Railroads of the 1920s


The "Roaring Twenties" conjure many vivid images-bootleg Liquor, flappers, Model I Fords. For railroading, already a century old, it was a decade of glamorous trains and record traffic. But nothing was truly as it seemed in the 1920s. Social upheaval, political shenanigans, and Economic uncertainty rattled many Americans, setting the stage for the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing great Depression.

Americans began the new decade war-weary, disillusioned that the brutal struggle seemed to have resolved nothing, and fearful of the "rising tide of Bolshevism." Two new constitutional amendments-one for women's suffrage, the other outlawing alcoholic beverages-revealed the well-intentioned, but somewhat befuddled, state of society at the time.

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In hindsight, it seems ridiculous that it took so long to grant women full citizenship, but no more so than trying to legislate beer and whiskey out of existence. In the same fashion, the country seemed unable to think clearly about the transportation revolution unfolding in its midst. At exactly the same time that the government embarked on a course of unprecedented public spending for roads, waterways, and aviation, it was tightening the screws on a railroad industry battered by war and fettered by regulations.

Gone were the speculators and the great builders of the nineteenth century; in their places were able managers who operated their companies within the strictures of detailed, and often nonsensical, rules covering almost every aspect of railroading. By 1913, for example, Congress and the Interstate Commerce Commission were so convinced that railroads were overvalued (rates were based on the value of invested capital) that they ordered a full accounting of every inch of every railroad in the land. It took more than five years of excruciatingly detailed fieldwork and years more of tabulation. The conclusion was that railroads were actually undercapitalized-and had not been systematically cheating the public. Court cases and hearings to resolve the final "valuation" of the nation's railroad property dragged on throughout the 1920s.

For railroad employees, it was a time of uncertainty. The well-established unions representing the "running trades"-engineers, firemen, brakemen, and conductors-and other skilled workers such as telegraphers were able to hold their own in the turbulent postwar economy. Other employees, including blacks, women who had temporarily taken "men's" jobs during the war, and those without union representation, suffered wage cuts or dismissal as the companies tried to cut expenses. The most dramatic confrontation was the Shopcraft Strike.

Throughout the war, there had been inflation and rising employment, but deflation, recession, and decreasing traffic beginning in the middle of 1920 led railroads to furlough workers and cut wages. When the shopcraft unions, representing machinists, electricians, and others who worked in the shops, went on strike in the summer of 1922, they had not counted on the anti-labor attitude of President Warren Harding and many railroad executives. Some companies hired replacement workers, and there was sporadic violence.

Finally, after several months, the strike withered away as demoralized men returned to work on the companies' terms-or found other employment. Repercussions of the Shopcraft Strike-like the great strikes of 1877 and 1894-lasted for several years. Only after the passage of the Railway Labor Act in 1926 did relations between railroads and labor begin to improve somewhat. Some rail workers, most notably Pullman Porters, had to wait for the New Deal to settle their grievances.

1920s Railroad Improvements

The man who wore this hat could be mistaken for no one but a railroad conductor. He was the ranking figure of authority aboard his train.
The man who wore this hat could be mistaken for no one but a railroad conductor. He was the ranking figure of authority aboard his train.
Sanderson Photography, Inc.

If railroading before World War I still had a hint of the nineteenth century about it, railroading by the mid-1920s was distinctly modern. Locomotive and car designs based on the United States Railway Administration standards of 1918 would define railroading through the 1960s. Despite the fact that total rail mileage dropped slightly throughout the decade (largely through the abandonment of marginal or duplicate lines), railroads invested heavily in property and equipment.

Even today, the period is widely considered to be the zenith of "classic" railroading. In 1920, the U.S. railroad network was still near its peak, with 253,000 miles of track operated by more than one-and-a-half million railroad men and women employed by at least 1,000 railroad companies.

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Although somewhat erratic, the U.S. economy was vigorous, and railroads found it relatively easy to raise money on Wall Street for big projects. There were no great new lines to be built-the Milwaukee Road's 1916 Puget Sound extension, from the upper Midwest to Seattle, was the last major addition to the national system-but there was a great deal of "addition and betterment" work to be accomplished.

