What Is a Railroad Fireman?

When it comes to firemen, most people think of those men and women who charge into burning buildings and put out fires. But did you know that a railroad fireman does not put out fires, but actually starts them and keeps them going?

A railroad fireman is a person who works for the railroad company and performs many jobs around the steam locomotive. These jobs include tending and maintaining the fire that keeps the engine running, cleaning and maintaining the train, and many other jobs to help the conductor and engineer to keep the engine moving along.

Knowing what a railroad fireman is and the jobs they do depends entirely on the era in which they worked. Keep reading to discover more about railroad firemen and if the job still exists today.

logging railroad
Jeff Hampton

What Is a Railroad Fireman?

A railroad fireman is a person whose job it was to keep the steam locomotive’s engine running throughout the trip it made. They were often found, at times, walking either in front of the engine or near where the boiler was located.

While the job has changed over the years, the tradition of the railroad fireman is a tedious task that was not designed for the faint of heart. These men often worked painstakingly through trips on the railroad with coals and fire the entire time.

It is important to keep in mind that during the days of the steam locomotive, the engine was operated with the use of not only fire in a firebox, but also from a boiler. These two parts worked in tandem with each other to control the locomotive and get it safely from one station to another.

With the development of the diesel locomotive, while the firemen did not have to shovel coal into the firebox, they are still responsible for the safe functioning of the train. This means that even though the job itself has changed, does not mean that the responsibility is any less important.

What Does a Railroad Fireman Do?

The railroad fireman’s job was not an easy one to do since it required them to be alert at all times to ensure that the train got to where it needed to be. From early morning until the trip was completed, these firemen worked tirelessly.

A railroad fireman usually wore many hats throughout the locomotive’s trip starting from the early morning when they had to report in. The first task on their agenda was to check the firebox from the day before and clean it out.

Cleaning it out ensures that the firebox is not overrun with ashes that can keep a new fire from burning efficiently. Using shoves and fireplace brooms, the firemen would clean all of the remaining ashes and other debris from the box.

Once that was done, they then moved on to other parts of the job which included restocking the coal that was used to start the fire. Ensuring that there was coal available would ensure that everything on the trip would run smoothly.

Their main job was to manage the steam that was used to power the locomotive. They did this in a variety of ways that made their job seem like a work of art. Working tirelessly to either speed up or slow down the engine was not an easy task.

They were either adding more coal to the firebox and water to the boiler if they needed more steam and then removing it if they needed to slow down. Whatever the task, railroad firemen were on the job throughout the journey.

locomotive firebox
Jonathan Lee

What Kind of Train Did a Railroad Fireman Work On?

Starting in the 1830s through the 1950s, railroad firemen stoked the fires with shovels and coal and tended the boilers aboard steam engine locomotives. During this time it was a fascinating and new way to travel from one place to another.

Keep in mind that to keep the locomotive running through various station stops, uphill, downhill, speeding up, and slowing down, the fireman has to continuously manage the firebox and boiler. This requires them to be alert at all times to anticipate what may be coming up next on the journey.

The steam engine locomotive was the way to travel back during those times for many people and was a different experience for everyone. While the more prominent people were granted a phenomenal experience, those less fortunate, even though they got to travel on the trains, did not have the best experiences.

No matter the experience, the steam engine locomotive was an adventure that most people had never experienced before. In some cases, the locomotive would take passengers on overnight trips which allowed them to not only stay on board but to have a private sleeping cabin as well.

History of the Railroad Fireman

From the beginning of the invention and operation of the steam locomotive, railroad firemen were hired to do the dirtiest, but one of the most important jobs on the train. This usually consisted of them teaming up with the engineer to ensure that the locomotive got from one point to the other.

While it was the engineers’ job to ensure that the ride was running smoothly and they were headed in the right direction, the railroad firemen were the ones to set the locomotive into motion. By developing certain systems of operation, the firemen were able to work quickly and efficiently to get everyone on their way safely.

At the beginning of the steam locomotive, the two crew members who were aboard before any others had arrived, the engineer and railroad firemen prepared the train for the journey. For the firemen, this meant running through a checklist of things and getting them prepared.

One of the first jobs of the railroad firemen was to empty the firebox from the previous journey to ensure the safety of the next trip. In addition, they also made sure there was enough coal stocked and water ready for the boiler.

