Unlike the case with railroad leaders, there are no monuments to railroad workers in Georgia -- at least, none made of bronze and marble. There are, however, tracks, bridges, cuts, fills, yards, coaling towers, depots, office buildings, maintenance shops, signals, locomotives, and rolling stock that provide reminders of the state's railroad workers. There are also many cities and towns, including Georgia's largest, that would not exist today if the railroad workers had not done their jobs. As was said about Sir Christopher Wren: 'If you would see his monument ... look around you.'
Many of the first railroads in Georgia were constructed by those least likely to be memorialized in their times -- slaves. Trains of the Atlantic & Gulf, Georgia Railroad, and Southwestern Railroad, among others, sped over lines built by the hands of people who were considered to be property -- owned by plantation men who leased them out, or by the railroad companies themselves. These bondservants (including women) used picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows to cut through the hills and grade the corridors. Supervision usually involved the use of a whip. It was this forced labor that allowed Southern railroads to be built at half the cost of those in the North.
As a result of the Civil War, American slavery was officially abolished, but some railroad owners found another way to use forced labor. Three years after the conflict, one hundred African American men from the state penitentiary were "leased" to businessman William A. Fort and compelled to work on the Selma, Rome & Dalton Railroad near the Georgia/Alabama border. The following year, nearly four hundred state prisoners were leased for work on the Macon & Brunswick Railroad. Forced labor was used at the Walker County mines of the Durham Coal and Coke Company, owned by former Atlanta mayor James W. English, and associated with the Chattanooga & Durham Railroad. Bartow County mines owned by Atlanta entrepreneur Joel Hurt and serviced by the Iron Belt Railroad used convict labor. So did the Dade County mines and Nickajack Railroad owned by former governor Joseph E. Brown, whose statue stands on the lawn of the state capitol.
In a letter to Railway World in 1889, J.C. Anderson, president of the Empire Lumber Company and co-owner of the Empire & Dublin Railroad in middle Georgia, noted: "We own 150 of Georgia's convicts and work about 250 free laborers, and will build the road with our own force." His use of the words "own" and "force" is telling.
Like the convicts, free men were expected to work from sunrise to sunset, at wages barely supporting their families. Listed below are the daily wage rates paid to trackmen by nine southern railroads in the early 1890s.
In 1887, seeing the need to improve pay and working conditions, John T. Wilson, a section foreman on the ETV&G in Alabama, began an organization that would evolve into the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes. The same year, in a locomotive repair pit at the ETV&G shops in Atlanta, the International Association of Machinists was founded. Along with other railroad unions formed at various times and places in the late nineteenth century, these organizations gradually improved the lot of railroad workers.