Railroad YMCAs

They originated from the YMCA and railroads partnering to provide lodging and meeting space for railroad workers.

by Vince Farinaccio

The Y is the recognizable term for the YMCA, the Young Men’s Christian Association, which was established by George Williams in London, England in 1844 as a means of providing healthy activities and Christian principles for the youth of the Industrial Revolution. In 1851, chapters were established in Montreal on December 9 and in Boston on December 29. But, while most people are aware of the organization’s existence, the Railroad YMCA, a facet of the group’s early years, appears to have been largely forgotten.

According to the YMCA website, “In 1872, the first Railroad YMCA was organized in Cleveland as a partnership between the YMCA and railroad companies to provide wholesome overnight lodging and meeting space for railroad workers.”

The Catskills Archive website explains that the Railroad YMCA’s Ohio origins can be traced to the efforts of a former railway employee “who had been discharged for drunkenness but who had recently reformed and entered upon a life of active Christian service.”

This employee, the Archive reports, extended an invitation to a minister to preach in the waiting room of the Cleveland depot. When the event drew a huge crowd, “the first branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association composed of railroad men was formed,” with a reading area soon added to the station.

In a 1990 South Jersey magazine article examining the Railroad YMCA, Don Wentzel notes that “the idea of a room in the station for the use of railroad employees during layovers gained popularity and acceptance by both employees and management. That old demon rum was an ever-present threat to the railway worker with extra time on his hands between runs and management backed the idea of a Christian reading room.”

According to the Catskills Archive website, “the Cleveland men felt that they must visit other important railroad centers to tell what had been done and to induce other railroad men to band themselves together and other managers to give their assistance.”

Wentzel reports that Railroad YMCAs were established in Chicago and Erie, Pennsylvania in 1873, followed by one in New York City’s Grand Central Station in 1875 and another in Altoona, Pennsylvania in 1876.

Over the next decade, the Railroad YMCA continued to grow with financial support, Wentzel writes, from such prominent individuals as Cornelius Vanderbilt and John Wanamaker. As it expanded, the railroad branches, according to abandonedonline.com, became “staples in the United States, offering lounges, recreational amenities, restaurants and a safe and convenient place for rest for the myriad of railroad employees.”

In 1889, according to pastperfectonline.net, a Railroad YMCA was established in Hoboken on the second and third floors of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western (DL&W) Railroad by employees of the DL&W, the Hoboken Ferry Company and the United States Express Company. And, by the 1890s, South Jersey had its share of Railroad YMCAs. Wentzel identifies three cities in southern New Jersey that were affiliated with the organization—Atlantic City, Ocean City and Camden.

In the early 20th century, the YMCA, Wentzel notes, “began to change from a religious to a social organization,” and its railroad branches continued to expand. The Catskills Archive website explains that additions included library reading rooms as well as “evening classes, lectures, baths, rest rooms and dormitories… The lunchrooms and restaurants furnish food at cost prices and the patronage of some of them is very large… The dormitories are very popular, and for a dime a member may have a bed with clean linen and be sure to be called in time to go out on his run. The reading rooms and libraries are supplied with current literature and the best books…”

We’ll take a look at Camden’s Railroad YMCA when this series continues.

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