In Washington's Cascade Range, the Great Northern opened the Cascade Tunnel in 1929. To increase capacity and help reduce the hazard of asphyxiation, GN (like the Milwaukee Road) electrified portions of its mountainous lines. Elsewhere across the country, companies built cut-offs and generally "spent money to make money."

The steam locomotive had been around for more than a century, and its basic operating principles -- involving thermodynamics, the factor of adhesion, and fuel efficiency -- were well understood. But a new generation of designers, armed with new theoretical tools and increasingly sophisticated technology, sought to boost the power and efficiency of the steam locomotive. One result was what Lima Locomotive Works called "Super Power."

By increasing the size of the firebox well beyond what had previously been thought adequate for a given boiler size, Lima achieved a large locomotive capable of both high horsepower and high speed. Bigger wheel arrangements (4-6-4, 4-8-4, 2-10-4) and a variety of efficiency-boosting appliances (feed-water heaters, new firebox designs, and valve-gear improvements), helped define the basic principles of "Super Power." The famous Hudson 4-6-4 locomotives, built by the New York Central starting in 1927, exemplify the "big steam" of the 1920s.

Some improvements were less dramatic but equally important. Before the war, signal systems tended to rely on semaphores and mechanical interlockings-complex devices that prevented a signal from being displayed if the switches were not lined up properly. Partly because of the wartime leap in technology, railroads and signal companies were able to perfect new circuits and hardware to vastly increase the safety and capacity of existing lines. The introduction of reliable, high-visibility signal lights allowed railroads to begin the replacement of the high-maintenance mechanical semaphores. Another leap in safety came in 1922, when Congress legislated that all railroads with high-speed passenger trains (above 80 miles per hour) introduce an "Automatic Train Control" system designed to safely stop trains should the engineer miss a signal. That nearly 50 railroads were affected suggests the level of intensity at which the rail network was working.

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1917 Adamson Act

A traditional railroad hat shows the size of this ordinary railroad shop tool. Trains were big, and sometimes it took a sturdy wrench, a long pipe, and a strong man to work on them.
A traditional railroad hat shows the size of this ordinary railroad shop tool. Trains were big, and sometimes it took a sturdy wrench, a long pipe, and a strong man to work on them.
Sanderson Photography, Inc.

For most employees, this was a good time to be "on the railroad." Some, like trackmen and carmen, still worked outside in all kinds of weather at physically demanding jobs. But brakemen no longer had to ride the tops of cars, and the 1917 Adamson Act had made the eight-hour day standard for railroad workers. The near-universal use of air brakes, automatic couplers, and safety appliances made the workplace vastly safer, while fundamental changes in the law made companies more aware of their liability for injuries.

The war had yet another long-lasting effect. Some of the temporary workers hired or promoted during the labor shortage managed to hold on to their jobs afterward, paving the way for increased participation in the railroad labor force by women, blacks, and other previously underrepresented minorities. Some railroads, like the B&O, showed remarkably enlightened labor policies; the railroad's Cooperative Plan of 1923 was quite similar to the "quality circles" and "total quality management" that many companies practice today: For the most part, railroad men and women enjoyed good wages, decent working conditions, and the respect of their neighbors. They were proud to be part of such a vast and well-functioning enterprise.

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The Pullman Company

As many as 11 men might work in a spotlessly clean dining car galley like this to turn out prepared-to-order full meals for 220 passengers.
As many as 11 men might work in a spotlessly clean dining car galley like this to turn out prepared-to-order full meals for 220 passengers.
B & O Railroad Museum

No single part of that network was greater in reach or more intricate than The Pullman Company. By this time it was the largest hotelier in the world, providing lodgings for as many as 40,000 people every night. Each of the 50 or so railroads offering Pullman service contracted with the company for the use of its sleeping cars, and in some cases, dining and lounge cars as well. Pullman staffed the sleepers with black porters trained in the exacting service that was the company's hallmark.

Pullman travel cost more than coach fare, but in the days before interstate highways, it was the safest and most comfortable way to go. One could board a Pullman car in Key West, Florida, and with a few changes of cars arrive in northwestern Canada without ever leaving the watchful eye of the Pullman Company. Americans toured the mountains of Mexico by Pullman, and they chartered private cars for everything from "wilderness" camping trips to political campaigning.

