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VOL. 129 | NO. 163 | Thursday, August 21, 2014

Vic Fleming

Rail House Roots

By Vic Fleming

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Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series. “Rail house” is a term that businesses – especially restaurants and bars – near train tracks, or with railroad motifs, use in their names.

Structures, both residential and commercial, near train tracks are dubbed rail houses – by artists, architects, developers, entrepreneurs, owners. Where does this come from?

A 1918 tornado report in Boone, Iowa – preserved at gendisasters.com – reads, “The death list may be increased when the ruins of the Northwestern rail house are thoroly [sic] investigated.” The Northwestern was a railroad. People were in that “house.” What did it look like? What was going on in it?

I go to the industry that ought to know.

“Rail house” is a term I think I recall from stories my granddad told. He worked for the Illinois Central for 50 years. But I can’t find rail house in the dictionary. That’s what I tell Leon and Cori Catlett (father and son), of Motel Sleepers.

The Catletts’ Arkansas-based company has built lodging facilities for railway workers since the 1960s. They put me in touch with Billy McConnell, assistant manager for lodging at Norfolk Southern Railroad. McConnell is one of several railway people I visit with who’ve never heard the term rail house.

(They obviously haven’t eaten in Rahway, N.J., rented office space in Liverpool, England, or seen a baseball game at PNC Field in Moosic, Pa.)

McConnell digs a bit, though, finding some old-timers in the rail yard who know the term well. “Wow!” said one. “I haven’t heard that in a long time.”

And boom! We’re on the road to rail house’s roots. Roots I find consistent with the term’s usage in the 1918 Iowa tornado write-up. As for the buildings in the photos mentioned last week, the ones being stared at by the guy from Mars – not so much.

“Rail houses,” explains an older department head, “were where the maintenance-of-way and contract laborers would stay” in the old days. We’re talking old train cars here, literally, refashioned for folks to live in – at the rail yard. They had nothing in common with Paul Sharpe’s “Old Rail House” in Vancouver or any of its modern counterparts.

“[M]en lived in these railcars year round,” writes McConnell, and “the term rail house came to be normal railroad jargon.” Back in those days, he said, it was not uncommon for workers to be “pretty much married to the railroad” and leave their families for long stretches at a time.

And so, while the research will continue, at this point, I offer Wordnik, Webster’s, Random House, and the world the following:

rail house, noun. Also, railhouse.
1: A railway car that has been converted into a residence for railway workers, usually located in a rail yard.
2. A railway-related structure that has some of the qualities associated with a residence and that is located beside a train track.
3: A residential structure located near a railroad track.
4: A restaurant or bar with a railroad theme, or one that is near a railroad track.
5. A descriptive term used in some business names of establishments near railroad tracks.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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MORTGAGES 101 194 20,229
BUILDING PERMITS 223 349 36,295
BANKRUPTCIES 52 115 11,279