The Use of US Railroads During Wartime Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On September 9, 1917, the Railroads’ War Board issued a report on the status of the US railroad system following the country’s declaration of war against Germany in April of that year. Daniel Willard, president of the Railroads’ War Board and author of the report, was an important advisor to President Woodrow Wilson in his role as a member of the Council of National Defense. Management of the United States’ railroads was a particularly complex issue during World War I. Prior to the war, a patchwork of private companies operated competitively throughout the country, and there were rail traffic snarls and railroad car shortages up and down the East Coast. Though Willard was quick to point out the productive cooperation the railroads had demonstrated following the nation’s entry into the war, he was unable to prevent the takeover of the railroads by the US government on December 26, 1917.

Summary Overview

On September 9, 1917, the Railroads’ War Board issued a report on the status of the US railroad system following the country’s declaration of war against Germany in April of that year. Daniel Willard, president of the Railroads’ War Board and author of the report, was an important advisor to President Woodrow Wilson in his role as a member of the Council of National Defense. Management of the United States’ railroads was a particularly complex issue during World War I. Prior to the war, a patchwork of private companies operated competitively throughout the country, and there were rail traffic snarls and railroad car shortages up and down the East Coast. Though Willard was quick to point out the productive cooperation the railroads had demonstrated following the nation’s entry into the war, he was unable to prevent the takeover of the railroads by the US government on December 26, 1917.

Defining Moment

On April 2, 1917, President Wilson requested that Congress approve a declaration of war against Germany. Relations had soured in the first months of 1917, with Germany openly violating its pledge to halt unrestricted submarine warfare and secretly attempting to bring Mexico into the war on the German side. Within the week, both houses of Congress agreed to declare war.

The United States began mobilizing for war immediately and relied on the railroads as the primary national carrier for both troops and supplies. However, strain on the nation’s railroads had begun to show even before the declaration of war. In 1916, railroad cargoes increased significantly. As supplies moved eastward to the rail yards and ports of the coast, serious congestion ensued. At the same time, a car shortage developed, largely in the western and southern regions of the country, as cars delayed on the East Coast were unable to be reloaded at supply stations elsewhere. In January of 1917, the Interstate Commerce Commission reported that the confusion caused by the shortage of cars and the increase in demand for rail services was unprecedented.

By the time war was declared in April of that year, the US railroad system was stretched to its limits, and the onset of war meant even more demands. To deal with this burden, railroad executives formed a committee that became known as the Railroads’ War Board. The 693 private railroad companies of the United States ultimately agreed to work together noncompetitively during the war, and through coordinating their efforts, they succeeded in preventing or lessening the effects of car shortages and other problems. The government nevertheless needed more control over the railways, as priorities changed and troops and supplies needed to be moved rapidly and often on short notice.

Despite the significant changes made by private rail companies, partly in an attempt to avoid a government takeover, in December 1917, Wilson temporarily nationalized the US railroad system under the United States Railroad Administration (USRA). While Wilson appreciated the work of the Railroads’ War Board, he knew that there were some decisions that could only be made while the railroads were under government control and not managed by private companies. The USRA would continue to have authority over the railroads until March of 1920.

Author Biography

Daniel Willard was born in 1861 in Vermont. He spent years as a railroad track laborer and worked his way up to engineer and then supervisor for several different rail companies. In 1910, he became the president of the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad, a position that he held for thirty-two years. Nicknamed Uncle Dan, he was credited at the time for his sound management of the B&O company and was respected by both railroad workers and heads of industry. In 1916, he was appointed to the Advisory Commission of the Council of National Defense, and he was later made chair of the Commission. In July 1917, he was appointed to a committee of the Council of National Defense, which was responsible for mediating labor disputes involving war contracts. In late 1917, he was named chair of the War Industries Board, responsible for the production of military supplies and ammunition. Willard continued to serve as president of B&O after World War I. He died in 1942.

Document Analysis

Willard’s report was intended to reassure both the government and the American public that the nation’s railroads were up to the task of supporting and supplying the war effort. Coming as it did on the heels of serious problems with the railways, the report was also intended to forestall or prevent the takeover of US railroads by the federal government. It is perhaps because of this that Willard emphasizes the “voluntary act” of the railroads to unite and suspend competitive activities. Willard also points out that there was room for improvement, but notes that he is “surer of a satisfactory solution” to the problems presented by the war.

Willard highlights the cooperation and streamlining of the railway system and describes the 1.75 million rail workers in the United States as “one loyal army.” Their coordination would ensure that all components of the system–“every locomotive, every freight car, every mile of track, and every piece of railroad equipment in the country”–were used as efficiently as possible, thus ending the rail car shortage that had dogged the system the previous year. Willard devotes a paragraph of his report to presenting statistical evidence that the car shortage was no longer a significant problem, though he acknowledges that the number of “unfilled car requisitions” was still greater than 33,000.

In his report, Willard also highlights the placement of trained personnel to assist in the coordination of efforts. “Skilled and experienced railroad men” were stationed at military camps to ensure the smooth running of supply trains and also worked with the quartermaster in Washington, DC, to make sure that any resource that was needed was supplied.

Willard keeps with the spirit of the Progressive Era by emphasizing quantifiable results brought about by cooperation and organization, including the creation of various committees and the simplification of payments made by the government to the railroads, which eliminated “a large volume of correspondence and red tape.” The quantifiable results are counted in, among other things, decreased car shortages, percentages of freight transported, and the elimination of non-essential passenger trains.

Despite this glowing report, within four months, the federal government assumed control of the US railroad system. While Willard and his colleagues were willing to set aside their competitive interests and work together to improve the performance and efficiency of the railroads, the federal government under Wilson deemed it necessary to establish central control and authority over the system that was the lifeline for military personnel and supplies.

Essential Themes

As a railroad executive and the president of the Railroads’ War Board, Willard had a vested interest in preventing the United States’ railroads from being nationalized. At the same time, he and his colleagues sought to support the US military as it entered World War I. Thus, in his report Willard focuses primarily on his and other railroad executives’ commitment to providing what was needed to support the war effort, while still keeping the railroads in private hands. While Willard acknowledges the need for improvement, he clearly believed that the railroads were up to the task of transporting the men and equipment needed. Willard believed that through cooperation and efficiency, railroads could fix many of the problems that had plagued them before the war, such as car shortages and poor communication between companies. With his report, he sought to convince the federal government of this as well.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Breen, William J. Uncle Sam at Home: Civilian Mobilization, Wartime Federalism, and the Council of National Defense, 1917–1919. Westport: Greenwood, 1984. Print.
  • Kerr, K. Austin. American Railroad Politics, 1914–1920: Rates, Wages and Efficiency. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1968. Print.
  • Link, Arthur Stanley. Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910–1917. New York: Harper, 1954. Print.
  • Vrooman, David M. Daniel Willard and Progressive Management on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1991. Print.
Categories: History Content