Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Today In Wyoming's History: December 26. U.S. government takes over the railroads

Today In Wyoming's History: December 26. Boxing Day:

1917     The U.S. government took over operation of the nation's railroads during World War One.

 U.S. Capitol as viewed from a Washington D. C. rail yard, 1917.

This was a big deal.

The extent to which labor strife was a factor in the early US history of World War One is a story that tends to be drowned out by the opposite story during World War Two.  With the lesson of the first war behind it, labor was highly cooperative during the Second World War and, for that matter, the war brought massive employment relief from the ongoing Great Depression.

The story wasn't at all same in regards to World War One.  Going into the war the nation was faced with labor strife in the critical coal and railroad industries.  On this day the Federal Government, giving a late unwelcome present to the railroads, nationalized rail and put the lines under the United States Railroad Administration.  The USRA would continue to administer rail until March 1, 1920.

The action wasn't solely designed to address the threat of rail stoppages by any means.  Rail was critical to the nation and formed the only means of interstate national transportation.  This would largely remain the case in World War Two as well, of course, but by then there were beginning to be some changes to that. For that matter, its frankly the case far more today than people imagine.  But in the teens, rail was absolutely predominant.

In spite of that, and in spite of their best efforts, the railroads simply found themselves unable to address the massively increased burden on the various national private companies, the accompanying inflation in rail prices, and addressing the needs of labor.  The Interstate Commerce Commission did what it could, but it finally recommended nationalization in December, 1917.  The President took action on the recommendation on this day.

The USRA's sweep was surprisingly broad, and it even included the standardization of locomotives and rail cars.  Over 100,000 railroad cars and 1,930 locomotives were ordered for the war effort, which the USRA then leased.

USRA Light Mikado pattern locomotive.

Showing, perhaps, the radical spirit of the time, the railroad employees unions not only supported the nationalization, but hoped and urged it to continue following the war.  This of course had no support outside unions and more radical quarters.  Nonetheless, because the formal legislative act that approved the nationalization, which came in March, had provided that the rail lines had to be returned to private ownership within 21 months following the conclusion of the war the failure of the United States to sign the Versailles Treaty necessitated a separate act to do the same, with that act strengthening the powers of the ICC.

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