A gandy dancer is someone who works on the maintenance crew of a railroad. Track crews are critical for a working railroad, as these men and women ensure that the tracks are in good working order, and they address situations on the tracks before they turn into problems. Work in this field can be backbreaking, and the hours are often very long, as people are sometimes required to travel great distances to check on and repair tracks.
The origins of the term “gandy dancer” to refer to a track worker are rather obscure. The term appears to have emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, and it was often used specifically in reference to black track workers. Many track workers in the Eastern part of the United States were of black heritage, while workers in the West tended to be Chinese and later Latin American, after Chinese immigrants were excluded from most work as well as property ownership, marriage, and citizenship. Latin American gandy dancers had their own term for themselves: traqueros.
There are a variety of theories about why track workers came to be known as gandy dancers. The “dance” part is actually rather easy, as most track crews sang songs while they worked to keep rhythm. Singing also helped to dispel fatigue, and on a well-coordinated crew, the singing and carefully timed movements could be reminiscent of dancing.
As for the “gandy,” things are a bit more complicated. Some people have suggested that it is a reference to special tools known as gandies which were use for lifting the rails while ties were replaced. However, this could easily be a backformation from “gandy dancer.” Others have said that it is a nod to the Gandy Manufacturing Company of Chicago, which made lots of tools for track maintenance. This would be plausible, except that no record of this company's existence can be found.
In another theory about the origins of "gandy dancer," people point to the way in which the rails used to lie track were handled. These rails were very heavy, and typically a large crew of men would move the rail together, shuffling carefully in time to the music and supposedly looking like a flock of waddling geese. This apparently led people to call track workers “gander dancers,” which was corrupted into “gandy dancers,” though why ganders specifically instead of geese in general would be singled out is unknown. Perhaps it is a reference to the all-male nature of historic train crews.
Whatever the origins of the term, gandy dancers routinely ride the rails to inspect them. Every time a train passes, the vibration loosens the fixtures of the track, so it is important to tighten tracks, check for rotting or damaged ties, and clear hazards on the tracks such as downed trees. Gandy dancer crews historically used specially built lightweight track cars, which could be self-powered or powered by a small engine, to travel the sections of the track they maintained. Many modern crews use custom-fitted cars and trucks which are capable of driving on train tracks.