Building StylesEconomic DevelopmentHistory

We preserve the high and mighty, but what about the little and lowly?

Early preservation efforts usually focused on landmark buildings associated with important historical figures or events.  We call this the “George Washington slept here” principle and explains why so many grand houses have been preserved and restored.  But, is that all we should do?  My ancestors never lived in mansions or owned plantations.  Instead they were farmers, worked for the railroad, were blacksmiths or carpenters or ran small town grocery stores.  Happily, historic preservation has evolved during the last few decades. Today we value the histories of people like my ancestors as well as the buildings they lived and worked in.

I recently passed through Vinton, IA and thought to stop and take some pictures knowing the city had a number of interesting buildings.  I found that they, like many communities, had preserved their railroad depot. What was unexpected was what I found sitting under the canopy of the depot’s passenger platform: a small maintenance-of-way building called a section house.

Railroad lines were divided to make them easier to manage and maintain.   This included divisions of approximately 100 miles (depending on the landscape) with each division further divided into a 10 mile sections.  Each division had a division point, which was a city with a depot and a roundhouse or maintenance facility for locomotives, cars and other large equipment.  Each 10 mile section had a group of men assigned to maintain it called a section gang. These workers were called section hands or gandy dancers and spent many hours working in the hot sun or wading through deep snow.  They replaced ties, cleared switches of snow and ice and repaired broken rails.

A Rock Island Railroad section shed in Vinton, IA.
The Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific RR section house in Vinton, IA.

Each section had a small building where the crew kept their hand car or a gasoline powered speeder and other equipment.  This section house is a good example of these small sheds. There is a large door where the speeder could be pulled out and placed on the tracks and plenty of storage for shovels, spike mauls, brush hooks, a kerosene tank and other equipment.  As a boy in the 1970s I remember a number of these buildings still standing and even a few still with tools though the days of the section crew had long passed.

Section crews were usually manned by young men who worked odd jobs for the railroad until they eventually settled down.  In Iowa, which was settled fairly densely,

A Great Western Railroad section gang and their speeder in Lanesboro, IA.
A Chicago and Great Western Railway section crew in Lanesboro, IA in about 1910 with their gasoline powered speeder.

most section hands rented a room or stayed in a boarding house.  In other areas the railroads built large boarding houses just for their section crews. Each crew was overseen by a section foreman who was older with a longer tenure as a railroad employee. There were other railroad workers too, including signalmen, who maintained the kerosene signals and semaphores, bridge and car inspectors, depot agents and railroad police.


I actually find these sorts of buildings more interesting than the elaborate historic homes we see preserved in cities across the country.  In fact, I would argue these sorts of historic architecture are even more significant because they tell us the stories many more people and show how they made life and industry possible across the United States.  I hope you too will pause to take a look at the little and lowly and appreciate their role in our shared history.