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3 Dollars A Day And A Shovel In 1854

On February 15, 1854, an engineering marvel was opened: The Horseshoe Curve in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania. This piece of railroad track meant that travelers between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh could make the trip entirely by rail in about 15 hours. That was a big improvement from the 4 days of canal & train the trip involved in previous years.

Here are the statistics:

  • length of the curve — 2375 feet
  • the degree of curvature — 9 degrees; 25 minutes; the central angle is 220 degrees
  • elevation of the lower east end — 1594 feet
  • elevation of the upper west end — 1716 feet
  • total elevation climb — 122 feet
  • grade — 1.8% (1.8 foot rise per 100 feet)

And what kind of heavy equipment did they use to do this excavating? Men with hand tools. About 450 workers, many from Ireland, were paid 25 cents per hour and worked 12 hour days to carve out the mountain at Kittanning Point and get the railroad through. That was some serious shovel work for 3 dollars a day.

Today The Job Market Is Different

The maps on the ATS Heavy Equipment Operator Training School listing recent wage guidelines for skilled operators list 2011 wages going from entry-level $12.85 an hour up to $24.57 an hour for specialty industries.

The job is more complicated than excavating with a shovel alone and the work goes much faster with the machinery doing the excavating. But the skill of the worker still has to be there, and the satisfaction of seeing a permanent benefit from your hard work might be just the same as those guys leaning on their shovels looking at the work they did on Horseshoe Curve.

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