U.S. government takes over control of nation’s railroads

U.S. government takes over control of nation’s railroads

Eight months after the United States enters World War I on behalf of the Allies, President Woodrow Wilson announces the nationalization of a large majority of the country’s railroads under the Federal Possession and Control Act.

The U.S. entry into the war in April 1917 coincided with a downturn in the fortunes of the nation’s railroads: rising taxes and operations costs, combined with prices that were fixed by law, had pushed many railroad companies into receivership as early as late 1915. A year later, in a last-minute bill passed through Congress, Wilson had forced the railroad management to accept union demands for an eight-hour work day. Still, many skilled workers were leaving the cash-poor railroads to work in the booming armaments industry or to enlist in the war effort.

By the end of 1917, it seemed that the existing railroad system was not up to the task of supporting the war effort and Wilson decided on nationalization. Two days after his announcement, the United States Railroad Administration (USRA) seized control. William McAdoo, Wilson’s secretary of the treasury, was appointed Director General of Railroads. The railroads were subsequently divided into three divisions—East, West and South. Passenger services were streamlined, eliminating a significant amount of inessential travel. Over 100,000 new railroad cars and 1,930 steam engines were ordered–designed to the latest standards–at a total cost of $380 million.

In March 1918, the Railroad Control Act was passed into law. It stated that within 21 months of a peace treaty, the railroads would be returned by the government to their owners and that the latter would be compensated for the usage of their property. Consequently, the USRA was disbanded two years later, in March 1920, and the railroads became private property once again.

Railroads in the Late 19th Century

Beginning in the early 1870s, railroad construction in the United States increased dramatically. Prior to 1871, approximately 45,000 miles of track had been laid. Between 1871 and 1900, another 170,000 miles were added to the nation's growing railroad system. Much of the growth can be attributed to the building of the transcontinental railroads. In 1862, Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act, which authorized the construction of a transcontinental railroad. The first such railroad was completed on May 10, 1869. By 1900, four additional transcontinental railroads connected the eastern states with the Pacific Coast.

Four of the five transcontinental railroads were built with assistance from the federal government through land grants. Receiving millions of acres of public lands from Congress, the railroads were assured land on which to lay the tracks and land to sell, the proceeds of which helped companies finance the construction of their railroads. Not all railroads were built with government assistance, however. Smaller railroads had to purchase land on which to lay their tracks from private owners, some of whom objected to the railroads and refused to grant rights of way.

Laying track and living in and among the railroad construction camps was often very difficult. Railroad construction crews were not only subjected to extreme weather conditions, they had to lay tracks across and through many natural geographical features, including rivers, canyons, mountains, and desert. Like other large economic opportunity situations in the expanding nation, the railroad construction camps attracted all types of characters, almost all of whom were looking for ways to turn a quick profit, legally or illegally. Life in the camps was often very crude and rough.

By 1900, much of the nation's railroad system was in place. The railroad opened the way for the settlement of the West, provided new economic opportunities, stimulated the development of town and communities, and generally tied the country together. When the railroads were shut down during the great railroad strike of 1894, the true importance of the railroads was fully realized.

A year later, in August of 1830, the three year old Baltimore & Ohio carried out trials of the Tom Thumb , the work  of Peter Cooper. ਊ month after this event the South Carolina Canal & Railroad Company (SCC&RR) tested its Best Friend of Charleston.

The SCC&RR would also be remembered as the first to haul a revenue train with an American-built design when its Best Friend of Charleston, a product of the West Point Foundry in New York, carried paying customers on December 25, 1830.

The railroad was chartered on April 24, 1827 to solidify Baltimore's standing as one of America's important ports and provide competition against New York's Erie Canal.  

As the success of these operations, and others, grew railroad mania struck the nation.  The new form of transportation could operate in all types of weather and move people and goods at previously unheard of speeds. 

Notable Early Railroads

By 1840, states east of the Mississippi River boasted over 2,800 miles of track and a decade later that number had more than tripled to over 9,000. During these early years much of the trackage was still disconnected and largely concentrated in the Northeast.  

There were also a variety of different gauges in service, ranging from 4 feet 8 1/2 inches (which later became standard) to six feet.  

Unfortunately, traveling could be a tricky, proposition as railroads saw no need to develop safe operations. ਎ven after development of modern "T"-rail, old strap-iron rail was still used for many years.  

A Santa Fe company photo featuring a beautiful lineup of FT's sitting outside the shops at Barstow, California circa late 1940s. Author's collection.

