The term gandy dancer has become a type of folklore over the years and celebrated in several songs, books, and other mainstream mediums. However, it originated on the railroad as slang to describe workers which performed the incredibly difficult and laborious task of maintaining the rails and ties before the days of mechanization. The actual etymology of the term is not known for certain although several theories have been put forth over the years. Today, "gandy dancers" can still be found on the railroad although they no longer carry manual tools such as shovels, spikes, and tongs and are known as general track gangs. Instead, they use expensive and heavy equipment to greatly speed up the process in maintaining this country's thousands of miles of railroad from coast to coast.
Since the railroad industry first began in the 1830s virtually all maintenance work was performed by gangs of maintenance workers. Machines designed to do this work were still nearly a century away and the only means of keeping a right-of-way up to par was via manual labor. As the U.S. rail network expanded throughout the 19th century creating a network tens of thousands of miles in length railroads were likewise forced to employ thousands of workers to keep this track properly maintained. The tasks required were many, ranging from driving spikes and setting ties to lugging heavy 39-foot sections of "stick" rail and laying down gravel ballast. There were even workers for weed control. Naturally, such work meant one had to be in excellent physical condition despite the fact that they pay was not particularly good.
The term gandy dancer sprang up during this era to describe section gangs, which basically referred to a group of track workers. These men did everything from laying ties to aligning the rails. The origins of "gandy dancer" are unknown although "gandy" has sometimes been said to describe the Gandy Manufacturing Company that reputedly existed in Chicago at one time constructing railroad MOW tools such as tie tongs, shovels, crowbars, shovels, tamping bars, picks, etc. However, other sources state that the workers themselves came up with "gandy dancer" to describe how they would often sing and chant while working in unison to either set a rail in place or drive spikes in place (this actually did occur on a regular basis and helped the men get the job done faster).
When performing maintenance work of that era railroads would often send out an army men, which is a far cry from today's mechanized forces that complete the same tasks. The backgrounds of the men varied considerably, in the south one would often find many African Americans as gandy dancers while in the northeast or in the west there was a mixture of Italian, Irish, Chinese, and Mexican-American immigrants. As the 1800s rolled over into the 20th century railroads were finally able to employ actual mechanized equipment such as early track laying machines and steam shovels. One of the first, true maintenance contraptions was the Jordan Spreader developed by Oswald F. Jordan that was first tested in 1905 and then made available for sale in 1911.
This machine provided railroads the ability to accomplish a wide range of tasks once done by gandy dancers including ballasting and grading, ditching digging, and even shoveling snow. Additionally, it could perform these assignments much faster than by manual labor alone. Over the years other types of machines were invented that replaced essentially every job the gandy dance performed including ditch diggers, undercutters, ballast cleaners, ballast regulators, spike pullers/inserters, tampers, tie cranes, and tie extractors/inserters. However, this integration was slow both due to the years it took in actually designing the equipment and putting it into service as well as railroads' generally slow adaptation of anything new.
As such, the classic gandy dancer could still be found out along road beds, albeit in far less numbers, well into the 1930s and 1940s. Today, one can still see track work done manually on an as-needed basis, particularly on small short lines or tourist railroads, which do not have the necessary equipment. However, such work has almost entirely been taken over by the MOW machines mentioned above on larger regionals and Class Is. In today's industry the manual section gang has been replaced by tie gangs, steel gangs, and/or general mechanized gangs which complete the work much more quickly and efficiently. Interestingly, while the gandy dancer is a thing of the past it continues to hold on in mainstream folklore such as the song "The Gandy Dancers' Ball" written by Frank Laine in 1951 and "Moose Turd Pie" by Bruce Phillips.
Lastly, for more reading about railroad MOW equipment you may want to consider the book Railway Maintenance Equipment: The Men and Machines That Keep the Railroads Running from noted author Brian Solomon. Throughout the book's 128 pages Solomon covers all types of maintenance equipment from tampers and undercutters to Jordan Spreaders and rotary snow plows. I own this book myself and have used it as reference material for this site many times. It's a great read on an often little understood area of railroading. If you're interested in perhaps purchasing this book please visit the link below which will take you to ordering information through Amazon.com.