Danger: Labor Ahead

There are some that say history is written by the victors and largely ignores the common person; while this is certainly true in some kinds of historical documents, the common person may be found in the historical record through other means.  One example is late 19th and early 20th century newspapers.  Through reading newspaper articles, it is possible to get a sense of how everyday people–such as Italian immigrants in Alexandria, Virginia–lived, what types of experiences they may have encountered, and how those in control of the press viewed them.  Unsurprisingly, many of the articles on Italian immigrants refer to those men who worked on railroads and the dangers that they faced.  Many workers, based on local newspaper coverage, were severely injured or killed on the job.

At the start of the 20th century, many Italian immigrants were employed on the railroads in northern Virginia, working primarily on the expansion of various rail lines or the creation of new ones.  Out of a small sampling of newspaper articles from 1903-1905, nine stories reported accidents involving Italian laborers working on the railroads.  Of those nine, five of the accidents were fatal.  One Washington Post article published on August 8, 1905 involved five laborers who were shoveling dirt from a flat car.  Upon hearing an oncoming train, they attempted to jump, fearing that they were about to be struck, but ended up jumping in front of the train.  Four workers were killed and one hospitalized with a broken leg.  Another article published in the March 23, 1905 edition of the Alexandria Gazette described an accident in which Antonio Taroborrelli, another railroad worker, was struck by an earth hauling car and was killed after his neck was broken and head crushed.  What is also shocking about this article is that it mentions that this accident was the second one in just one week.  These are just a couple examples of the dangerous situations that railroad workers faced.

Despite being a relatively small sample size, these articles reflect a history that is often ignored.  The jobs these immigrants were working were very dangerous, and yet they built the railroads that were so heavily relied on in the 20th century.  Many of these accidents were far from uncommon in railroad jobs across the country, but the fact that they happened so frequently in a town as small as Alexandria shows just how dangerous these jobs really were.

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