Railroad firemen were a proud group of people who worked hard for a living and enjoyed what they did. This was obvious in the way they continually pushed forward despite being tired or hungry.

southern pacific steam
Drew Jacksich

When Did the Railroad Fireman Job Start?

People began to travel by steam engine locomotives in the 1830s as a great way to move from one place to another quickly. Since the steam locomotive required hands-on work, from the very first day in operation, the railroad fireman was a part of the crew.

In fact, the railroad fireman, even in the 1830s, was one of the top two crewmen on the locomotive since they were one of the ones to keep the train moving. The engineers and the firemen worked together to anticipate the path and any changes that needed to be made.

During this time, railroad firemen, like the engineers, had to understand how to anticipate any challenges that may come up along the way. They also had to be familiar with the route they were taking to ensure that adjustments were made to the coal and the boiler.

Since the train operated for many hours at a time, the railroad companies would often have someone on the crew that could step in as backup. This meant that the railroad fireman on duty could take breaks to eat and such.

If there was not a trained railroad fireman available, then the men would often eat or take a break during the stops at various stations along the way. This often meant long hours, but most knew that when they signed on for the job, this would likely be the case. In most cases, the people who did this job were proud men who lived to serve in this capacity.

When Did the Job of Railroad Fireman Change?

While the steam engine locomotive was in existence for quite some time, they eventually were set aside, for the most part, for bigger and better machinery. For example, in the 1950s, the diesel locomotive was developed and began operating.

Because of this change, many wondered what would happen to the railroad firemen when there was no longer a use for them to stoke the fire. Since diesel engine locomotives operated on fuel that did not require someone feeding it constantly, things would surely have to change.

rio grande
Bill Hooper

Advances in technology often bring on unexpected change for many people that is either welcome or unwelcome. In some cases the change, while difficult, typically ends up better than anticipated. This is often the case when it is something that will move society further along in the world.

Is Railroad Fireman Still a Career Today?

Interestingly enough, there are still a few steam engine locomotives in use today but most are done for historical purposes. This means that either historical societies or others who are fond of the historical mark these locomotives made are keeping the history alive and well.

Those who do this have the same crewmember titles as they did back in the day of the steam locomotive. This meant that railroad engineers and firemen were on the job keeping the engine running throughout the journey.

These historical companies who run these tend to keep the traditional aspect of the locomotive intact so people can have the full experience. Because of this, people today can see what railroad firemen did to keep things moving along.

This is not the only way that the railroad fireman position is still in existence today, however, although it may look different. This is because firemen are not needed for the job of shoveling coal into the firebox and controlling it with the boiler.

Since this time, railroad firemen may have had a different role in the railroad company, but they are no less just as important as they were before. The reason for this is that even though they are not having to keep the fire burning to power the engine, there are other things that have to be done to operate a locomotive.

union pacific bigboy
Jonathan Lee

What Does a Railroad Fireman Do Today?

In the more modern diesel engine locomotives, railroad firemen still play an important role on the crew as they did before. The difference is that their job does not require the use of a firebox or boiler to keep the engine moving.

The railroad fireman, depending on the company they work for, may or may not have the same title even as they did before. Whether they have the same title or not, they have an entirely different responsibility.

Since a diesel engine locomotive does not require coal, but instead fuel, the job of the railroad fireman includes checking and maintaining certain processes. These include checking fuel and oil levels, keeping things clean in the engine room, and regular maintenance on the locomotive.

The modern-day railroad fireman, like those of the past, is responsible for making sure that the locomotive is safe and functioning properly. It is still important for firemen to have an understanding of the journey ahead, but for entirely different reasons such as making sure there is enough diesel to keep things running.

All in all, the railroad fireman, while not having the same responsibilities, still is in charge of making sure that a locomotive gets from one place to another safely and efficiently. To ensure this, it is necessary to make sure things are operating properly and smoothly.

Final Thoughts

Overall, it is important to understand what a railroad fireman is and how the current description differs from the description of the past. This is because knowing that the job has a long history can allow others to learn and appreciate what the job is now.

Those who have ever served as a railroad fireman can attest to the fact that this job is one of the dirtiest, and most demanding jobs on the railroad, at least when they were working with steam locomotives. However, those who do the job today with diesel engines can also attest that this is also not an easy job to have.



Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

Recent Posts