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Railroads: Sources for Historical Research

Railroads have played an important role in both the geographic and economic development of America. This guide provides selected print and electronic resources for those doing historical research on the railroad industry.


Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Steam engine of the Grand Canyon Railroad. Between 1980 and 2006. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Railroads have been an important component of the American economy since they started rolling across the landscape. In the 19th century a large part of the growth and movement westward was due to railroad land grants and the 1875 General Railroad Right of Way Act (18 Stat. 482). Because of that, and because they are heavily regulated and many people are interested in the industry, there has been significant publishing on this topic. The Library of Congress' collections reflect the depth and breadth of this publishing and interest.

This guide is intended as an entry point for doing historical research and specifically looks at the resources of the Library of Congress; however, many of the sources that have been included may be available elsewhere—in other library collections or more generally on the Internet. Many of the sources here are print based, but we have included digital collections and subscription databases that might also prove helpful. In addition, we have also included links to United States government sites and large research collections as additional sources for locating resources useful for research on this topic.

Also, while some of the sources have an international perspective, this guide is focused on railroads in the United States. And lastly, due to the sheer number of individual companies and rail lines, this guide is not intended to provide detailed information on every railroad company—though many of the sources do cover information on individual companies. However, we have included a bit of information on the larger and/or still extant lines, and there is much information on individual lines/companies within the the Library's collections.

For further assistance, the librarians in Business Reference Services can help with resources described in this guide.

About the Business Section

Part of the Science & Business Reading Room at the Library of Congress, the Business Section is the starting point for conducting research at the Library of Congress in the subject areas of business and economics. Here, reference specialists in specific subject areas of business assist patrons in formulating search strategies and gaining access to the information and materials contained in the Library's rich collections of business and economics materials.