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What is a Gandy Dancer?

A Gandy Dancer was a vital part of early railroad history, a manual laborer who toiled to lay and maintain tracks with rhythmic precision. These workers, often unsung heroes, synchronized their efforts to ensure safe and smooth train journeys. Discover how their legacy tracks into modern railroading—what echoes of their chants can we still hear today?
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A gandy dancer is someone who works on the maintenance crew of a railroad. Track crews are critical for a working railroad, as these men and women ensure that the tracks are in good working order, and they address situations on the tracks before they turn into problems. Work in this field can be backbreaking, and the hours are often very long, as people are sometimes required to travel great distances to check on and repair tracks.

The origins of the term “gandy dancer” to refer to a track worker are rather obscure. The term appears to have emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, and it was often used specifically in reference to black track workers. Many track workers in the Eastern part of the United States were of black heritage, while workers in the West tended to be Chinese and later Latin American, after Chinese immigrants were excluded from most work as well as property ownership, marriage, and citizenship. Latin American gandy dancers had their own term for themselves: traqueros.

Gandy dancers ensure railroad tracks are in good working order.
Gandy dancers ensure railroad tracks are in good working order.

There are a variety of theories about why track workers came to be known as gandy dancers. The “dance” part is actually rather easy, as most track crews sang songs while they worked to keep rhythm. Singing also helped to dispel fatigue, and on a well-coordinated crew, the singing and carefully timed movements could be reminiscent of dancing.

As for the “gandy,” things are a bit more complicated. Some people have suggested that it is a reference to special tools known as gandies which were use for lifting the rails while ties were replaced. However, this could easily be a backformation from “gandy dancer.” Others have said that it is a nod to the Gandy Manufacturing Company of Chicago, which made lots of tools for track maintenance. This would be plausible, except that no record of this company's existence can be found.

Every time a train passes, the vibration loosens the fixtures of the track.
Every time a train passes, the vibration loosens the fixtures of the track.

In another theory about the origins of "gandy dancer," people point to the way in which the rails used to lie track were handled. These rails were very heavy, and typically a large crew of men would move the rail together, shuffling carefully in time to the music and supposedly looking like a flock of waddling geese. This apparently led people to call track workers “gander dancers,” which was corrupted into “gandy dancers,” though why ganders specifically instead of geese in general would be singled out is unknown. Perhaps it is a reference to the all-male nature of historic train crews.

A gandy dancer works on the maintenance crew of a railroad.
A gandy dancer works on the maintenance crew of a railroad.

Whatever the origins of the term, gandy dancers routinely ride the rails to inspect them. Every time a train passes, the vibration loosens the fixtures of the track, so it is important to tighten tracks, check for rotting or damaged ties, and clear hazards on the tracks such as downed trees. Gandy dancer crews historically used specially built lightweight track cars, which could be self-powered or powered by a small engine, to travel the sections of the track they maintained. Many modern crews use custom-fitted cars and trucks which are capable of driving on train tracks.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Gandy Dancer?

A Gandy Dancer was a manual laborer responsible for the maintenance and laying of railroad tracks in the United States, particularly during the 19th and early 20th centuries. These workers used coordinated movements and chants to synchronize their efforts, which involved heavy physical tasks such as aligning tracks and hammering spikes. The term is believed to have originated from the Gandy Manufacturing Company, which produced many of the tools used by these laborers.

Why were Gandy Dancers important to railroad history?

Gandy Dancers played a crucial role in the expansion and upkeep of the American railroad network, which was vital for transportation and economic growth. They ensured that tracks were properly laid and maintained, which was essential for the safety and efficiency of train travel. Their labor-intensive work helped to establish the foundation for modern railroading and contributed significantly to the industrialization of the United States.

How did Gandy Dancers perform their work?

Gandy Dancers performed their work through a combination of physical strength and coordinated teamwork. They used specialized tools like lining bars, track jacks, and claw bars to move and secure heavy rails. The work required precise timing and rhythm, often accompanied by singing or chanting, to ensure that all workers exerted force simultaneously. This coordination was necessary to effectively move the massive rail sections into place.

What were the working conditions like for Gandy Dancers?

The working conditions for Gandy Dancers were often harsh and dangerous. They worked long hours in all weather conditions, facing risks such as accidents, injuries, and exposure to the elements. Despite the physical demands of the job, these workers were typically paid low wages and had little job security. The strenuous nature of the work and the challenging conditions underscore the resilience and fortitude of these laborers.

Have modern technologies replaced the role of Gandy Dancers?

Yes, modern technologies have largely replaced the role of Gandy Dancers. Today, advanced machinery and equipment handle the tasks that were once performed manually by these workers. Machines like track renewal trains, tamping machines, and dynamic track stabilizers can lay and maintain tracks with greater precision and efficiency. While the term 'Gandy Dancer' has become a historical reference, it remains a testament to the human effort that powered the early railroad industry.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon1006753

I worked as a gandy dancer for the Bessemer Lake Erie RR in the early 70s. No blacks,Chinese or Mexicans. We did speed and smoked marijuana (even the old guys). And no dancing or songs. Ever!

anon178385

I worked on a section gang in the forties. I worked

with five black men (I was a 16 year old white boy) and most of them had worked for the railroad many years. I think we were more commonly referred to as section hands, and a group of men that stayed in older bunking cars and came to build or rebuild track to help local section crews were more likely called "Gandy Dancers." They had a sing song that they used to lift heavy loads where a rhythm was helpful.

anon153141

I was a gandy dancer for the Illinois Central, Chicago and Eastern Illinois and Indiana Harbor Belt Railroads. The story I always heard was there was a company, Gandy, that made track maintenance equipment and that the section crews performed a "dance" while using them. Thus, the term gandy dancers.

anon121673

Both my grandfathers were section foremen, one on the Santa Fe and one on the Katy railroad, and their tool box included a gandy hammer to drive spikes through the hold-down plates on the rails. The hammers were long handled and symmetrical. The head narrowed to a small round peen on each end.

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    • Gandy dancers ensure railroad tracks are in good working order.
      By: Harald Biebel
      Gandy dancers ensure railroad tracks are in good working order.
    • Every time a train passes, the vibration loosens the fixtures of the track.
      By: rudi1976
      Every time a train passes, the vibration loosens the fixtures of the track.
    • A gandy dancer works on the maintenance crew of a railroad.
      By: Glenda Powers
      A gandy dancer works on the maintenance crew of a railroad.