Gandy Dancer (1918)

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Wed Dec 8 14:00:51 UTC 2004

Barry, have you ever seen proof that a "Gandy Mfrg. Co." ever existed?  I couldn't find any a dozen years ago, but my search was necessarily limited.


Bapopik at AOL.COM wrote:
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Subject: Gandy Dancer (1918)

"Gandy dancer" is from Chicago? Could be. Here's a quick look.

gandy dancer
slang (orig. U.S.).

[Orig. uncertain.]

A railroad maintenance-worker or section-hand. Hence gandy dancing.

1923 N. ANDERSON Hobo vi. 93 A ‘gandy dancer’ is a man who works on the railroad track tamping ties. 1929 Amer. Speech V. 172 Gandy dancing is not considered a very honorable profession. 1933 Ibid. VIII. 26/2 Gandy dancer, section hand. (From the rhythmic up-and-down motion of workers pumping a handcar.) 1957 J. KEROUAC On Road (1958) III. vi. 215 Working in a railroad gandy-dancing cookshack. 1959 J. THURBER Years with Ross iv. 63 They discussed the parlance of railroadingdeadhead, highball, whistle stop, gandy dancer. 1970 F. MCKENNA Gloss. Railwaymen's Talk 35 Footplatemen have a great regard for gandy dancers, the men who keep the rail safe for the train to run over.

The Bookman; a Review of Books and Life (1895-1933). New York: Oct 1926. Vol. 64, Iss. 2; p. 219 (3 pages)
Third page:
BRAWNYMAN--James Stevens--_Knopf_. Hard rock men, gandy dancers, and the other sons of toil who helped span this continent have found here a competent raconteur.

LOOP BOMB PLOT FOILED; TWO CLUBS AND CITY HALL ON MARKED LIST Murder of 'Squealer' One Link in Exposure of Scheme.
H M LYTLE. Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1963). Chicago, Ill.: Mar 4, 1919. p. 1 (2 pages)
Second page: He said he was a "gandy dancer"--the nickname given by I. W. W.'s to men who tamp ties in new railroad construction work.

Other 5 -- No Title
Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1963). Chicago, Ill.: Jun 20, 1922. p. 8 (1 page):
MOUSQUETAIRE and all you fellows, say, did you ever lean out the cab window of a Bucking Baldwin, roling over French road beds that hadn't seen a gang of "Gandy Dancers" for more than four years;...

MEN RESIDE IN CITY ON 50 CENTS A DAY; University of Chicago Makes Study of Homeless and Migratory Men. FLOCK TO CITIES IN WINTER Spend Summer in "Jungles," on the Road, in City Street or in Jail. Spend Winters in Big Cities. Hobos Retain Self-Respect.
The Washington Post (1877-1954). Washington, D.C.: Jul 9, 1922. p. 38 (1 page):
"For example, a man who works with a shovel is known in the fraternity of 'working stiffs' as a 'mucker;' the man who drives a team is a 'skinner;' one who tamps ties on the railroad is a 'gandy dancer.'"
(Chicago hobo slang story--ed.)

HELP WANTED: GANDY DANCERS; Vacancies Also Exist for Cat Skinners, Pearl Divers, Mud Larks, Setter Chokers, Whistle Punks, Grunts, or What Are You? Jobs Sound More Thrilling Than They Are
Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File). Los Angeles, Calif.: Apr 3, 1926. p. 5 (1 page):
Cat skinners are operators of caterpillar engines in lumber camps and on farms. A pear diver is a dishwasher; a setter choker is a lumber camp worker who specializes in removing trees; a gandy dancer is a section hand; a mud lark is an experienced sewer digger; and a whistle junk is a signalman attached to the donkey engine crew in logging camps.

New York Is Paradise For Tramps; Type Known as Gandy Dancer Interesting as Great Story Teller -- May Be Met Also in Other Large Cities.
The Washington Post (1877-1954). Washington, D.C.: Sep 17, 1928. p. 12 (1 page)

'Derail,' Favorite Tipple of 'Gandy Dancers,' Called Harmless Unless Drinks Are Mixed
Special Correspondence, THE NEW YORK TIMES.. New York Times (1857-Current file). New York, N.Y.: Jan 11, 1931. p. 57 (1 page)

Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1963). Chicago, Ill.: May 3, 1955. p. 16 (1 page):
And before we leave, we shall pass along Mr. Wolff's explanation of how railroad workers came to be called gandy dancers

"It seems there was a fellow by the name of Gandy," he said, "who used to fan up the fire for a blacksmith shop on a railroad years ago. He did this by pumping a blower with his foot. They called his motion the Gandy dance. And pretty soon they used the same name for workers pumping on shovels with their feet."

Nevada State Journal Saturday, April 03, 1926 Reno, Nevada
...who specializes in removing trees.; a GANDY DANCER is a section haa'd, a mud..

Nebraska State Journal Sunday, July 09, 1922 Lincoln, Nebraska
...pine trees on turpentine road' is a 'GANDY-DANCER.' farms iu the state, with..

