“Life's Railway to Heaven (Life Is Like a Mountain Railroad)”


"Life is like a mountain railroad With an engineer that's brave; We must make the run successful." The listeners are warned, in railroad terms, of the difficulties in life, and promised that if they do well, they will be praised by God the superintendent


The original [sheet music] publication also includes an alternate set of lyrics composed by Jack Penn, under the title "The Gospel Highway"; they seem not to have entered tradition. - PJS

The origin of this piece is looking more and more complicated the more I look at it. In previous editions of the Index, I noted a connection to "The Road to Heaven," which dates from probably 1854. Paul Stamler thought the notion of a railroad to heaven could occur independently. It almost doesn't matter; "The Road to Heaven" is among the earliest "spiritual railroad" songs, but Cohen in _Long Steel Rail_, pp. 597-603, notes many examples of the genre. There were certainly lots of forerunners to choose from, although only a handful went into tradition.

The interesting feature of this song is its relationship to "The Faithful Engineer," by Will S. Hays, published in 1886. This begins, "Life is like a crooked railroad, And the engineer is brave, Who can make a trip successful From the cradle to the grave."

The connection to this piece can hardly be denied, though the rest of the Hays poem is not quite so closely related.

So how did Abbey and Tillman get away with copyrighting this as an entirely new piece? I have no answer; neither has Cohen, though he speculates about intermediate versions. This seems likely enough, given how rapidly the song spread. Perhaps Abbey did not rewrite Hays, but rewrote some anonymous copy or rewrite of Hays. - RBW

Same tune

  • Ballad of the Braswell Boys (File: MN1048)
  • Miner's Lifeguard (File: BSoF730)
  • Weaver's Life (File: CSW090)

Cross references


  • Allen & Hart, "Life's Railway to Heaven" (CYL: Edison [BA] 3441, n.d., prob. mid-1920s)
  • Allen Quartet, "Life's Railway to Heaven" (OKeh 45196, 1928; rec. 1927)
  • Blue Ridge Duo, "Life's Railway to Heaven" (Edison 51498, 1925)
  • Curly Bradshaw [King of the Harmonica], "Life's Railway to Heaven" (Acme J-102, n.d.)
  • Calhoun Sacred Quartet, "Life's Railway to Heaven" (Victor 20543, 1927; Montgomery Ward M-4350, 1933)
  • Criterion Male Quartet, "Life's Railway to Heaven" (Brunswick 2931, 1925; Supertone S-2120, c. 1930)
  • Sid Harkreader, "Life's Railway to Heaven" (Broadway 8129, c. 1930)
  • Harper & Turner, "Life's Railway to Heaven" (Supertone 9658, 1930)
  • Charles Harrison, "Life's Railway to Heaven" (Victor 19825, 1922)
  • Bradley Kincaid, "Life is Like a Mountain Railroad" (Bluebird B-8501, 1940; rec. 1934)
  • Fred Kirby, "Life's Railway to Heaven" (Melotone [Canada] 45037, 1935)
  • Smilin' Ed McConnell "Life's Railway to Heaven" (Victor 23823, 1933; Bluebird B-8194, 1939)
  • Montgomery Quartet, "Life's Railway to Heaven" (Decca 146, 1934)
  • Pace Jubilee Singers, "Life Is Like a Mountain Railroad" (Victor 23350, 1932; rec. 1929)
  • Pickard Family, "Life's Railway to Heaven" (Oriole 1934, 1930)
  • George Reneau, "Life's Railway to Heaven" (Vocalion 14811, 1924; Vocalion 5030, c. 1926)
  • Homer Rodeheaver, "Life's Railway to Heaven" (Vocalion 14339, 1922) (Columbia 165-D [as Rodeheaver and Asher], 1924)
  • John Seagle & Leonard Stokes, "Life's Railway to Heaven" (Victor 22060, 1929)
  • Oscar Seagle [baritone], "Life's Railway to Heaven" (Columbia A3420, 1921)
  • Smith's Sacred Singers, "Life's Railway to Heaven" (Columbia 15159-D, 1927; Vocalion 02921, 1935)
  • Southern Railroad Quartet, "Life's Railway to Heaven' (Victor V-40002, 1929; Montgomery Ward M-8129, 1939; rec. 1928)
  • Mr. & Mrs. J. Douglas Swagerly, "Life's Railway to Heaven" (OKeh 40086, 1924)
  • Ernest Thompson, "Life's Railway to Heaven" (Columbia 158-D, 1924) (Diva 6003/Harmony 5096-H, 1930 [both as Jed Tompkins])
  • Frank Welling & John McGhee "Life's Railway to Heaven" (Champion 15971 [as Hutchens Bros.], 1930; Champion 45125, c. 1935)
  • Hermes Zimmerman, "Life's Railway to Heaven" (Vocalion 1018, 1926)


  1. Cohen-LSRail, pp. 611-618, "Life's Railway to Heaven" (1 text plus a text of "The Faithful Engineer", 1 tune)
  2. Greenway-AFP, pp. 15-16, "(Life Is Like a Mountain Railroad)" (1 text, plus fragments of assorted parodies)
  3. Silber-FSWB, p. 364, "Life Is Like a Mountain Railroad" (1 text)
  5. Roud #13933
  6. BI, DTlifera


Author: Words: M. E. Abbey/Music: Charlie Tillmann
Earliest date: 1893 (sheet music)
Found in: US