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Of course, there was train travel, and there was glamorous train travel. While the traveling salesman ("drummer" to his contemporaries) boarding the standard 12-section, one-drawing-room sleeper in Butte, Montana, would have encountered substantially the same service as even the most famous passengers, some trains were simply better than others. The Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads competed for the cream of the New York-Chicago passenger business. Movie stars, tycoons, politicians, and the royalty of American culture rode the Broadway Limited and the Twentieth Century Limited on the finest equipment and fastest schedules available anywhere. Everyone transferred in Chicago, and passengers for "the Coast" had a choice of luxury trains such as Santa Fe's California Limited and Great Northern's Empire Builder.

Railroad publicity men staged all kinds of events to attract passengers and to capitalize on whatever famous passengers might happen to be aboard. Reporters covered the arrival of trains at L.A.'s Union Passenger Terminal the way newspapers in New York treated the arrival of the Queen Elizabeth sailing from England. The trip was still long-at least three days to cross the continent-but it was far from uncomfortable. The finer trains had maids, valets, barbershops, and, of course, dining cars serving high-quality meals. Observation cars with open platforms permitted an exhilarating view of the scenery, while ample lounge and smoking spaces reduced the sense of being confined. Some trains had radios and libraries; others featured directed social activities and even rolling gymnasiums.

Some aspects of travel were still beyond the railroad's control. Showers were a great luxury, and going for several days in the cinder rich environment of the railroad could be a trial. Air conditioning on trains did not become a practical reality until the 1930s, so summer travel could be hot, humid, and dusty all at once. In the late 1920s, the Pennsylvania and Santa Fe railroads set up a rail-air-rail relay that whisked passengers from New York to Los Angeles in 48 hours. Unfortunately, it wasn't long before all-air transcontinental service siphoned much of the most glamorous traffic from the rails. Nevertheless, the "standard" Pullman car-along with its counterpart, the steel day coach-defined travel for millions of North Americans throughout the decade.

Their gateway to the world was the train station.

Train Stations

Like the shopping malls of today, the train station, whether it was a country depot or a neoclassical palace in a big city, was central to any journey. In most stations of any consequence, you could buy a ticket to anywhere, have lunch, send a message via Western Union (the 1920s version of the Internet), and often get a shave, shower, and shoe shine.

Most stations appeared during the burst of railway construction between 1890 and 1910, but some major examples went up after World War I. Cleveland's impressive Terminal Tower, a combination train station and 52-story office building, took from 1923 to 1930 to complete. In 1925, the new Union Station in Chicago was dedicated; Amtrak and Metra trains use the renovated facility today. The Pennsylvania Railroad commenced building its monumental Thirtieth Street Station in Philadelphia in 1927. Two years later, work began on Cincinnati Union Terminal, a magnificent Art-Deco palace replacing a half-dozen outmoded passenger facilities. Large and small stations throughout the country received facelifts, reflecting the sincere-but mistaken-conviction that rail travel was a fixture in American life.

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In fact, railroading seemed to be everywhere. Railroad advertising had long been a part of the visual culture of the U.S. and Canada, but by the mid-1920s, the railroad industry had something else to celebrate: It was 100 years old.

Railroad Advertising

As the 1920s waned, high style came to the dining car as even tradition-minded railroads began using silverware with art deco or moderne lines.
As the 1920s waned, high style came to the dining car as even tradition-minded railroads began using silverware with art deco or moderne lines.
John B. Corns

Several railroads vied for the title of America's "first" or "oldest" railroad; the New Haven, New York Central, Pennsylvania, and Delaware & Hudson railroads all had sincere claims, since all had corporate roots dating back to the mid-1820s. The Baltimore & Ohio made the most convincing claim, however, with the added advantage that it had operated continuously under its original charter since February of 1827. Many railroads constructed replicas of their first locomotives, and railroad history exhibitions appeared with increasing frequency, especially throughout the East.

