American Railroads During World War I
By Adam Burns
via the American-Rails.com web site
Despite 1916's record mileage, troubles were on the horizon. Railroads found themselves in an increasingly changing landscape after 1910; many laws had been passed which significantly expanded federal oversight and the impact of early automobiles was being felt.
The latter first hit the interurban industry, which peaked between 1912-1918. Afterwards, these electrified rapid transit systems quickly declined and were all but obliterated by the Great Depression.
With World War I's outbreak in mid-summer, 1914, railroads dealt with an increasing volume of traffic as supplies for U.S. allies flowed towards, and out of, eastern seaports.
The industry was also dealing with other issues on the home front. No longer able to freely set freight rates, controlled through the Interstate Commerce Commission after 1906, railroads were coping with thinner profit margins as costs had soared by some 30% since 1900. In addition, operating expenses were outpacing general inflation.
By 1914 several major carriers were struggling with financial difficulties: notably the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific; St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad (Frisco); New York, New Haven & Hartford; and Wabash.
A crucial strike involving the four primary brotherhoods (engineer, firemen, conductors, and trainmen) occurred in 1916, which sought to reduce the regular workday from ten hours to eight.
It was not settled until March 19, 1917 at the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with the unions. On April 6, 1917 the United States formally entered World War I.
In an attempt to prioritize freight shipments deemed essential for the war effort, the federal government's move brought an unintended consequence.
Since most traffic moved from west to east, eastern terminals and yards became severely congested, resulting in a major shortage of some 158,000 freight cars by November of 1917.
The unfolding calamity caused President Woodrow Wilson to take the unprecedented step of indirectly nationalizing the railroads through the United States Railroad Administration.
The new USRA went into effect on December 28, 1917. The agency was led by William G. McAdoo, Secretary of the Treasury, who also had experience with railroads.
As Jim Boyd points out in his book, "The American Freight Train," the move technically did not nationalize the industry although it did provide the USRA broad powers. Instead, each railroad was rented and provided fair compensation for its cooperation.
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