Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Railroad Man

Johnson City Tennessee Smoky Mountains railroad history
It said, quite plainly on my aunt’s birth certificate: her father was a “Railroad Man.”

Exactly like that.

Trying to trace the man’s occupational history—after all, we are now gifted with the resources through not only census records, but a multitude of other online documents—has been quite the challenge.

Admittedly, it would be much easier to follow Jack R. Davis—or Roby Jake Davis, or whichever other alias he might have employed over the years—if I could just locate him in the 1920 census. That, unfortunately, has been an impossible task up to this point.

I was gifted with one helpful find, though: a copy of the Iowa State Census for 1925—which was taken several months before my mother was born there in Fayette County. Though the form didn’t specifically include a spot where specific occupations could be entered, there was a box to check for groupings of work classifications. For the entry labeled, “Are you engaged in manufacturing and mechanical work?” for the line alongside Jack Davis’ entry, the answer penciled in was, “Yes.”

The subsequent 1925 birth certificate for my mother confirmed: her father’s occupation was machinist.

By the time of my aunt’s arrival—far from that northern town so foreign to Jack Davis’ Southern sensibilities—her Florida birth certificate made that notation, “Railroad man.”

Railroad Man: the designation made it sound all so grand, like perhaps one of those big, important investors, the ones who started it all with the wheeling and dealing that birthed entire economies.

Taking a look at Jack Davis’ roots, however, would help bring those lofty expectations back to the solid ground of more humble beginnings. In those Tennessee origins, he really was Jake, raised in the hill country outside Johnson City in a small place called Erwin.

Erwin wasn’t a particularly important spot, as towns go. It wasn’t known for much—well, not much other than the hanging of an elephant, but that happened long after this Davis boy’s childhood.

One thing Erwin did have over Johnson City, though, was that it wrested the headquarters for the Carolina, Clinchfield, and Ohio Railway—later shortened to, simply, Clinchfield Railroad—away from the larger town. Erwin, being the “repair shop” for the Clinchfield, saw its fortunes rise with the railroad’s success, growing from a small mountain enclave of about five hundred people to one exceeding two thousand in population—with the railroad being the town’s major employer.

Perhaps the tandem growth of the railroad and the town became the impetus for my grandfather to get into the railroad business. After all, he did have family—an older sister’s husband—in that line of work. Later on, after leaving Erwin, when times got tough, that railroad work—whatever it was that Jack Davis did—would again come in handy.

Part of the reason I’ve not been able to find Jack listed in the 1920 census—even under the name Jake, or his first name, Roby—may have been owing to that very occupation. I have yet to find enough documentation to set up a credible timeline, but I have traces of information leading me to conclude that Jack Davis, as a railroad employee, was actually working outside the country around that time. Another of his sisters, working as a teacher, had traveled to Honduras, "Canal Zone," and Salvador for “study” and eventually married a man who was a railroad executive in Honduras. Thanks to, I’ve been able to track her passport application and the family's entries on various passenger lists from ports in Honduras to New Orleans and New York City. In addition to that, beautiful handcrafted items of clothing became a telltale part of our family’s heritage from those mysterious years spent in Central America—along with an oral tradition telling of railroad work in that part of the world.

With a work history like that, as exotic as it may have seemed, perhaps landing a job in Iowa in hard times—the state census did, incidentally, include an entry revealing the amount of time spent unemployed (six weeks in Jack’s case)—doesn’t seem so strange, after all. It was a job. It was a fall-back plan.

But it wasn’t the love of his life.

That, incidentally, was an opportunity that hadn’t yet fully come of age. But it would, soon. And when it did, it would be big. Boomtown big in Erwin would be nothing, compared to this career.

Jake and Rubie—er, Jack and Ruth—were headed to Detroit to hit it big in the automobile industry.

Photograph, above left: Eastern Tennessee & Western North Carolina , the narrow gauge rival to the Clinchfield; photo by Cy Crumley; courtesy Kenneth Riddle of Johnson City, Tennessee, the Cy Crumley Scrapbook ET&WNC Railroad Historical Photo Collection and the website, Johnson's Depot; photo used by permission.


  1. Intriguing he might have been in the "canal zone". The canal was built 1904-1914 and had a huge demand for railroaders and mechanics. 1920? I would think it was done by then though.. Guess the name of the lead engineer?

    1. Interesting turn to that name, Iggy! Of course, no relation...

      I'm not sure Jack headed to the Canal Zone, himself--it was his older sister's passport that indicated that--but I do know he was working in Honduras. I wish there was a way to find out what railroad company it was. And I don't even know the specific dates, though the circumstances of not locating him for the 1920 census seems to be an indication that he might have been out of the country.

      Of course, there is always the possibility of searching through passport records, if only the man hadn't gone by so many variations of his name. I may still try my hand at that paper chase, next time I have a dull moment ;)

    2. Also of possible interest is the banana companies (like Dole) had railroads in Honduras (which they took over in the late 1910s due to civil war/strife. has an overview of the banana republic.

    3. That link brings up a good point--and specifics on cities in Honduras. Interestingly, two of the cities mentioned were ports my family departed from on various trips back to the States: Puerto Cortés and Tela. So, perhaps a likely target for further research would be the Tela Railroad Company???

      Whatever it turns out to be, one thing I know for sure: Jack was out of there by 1924 at the latest, and he never returned. That, however, is another story.

  2. Sck poor Mary..2,500 people showed up..what a circus that must have been:(

    1. You're right, Far Side. That always seemed like a senseless, gruesome story to me--until I read the longer version of the account (which you can reach through the Erwin hyperlink). Apparently, someone had already attempted putting the elephant down by shooting. Yes, a circus, indeed: that crowd was likely half the size of the entire town at that time.


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