The centenary celebrations highlighted a little-noticed fact. Whereas railroads had always tried to create a favorable public image of themselves, and had always advertised to attract traffic, it was during the 1920s that the railfan hobby emerged as a legitimate pastime. Surely there had been railfans before then, and to this day there are people interested in railroading who do not see themselves as true railroad enthusiasts. But in the 1920s, men-and a few women-began to organize clubs and excursion groups simply to enjoy railroading. The major model clubs and national railfan and history organizations would get their start in the 1930s, but this period saw the pioneers establish the foundations for what would eventually become a substantial hobby and an important advocate for the continuing preservation of railroading's heritage.

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Meanwhile, trains continued to be an important part of American culture. The pull-toy and wind-up trains of the prewar era gave way to standard-gauge electric trains that more closely approximated the prototypes. Lionel, American Flyer, and other "tinplate" manufacturers introduced new types of electric trains with even more fidelity. A small, but slowly growing, number of enthusiasts attempted to make scale models of trains as a way to simulate real railroading.

In some parts of the country, trains became a Christmas tradition. In Baltimore, for example, firemen began setting up elaborate model-train displays in fire-houses each year, encouraging public visits. And just as railroads reached out to the public with advertising of all kinds, images of railroading graced all kinds of products ranging from S. S. Pierce's "Overland" cigars (with a handsome passenger train on the lid of the box) to Campbell's Soup and Coca-Cola.

North Americans also saw trains in the silent films that were packing moving-picture houses all over the country. The Perils of Pauline adventures were one example of long-running serial films in which trains were central to the plot. The drama and daring rescues possible with racing trains were irresistible to directors. Some films centered on the complex and visually fascinating workings of the railroad itself. Others used trains and tracks as backdrops for love stories, westerns, crime and mystery plots, and assorted cinematic heroics.

One of the classics of this period is an early talkie entitled Danger Lights. The plot involves a love triangle, but the real stars are the Milwaukee Road trains and the dramatic race to save the Division Superintendent's life. The dialogue reveals what Hollywood thought railroaders thought about themselves. At one point, the main character says: "We're railroad men . . . we gotta keep the schedule. That's our religion-that's our life."

1920s Railroad Regulation

Even if the railroad was not everyone's "life," it made their lives possible. In the years when central heating meant a coal furnace in the basement, that coal came from distant mines by rail. Similarly, the radio advertisements for Nabisco crackers and other emerging national brands of food and other products were predicated on the fact that boxcars could deliver consumer goods to stores in the most remote corners of the continent. And with an irony lost on railroaders of the day, trains hauled the raw materials for the roads, automobiles, and air-planes that would wreak havoc upon the industry-and nearly cripple it-over the decades to come.

The 1920s represent a period in which the government and the railroads settled into a highly regulated working relationship, even while new competitors arose as real threats. Railroad companies, for instance, could only compete on the basis of service; rates were strictly controlled, and underpricing another carrier was illegal. The Interstate Commerce Commission oversaw almost every facet of the railroad business, and its officials were continually busy with complaints ranging from the highly technical to the absurd. Thousands of railroad clerks kept a mind-numbing array of statistics so that the government could "protect" the American people.

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To the north, the newly formed Canadian National Railway was itself a Crown corporation, owned by the Canadian government. Its rival, Canadian Pacific, was a private corporation, but both were closely regulated, as were the nationalized railroads of Mexico beginning in the late 1920s. Such close attention would have worked fine had it not been for the competition.

Railroad Competition After World War I

Steel switch locks helped prevent tampering with railroad tracks and equipment. The "switch key" was a badge of honor for many railroaders.
Steel switch locks helped prevent tampering with railroad tracks and equipment. The "switch key" was a badge of honor for many railroaders.
Hans Halberstadt

During World War I, so much war traffic clogged the railroads that a young Army officer by the name of Dwight Eisenhower was ordered to attempt the cross-country transport of vital materials by road. His trucks pounded the fragile pavement between Maryland and California to dust, but he proved a point: Roads were effective for long-distance travel. After the war, as more people bought automobiles and wanted to "see America," popular support for a network of all-weather highways became irresistible. Tens of thousands of miles of new road went down each year as roads first linked metropolitan areas, then started off for more distant points.

