film shows just how the workers could move a track.

How many pictures does it take to equal one song? There is no number for that. No amount of written articles or photographs can equal the songs of the Gandy Dancers. We are blessed in that some astute media people and loving family members saw fit to record some of those old songs, either in audio recordings or like the video linked above. I hope those songs will never be forgotten.

an old rail spike hammer
Spike hammer used frequently by Gandy Dancers


There are more that a couple of videos online that show old films of Gandy Dancers. Some railroad museums still display pictures of Gandy Dancers or their old tools. On August 16, 2023 I visited the Decatur Historic Railroad Depot Museum in Decatur, Alabama and made the pictures included within this blog. Many thanks to Mr. David Breland for his hospitality and sharing a wealth of knowledge of railroad history, north Alabama history, and American history.

So far I have not been able to photograph an old Gandy bar. If I can one day find one that includes the story of when and were it was used, that would be a real treat.

old railroad tools in a rack
(front) A two man rail lifter, a tool often used by Gandy Dancers

Some areas of the northern midwest show an appreciation of Gandy Dancers. A hiker in western Wisconsin can walk the 47 mile long trail called the Gandy Dancer State Trail that follows an old railroad line. In Ann Arbor, Michigan a person can dine in the Gandy Dancer restaurant, an up-scale restaurant made from a renovated old railroad station.

And every August, in the town of Mazomanie, Wisconsin they hold a bluegrass music festival called the Gandy Dancer Bluegrass Festival. Their very good website includes their goals for having the festival. That page shows that the good people there are concerned with preserving American culture and music from the past.

So while most Americans are not familiar with the term Gandy Dancer, some folks do know what it means. As I write there are many people still alive whose fathers or grandfathers were Gandy Dancers. Some of those people have recording of those old songs. I hope they are never lost.

pretty museum building with an American flag
The Decatur Historic Railroad Depot Museum

As Americans, each of us should have an interest in American history and past American culture. We need more that just the names and dates and facts of history. We need to remember the stories and the songs. Those songs, along with other art forms of the past, reflect on the people of that time, which in turn reflects on us today. Every American should want our past culture to be remembered. Every American should know the story of the Gandy Dancers.

Comments about this blog, or your own experiences on the subject are welcomed. There is a box for comments at the bottom of this page. And if you want to be notified of any new blogs, hit that Log In button above and become a site member.

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Aug 24, 2023

Very informative! Thanks for sharing.

Aug 24, 2023
Replying to

Thanks for the kind comment!

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