Posted by: downtothesea | April 17, 2009

Please help me with a “helper”…

Larry Lehmer over at the excellent blog Passing It On, offered the following family history blogging prompt on 15 April:

Writing prompt of the day: Make a list of ambiguous or unusual words you’ve found in your family history research and verify that you’ve interpreted them properly.”

While I haven’t made a list of all the wacky things I’ve read in my research (or all the wacky things I myself have written during the course of my research), I do have one particular word that’s been bugging me for a while.

The word is “helper,” and it refers to the profession of my great-great-grandfather’s eldest brother.

Not much to go on, is it?

Here it is in an original context, from Waite’s Directory of Niagara Falls, 1889:


So the first Michael is my ggg-grandfather.  He was a day laborer who owned a house on Falls Street in Niagara Falls, N. Y., near the Erie Railroad tracks which ran through town from north to south.

The second Michael is his son, my great-great grandfather.  He is also listed as a laborer, but by this point was also serving on the Niagara Falls police department as a patrolman.  The directory tells us he owned a house on Third Street, near Niagara Street.

Patrick Gavin is Michael Sr.’s eldest son.  The directory tells us he’s living with his father in his father’s house.  And here his profession is listed as “helper.”  What is he helping with and who is he helping?

By 1892 the directory provides specific addresses for the men, but Patrick’s occupation is no less baffling:


Patrick’s obituary gives a wee bit more information about what he did for work:


Niagara Falls Gazette

Saturday Evening, 22 July 1893




Patrick Gavin.


Patarick [sic] Gavin, aged 48 years, died this morning about 10:30 o’clock at his home on Falls street near the Erie railroad tracks.  The deceased came here in 1850 and has worked on the New York Central.  He was born in County Clair [sic], Ireland, and leaves a mother, four sisters and one brother as follows […]


So we know he worked for the railroad–the New York Central–for enough time to have it mentioned in his obit.  But what exactly does a “helper” do in the context of a railroad?  I’m stumped.  One gets the feeling that it was a common enough occupation that it needed no further explanation to someone leafing through the Niagara Falls directory in the early 1890s.

Is anyone out there enough of a railroad buff to shed some light on this mysterious profession of railroad “helper?”  I’d love a hint!



  1. Thanks for the shout out on the prompt. Interestingly enough, I once served as a carman’s helper on the railroad. At that time (over 40 years ago), friction bearings in journal boxes of railroad freight cars were being phased out in favor of roller bearings. These were located at the end of each axle and were supposed to keep them from seizing up under the load of a trip. Unfortunately, carman’s helpers were being phased out at the same time. The primary job of a carman’s helper at that time was to walk a line of freight cars with a huge can of oil in one hand and a journal hook in the other. When we found a journal box, we lifted its lid and checked the oil depth with the hook. If the box needed oil, we added it. We sometimes added material such as rags to act as wicks for the box. We did a few other things such as bleeding brake lines for strings of freight cars, but not much else. I suspect that carman’s helpers were busier in earlier days. Hope this helps.

  2. Larry, I am floored! Thank you so much for commenting–I wonder if this indeed was Patrick’s occupation! I know that his brother Michael was a switchman on the railroad in 1870 and a railroad “yardman” in 1880.

    Thanks a million for your comment. Off I head to do some more research!

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