The National Archives’ Cartographic Branch contains more than 69 record groups and 215 series that include maps, architectural and engineering drawings, and aerial photographs that all relate to railroads in the United States, with widespread coverage of regions all over the world. The dates of these records range from 1828 to 2009, with the bulk of records covering other countries and regions from the early to mid 20th century.
The United States Federal Government has always had an interest in railroads since the first charters were awarded and the importance of railroads to the federal government is evident in the National Archives collections. For example, the Corps of Engineers created survey maps for internal improvements across the country, including the Washington and Alexandria Railroad and its connections with Baltimore and Ohio. These records can be found in Record Group 77: Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers 1789-1900.
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, which set up for the transcontinental railroad to be built as it provided funding and the legal groundwork for the massive undertaking of connecting the east and west coasts of the continental United States. You can learn more about the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad from the blog post, “Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad,” by Brandi Oswald, Cartographic Branch Supervisory Archivist.
While support was strong for railroads for many years, public interest waned as corporate greed increased and regulations were non-existent. The Federal Government passed the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in 1887, but it did not have the authority to regulate railroads until congress passed the Elks Act of 1903, the Hepburn Act of 1906, the Mann-Elkins Act of 1910, the Valuation Act of 1913, and the Transportation Act of 1920.
These acts gave the ICC the authority to improve regulations and through the Valuation Act of 1913, create the most complete set of maps for railways across the country. These maps, created before the National Archives existed, are now part of Railroad Valuation Maps, ca. 1915–ca. 1920, Record Group 134 Records of the Interstate Commerce Commission 1887 – 1995.
This series contains 125,000 right of way and tract maps, station maps, and indexes. These blueprint maps cover the continental United States and were created by the ICC to contain land acquisition information, layouts of tracks, roads, buildings, and bridges along the line, and these maps were used to evaluate railroad property.
Interurban and narrow-gauge railroads were not included in the survey, though the total main line trackage reached about 254,000 miles. These maps were compiled circa 1915-1920. The ICC also revised some of the valuation maps between 1920 and 1960.
The National Archives is working to digitize existing collections to help preserve, protect, and increase access to its records. While this project is on-going, maps are still available to be requested in the Cartographic research room in College Park, MD.
If you would like to learn more about Record Group 134, and the valuation maps, check out the blog post “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad, and You Can, Too!” by Amy Edwards, Archivist, Cartographic Branch, and the railroad records research guide to see how you can do research yourself.
But that’s not the end of the line. There are many record groups that contain items relating to railroads. Cartographic holds patents, including those for trains and steam engines, braking systems, and box car designs and aerial photography that shows train lines important to keeping troops supplied during World War II.
If you are interested in learning even more about Cartographic’s railroad records, check out Reference Information Paper 116, Records Relating to Railroads in the Cartographic Section of the National Archives. It provides overviews and information for every record group and series.
Illustrations, from above, from the National Archives: At a loading platform at Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri, an old engine pulls a train from New York which will connect with the Southwest Limited which runs between Chicago and Los Angeles, June 1974; ICC Valuation map of Genesee Falls Branch of the New York Central Railroad ca 1915 – ca 1920; and R.T. King & L.L. Nunn Railroad-Crossing Signal, June 1, 1875.