At the same time, the Army Corps of Engineers stepped up its programs to improve rivers and canals, which greatly benefitted the barge lines in direct competition with railroads. The Post Office began letting air mail contracts in 1918, and transcontinental air mail routes were well established by 1925. That formed the basis for the civil aviation industry, which used publicly funded facilities and accumulated a yearly total of 73,000,000 passenger miles by 1930. Perhaps most worrisome to the railroads were the diversions to roads. Passengers began deserting passenger trains for automobiles in earnest, and buses competed directly on some routes.

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Worse yet, for the price of a truck and a tankful of gasoline (at 18 cents a gallon), anyone could be in the freight business, with the road provided free of charge. The railroads were not opposed to good roads or lively competition. They were, however, very much aware that the playing field was not level. They could not fairly compete with other forms of transportation that were both lightly regulated (if at all), and at the same time were heavily subsidized by the government. That theme would echo throughout the railroad industry for 50 years before Congress finally addressed the situation.

The railroad industry was not without fault. Had it been more astute in its assessments, it might have raised more powerful objections sooner, perhaps helping to shape national transportation policy to a greater degree. But on the whole, the 1920s were good years, and the industry grew comfortable, if not complacent.

The Railroad Industry Bust

At first, trucks merely supplemented railroads. Through the 1920s, as trucks got larger and highways got better, they began siphoning off premium freight.
At first, trucks merely supplemented railroads. Through the 1920s, as trucks got larger and highways got better, they began siphoning off premium freight.
Collection of Publications Internatonal, Ltd.

Collectively, railroads spent nearly $7 billion for improvements and boosted efficiency tremendously. There were also new technologies, such as the diesel locomotive (introduced commercially in 1925), lightweight car construction, and new types of air-brake systems that promised great economies-someday. Railroads were in no great hurry to fix a system that worked well, even if it had a more than a healthy amount of excess "fat."

As early as 1926, Harvard professor William Z. Ripley, a respected expert on railroad finance and business, warned of the "honeyfugling, hornswoggling, and skulduggery" he saw on Wall Street and in corporate board rooms. Not all of American business was as conservative as the railroads, and after years of speculation, fraud, and self-delusion, the stock market began to wobble in early 1929. The country had just elected Herbert Hoover president; he was a good man, following two ineffectual presidents, but despite his reassurances that the economy was sound, 13 million shares of stock changed hands on October 24, 1929, the day that became known around the world as "Black Thursday."

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Over the next few weeks, the economy began a slide that would last two years and obliterate hundreds of millions of dollars of wealth. Railroad traffic dropped immediately, and the companies found themselves desperately attempting to reduce expenses while they, too, tried to see the market's bottom. Canada was not to be spared; before it was over, one out of every two adult Canadian males would be unemployed.

After a pleasant few years of boom, North America's seemingly invincible railroad industry faced an unprecedented bust. There was nothing to do but ride it out as best they could.

1920s Railroad Timeline

1920:

Congress passes the Esch-Cummins Act, returning railroads to private ownership and outlining a series of railroad mergers as the start of a national transportation policy.

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1921:

The number of railroad passengers carried reaches an all-time high, then begins a modest, decade-long decline.

1922:

The AFL-affiliated craft unions withdraw from service in a wage dispute. The strike ends for some after two months; others never return.

1923:

Railroad presidents meet in New York and create a series of "Shippers Advisory Boards" to initiate programs designed to increase efficiency.

Canada's main railways, except the Canadian Pacific, are merged into the government-controlled Canadian National Railways.

1925:

The first commercially successful diesel-electric locomotive, Central Railroad of New Jersey's Switcher No. 1000, enters service.

Armed with the latest technology and new theories about the construction of boilers and fireboxes, Lima Locomotive Works builds the "A-1," the first modern "Super Power" steam locomotive.

A. P. Randolph announces the formation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union for 12,000 Pullman employees and an early civil rights organization.

1926:

The railroad industry celebrates a century of service on the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad, later part of the New York Central.

Congress passes the Railway Labor Act, giving railroad employees the right to select union representation without fear of reprisals from management.

1927:

The first Centralized Traffic Control system goes into service-a great step forward in efficient train dispatching and railroad safety.

1929:

The collapse of the stock market signals the start of the Great Depression; railroad traffic drops immediately.