Staying On Track

By Carl Zebrowski

It was the end of the romantic age of the railroad, the brink of extinction for the steam locomotive—that wondrous hissing, clanking, chugging, smoking, and whistling iron beast that still stirs the American imagination. It was a day when railroads inspired popular songs the way cars would in the Fifties: Glenn Miller’s “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” Johnny Mercer’s “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” and Peggy Lee’s “Waiting for the Train to Come In.”

Cleaner, quieter, and less imposing diesel-electric locomotives had already been introduced, but wartime supply shortages temporarily kept them from taking over. Indeed, the biggest steam locomotives ever were produced during the WWII years. In 1944, the Union Pacific took delivery of Big Boy, the largest iron horse in history at 132 feet long and 1.2 million pounds.

The entire railroad industry was in flux. Train traffic had been in decline since the 1920s due to the Depression, the proliferation of automobiles and the nationwide expansion of paved roads, the improved efficiency of the trucking industry, and the birth of the air age in the 1930s. The war gave railroads a fleeting opportunity to regain their glory.

Americans cut down on driving during the war, compelled by gas and tire rationing. When they needed alternative transportation, they often took the train. It didn’t take long for trains to become overloaded with vacationers, soldiers on furlough, and families traveling to visit loved ones at military bases. Reservations for spots in Pullman sleeping cars were so hard to come by that scalpers made a fortune buying and reselling them.

Besides commercial passenger traffic, the rails were also filled with troop trains moving large numbers of GIs from base to base or toward the coasts on the way overseas. Trains handled 98 percent of military personnel traffic. “Hundreds of trains would go by every day, and many were troop trains,” remembered Kathleen Tuo-hey, a year out of high school and working in Kansas City, Missouri. “Occasionally, when young girls (including me) would be outside on a lunch hour we would throw a note with our name and address on it to the servicemen hanging out of the train windows hoping they would write to us. I corresponded with one serviceman that way.”

Servicemen’s canteens and other refreshment and entertainment facilities cropped up at high-traffic railroad stations across the country. “There were USOs (United Servicemen’s Organizations) and Service Men’s Clubs in various parts of town, especially near a train or bus depot,” recalled Tuohey. “There were places servicemen could go to clean up, write letters, get some food and entertainment, before traveling on.” Volunteers greeted GIs passing through and helped prepare and serve food and drinks. As many as 10,000 servicemen passed through Nebraska’s storied North Platte Canteen during the war.

Rail traffic got so heavy during the war that the railroad industry began to discourage people from traveling. At one point, Florida ran radio and print ads to prod Northerners to flee the cold of winter for warmer climes. Railroads countered with an unusual anti-promotional strategy. “It’s only fair to tell you trains are crowded these days,” read an Atlantic Coast Line ad. “You’ll be more comfortable at home.”

Freight trains, too, were packed. By 1945, loads being transported about the country by rail had doubled since prewar days, and rail carried 90 percent of all freight. The boom in traffic was not matched by a proportional addition of new railcars, and the larger loads and greater use put extra wear and tear on the existing, aging equipment. Accidents increased suddenly and alarmingly.

All the wartime growth on the rails would have come to a screeching halt if unions had decided to stir up trouble. They could have made it extremely difficult for the military to move personnel, and could have all but shut down the large-scale delivery of military and non-military goods. Fortunately, union leaders generally made good on their 1941 promise to President Franklin Roosevelt not to call a strike during the war. One of the few aberrations happened in December 1944—a strike that General of the Army George C. Marshall called “the damnedest crime ever committed against America.”

Marshall’s harsh words were mostly bluster, but they revealed a fear of what could have been. Instead, the mammoth trains that loosed the last great hurrah of the US railroad live on as icons in modern memory—in songs, in toy train sets at Christmastime, in movies, and in the American imagination.

Carl Zebrowski is the managing editor of America in WWII magazine. This article originally appeared in the August 2006 issue of the magazine. Order a copy of this issue now.

Image:An engineer and conductor preparing to depart Chicago on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad.


Image credit: Library of Congress


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