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Work and Travel on the Rails

In this unit, students will examine the important and changing role of the railroad in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They will learn about the railroad from two perspectives: those who worked on the railroad and those who rode the railroad. Students will come to understand the change in immigrant labor on the rails over time, gain knowledge of the working conditions and life experiences of immigrant railroad workers, and examine how railroads shaped larger social standards for behavior and comfort.


19th century

20th century



Big Ideas

Cause and Effect

Perspective on Events

Essential Questions

How does continuity and change within the United States history influence your community today?

Why is time and space important to the study of history?


  • Textual evidence, material artifacts, the built environment, and historic sites are central to understanding United States history.

  • Learning about the past and its different contexts shaped by social, cultural, and political influences prepares one for participation as active, critical citizens in a democratic society.

  • Long-term continuities and discontinuities in the structures of United States society provide vital contributions to contemporary issues. Belief systems and religion, commerce and industry, innovations, settlement patterns, social organization, transportation and trade, and equality are examples continuity and change.


  • Analyze a primary source for accuracy and bias and connect it to a time and place in United States history.

  • Analyze the interaction of cultural, economic, geographic, political, and social relations for a specific time and place.

  • Apply the theme of continuity and change in United States history and relate the benefits and drawbacks of your example.

Background Material for Teacher

End of Unit Assessment

Students can create three diary entries of an immigrant working or riding on the rails. If musically inclined, they could write and perform a ballad which could have been sung by Irish workers on the rail.


Plans in this Unit

Working on the Rails

Riding on the Rails

Grade Level

High School

Standards/Eligible Content


8.1.12.A +B



1.2.9. A +D

1.2.11. D



PA Core Standards

CC.8.5.11-12.F      CC.8.5.11-12.G.   CC.8.6.11-12.B


This lesson was migrated from the old HSP website. It was not created in the format that we presently use. Please excuse discrepancies in formatting and lack of fully digitized sources.

About the Author

This lesson was originally on the old HSP web site. It was updated by Amy Seeberger and Eden Heller, Education Interns, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.


Blog Post

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