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01. Section Gang or Gandy Dancers
Section gang or Gandy Dancers taking a break.
Mural Depiction
Mural Depiction

Every railroad had section gangs, also known as gandy dancers, who rode the tracks in open rail cars called pumper cars. These section gangs were responsible for maintaining and repairing many miles of track wherever they were required to go.

Background Information

Gandy dancer is a slang term used for early railroad workers who laid and maintained railroad tracks. In the U.S. Southwest and Mexico, Mexican and Mexican-American track workers were colloquially "traqueros". The word derives from "traque", Spanglish for "track".

Section crews were often made up of recent immigrants and ethnic minorities who competed for steady work despite poor wages and working conditions and hard physical labor. Though all gandy dancers sang railroad songs, it may be that southern African American gandy dancers, with a long tradition of using song to coordinate work, were unique in their use of task-related work chants.


A gandy is a 5-foot (1.52 m) iron lining bar more commonly called a gandy. It was used as a lever to keep the tracks in alignment. The term gandy dancer is believed to be coined to describe the movements of the workers themselves. This can be attributed to the dancing motion of the track workers as they lunged against their tools in unison to nudge the rails.

Though rail tracks were held in place by wooden ties and the mass of the crushed rock (ballast) beneath them, each pass of a train around a curve would, through centrifugal force and vibration, produce a tiny shift in the tracks, requiring that work crews periodically realign the track. If allowed to accumulate, such shifts could eventually cause a derailment.


For each stroke, a worker would lift his lining bar (or gandy) and force it into the ballast to create a fulcrum, then throw himself forward using the bar to check his full weight so the bar would push the rail toward the inside of the curve. 

Shown here are Gandy Dancers adjusting rails. Working in tandem they would often sing songs timing their movements to a lyrical phrase. Typical songs featured a two-line, four-beat couplet to which members of the gang would tap their lining bars against the rails until the men were in perfect time and then the caller would call for a hard pull on the third beat of a four-beat chant. A good caller could go on all day without ever repeating a call. The caller needed to know the best calls to suit a particular crew or occasion.

Besides using lining bars, gandy dancers also used special sledge hammers called "spike mauls" to drive spikes, shovels or ballast forks to move track ballast, large clamps called "rail dogs" to carry rails, 

along with ballast tamper bars and picks to adjust the ballast. The same ground crews also performed the other aspects of track maintenance, such as removing weeds, unloading ties and rails, and replacing worn rails and rotten ties. The work was extremely difficult and the pay was low, but it was one of the only jobs available for newly arriving immigrants at that time.

Mural Information

Artist: Doug Quarles

Size: 5' x 9'

Completed: September 2013


   City of Benson

   Arizona G & T Cooperatives

   Benson Beautification

   Benson Jr. Women

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