Sandusky Register Thursday, October 16, 1919 Sandusky, Ohio
...sub- It may be well to explain that a GANDY DANCER ia a section hand. A..
Pg. 2, col. 6:
Gandy dancers of the Norwalk district are confident they will receive a booming increase in wages. The those not familiar with the parlance of Jeff Davis, king of hoboes, and his subjects, it may be well to explain that a gandy dancer is a section hand.

Clearfield Progress Monday, December 16, 1918 , the lockupwith the Italian, some GANDY-DANCERS became engaged in a ifight..
Pg. 6, col. 6:
While the officer was at the lockup with the Italian, some gandy-dancers became engaged in a fight in the waiting room of the station and while they were going to it managed to break off the gas connection.

Clearfield Progress Tuesday, May 23, 1922 Clearfield, Pennsylvania
...300 and 500 I left, and they are "GANDY DANCERS" I the clitC: of the hobo..

Trenton Evening Times Tuesday, May 23, 1922 Trenton, New Jersey
...hctwrn 00 ami 600 left, -find ure "GANDY DANCERS" the elite of the hobo..

Post Standard Saturday, June 01, 1946 Syracuse, New York
...Reviews New Light on 0 bscure Chapter 'GANDY Dancer' To the Eililor of The r.....course of time became part of railroad SLANG thruout the country. Can't vouch..
Pg. 4, col. 5:
"Gandy Dancer"
To the Editor of The Post-Standard:

I noticed A Warner's inquiry (May 28) in reference to the meaning of the term Gandhi dancer.

I recall having seen the term during my work in the classification section of the marine corps. It is defined in the United States Dictionary of Occupational Titles which you could probably find at any U. S. employment service office. As I recall it, it means section hand or track worker, or something similar. However, for accuracy, I would consult the above reference.
H. T. A.

Reno Evening Gazette Wednesday, October 02, 1963 Reno, Nevada
...about the origin of thi? colorful "GANDY dancer" for n railroad section.....abj 23 Rested 24 Giver 26 Dismiss (SLANG) 27 Direct 28 Mountain pass i 29..
Pg. 31, col. 6:
A. There are three theories about the origin of this colorful "gandy daner"--for a railroad section hand. Since nobody seems quite sure which is the correct one, I'll give you all three and let you take your choice.

First there's the idea that a trackworker's gait is likely to be somewhat waddly as he steps from tie to tie. So the reference may be in the way a male goose--a "gander"--walks.

Next is the theory that early section hands used a tool called a "gandy," a metal tamping bar.

The third possibility is that the name may have come from the "Gandy Manufacturing Company," a long-defunct Chicago firm which once made tools used by railroad laborers.

None of these theories, frankly, is very persuasaive. Two and Three bear a close family resemblance and perhaps the truth is a combination of these two. I should appreciate word from any readers who may have another more plausible theory or confirmation of one of these three.
(William Morris column on WORDS, WIT AND WISDOM - ed.)

Reno Evening Gazette Sunday, May 28, 1967 Reno, Nevada
...horizon. William Morris WORDS, WIT AND Wisdom Our r e c e discussion of.....s little need for the itinerant "gANDy DANCER." Nowadays the railroad section..
(WIlliam Morris column--ed.)
Pg. 4, col. 5:
Our recent discussion of "gandy dancer," that colorful railroader's term for a section hand, has provoked a number of comments from old-timers who want to set the record completely straight on this uncommon word.

Eighty-year-old George Mackay of Bargeville, Pa., reports that he "worked on shovels powered by steam, gas and diesel from the time I was 15 years old. A great many of the shovels I operated dug grades for railroads and this material was taken by work train to the spot where filling was needed. The ties were laid and rails put on them and spiked down. Then the track was jacked up and material thrown on for ballast. To get the ballast under the ties, the worker would take a shovel by the upper part of the handle, put one foot on the top edge of the shovel, while standing on the other foot, and work the shovel up and down to put as much ballast as possible underneath before using tamping bars or picks. This jumping down on the shovel and pulling it gave sa sort of dancing motion which they called a 'gandy dance.'"

And R. L. Nesbit of Omaha adds a cautionary note. "Any railroad section laborer who reads your column," he writes, "is going to be unhappy. A railroad section hand is a regularly employed worker who accumulates and, if necessary, exercises seniority. He is definitely not a gandy. A gandy is a transient, seasonally employed on extra gangs, an accumulates no seniority."

And here, perhaps, we see oe more indication that the twilight of railroading is near at hand. There simply are no new railroads being built today, as there were in George Mackay's heyday 50 or so years ago. So there's little need for the itinerant "gandy dancer." Nowadays the railroad section hand is primarily concerned with maintaining existing trackage, conserving, not building. Today's version of the "gandy dancer" is probably leveling ballast for one of the interstate highways that are changing the face of the nation--and speeding the doom of the rails.

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