This led to cases of deadly "snake heads" where iron straps came loose from their attached wooden planks and tore into the under-frame of cars, injuring or killing passengers.  In addition, cars themselves were not reinforced to better withstand the carnage during derailments.  

Railroads used their power to influence politicians and avoid infrastructure improvement and safety enhancements, such as knuckle-couplers and air brakes.  Such things only cost money.  

In their greed they even refused to interchange freight with one another.  This arrogant attitude eventually led to extreme regulatory oversight.  

Who Invented The Railroad?

Who invented the railroad?  As mentioned elsewhere in this article, the first chartered railroad in the United States was the New Jersey Railroad Company of 1815 while the Granite Railway was the first actually put into service in 1826. 

However, railroading's roots can be traced back centuries before the modern incarnation was born during the 19th century.  As with many of our contemporary transportation technologies, the railroad came about gradually over time. 

Many different individuals are recognized for developing a number of different devices which found their way into what would now be described as the modern-day railroad of the 1820's. 

According to historian Mike Del Vecchio's book, "Railroads Across America," the very first railroad-like operation was opened in England during 1630 which used wooden rails, with wooden cross-ties (or "sleepers") for lateral support, to haul coal.

The first known implementation of iron rails occurred at Whitehaven, Cumberland in 1740, followed by William Jessop's (Loughborough, Leicestershire) invention of the flanged wheel in 1789.  The steam engine is attributed to Thomas Newcomen who received a patent for his design in 1705. 

It was later improved upon by James Watt in 1769 who realized expanding steam was much more powerful and efficient than Newcomen's condensing version.  He first employed the engine in steamboats, which later made their way to the United States. 

George Stephenson is credited as inventor the modern railroad when the Stockton & Darlington was placed into service in 1825.

Before Colonel John Stevens tested his "Steam Waggon" in 1826, the first patent for a steam locomotive is credited to Englishmen Richard Trevithick and Andrew Vivian in 1802. 

It entered service in 1804 along the Merthyr-Tydfil Railway in South Whales where it pulled loads of iron ore along a tramway.  Two decades would pass before the first modern version appeared, the work of George Stephenson. 

Although often overlooked, the very first device which could be described as a "locomotive" was the work of a Frenchman, Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, in 1769.  It was steam-powered but did not run along a fixed trackway. 

Today, this historic piece of engineering still survives, housed and on display at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris.  All modern locomotives and automobiles can trace their heritage back to this machine. 

Once more, Britain earns the recognition as putting the first contemporary railroad into operation when the Stockton & Darlington Railway formally opened on September 27, 1825. 

Mr. George Stephenson, a well-known builder of early steam locomotives, was also heavily involved in this project: he surveyed the route, gauged the rails to 4 feet, 8 inches (only a 1/2-inch narrower from the width which would later be recognized worldwide as standard-gauge) and, of course, furnished the locomotives. 

His little 0-4-0, named Active (later renamed Locomotion No. 1) was placed into service that day, earning Stephenson recognition as creator of the modern railroad.  His designs would also find their way onto early U.S. railroads until American builders became well-established. 

For their many advantages, some in public simply did not like the iron horse. ਊs John Stover points out in his book, "The Routledge Historical Atlas Of The American Railroads," one school board in Ohio described them as a "device of the devil" while those overseeing the Massachusetts turnpike called them "cruel turnpike killers" and "despisers of horseflesh."  

There was even a claim that rail travel would cause a "concussion of the brain." ꃞspite corporate malfeasance and the public's weariness, the efficiency and speed trains offered could simply not be argued.  

Chicago Great Western F3A #115-A has freight #43 along the main line at Kenyon, Minnesota (roughly 50 miles south of the Twin Cities) on August 31, 1962. Roger Puta photo.

During the Civil War railroads once more proved their worth as they quickly transported men and material to the front lines at speeds not previously possible.  

The North effectively harnessed this advantage, as historian John P. Hankey points out in his article, "The Railroad War: How The Iron Road Changed The American Civil War," from the March, 2011 issue of Trains Magazine.  

Its ability to do so was predominantly why it won the war. 򠯯ore hostilities had ended efforts were already underway to link the entire continent by rail.  

With the creation of the Pacific Railway Act, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 1, 1862, authorizing construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.  

The new legislation formed the Union Pacific Railroad to build west from the Missouri River at Omaha, Nebraska while the Central Pacific struck out eastward from Sacramento, California. ਋oth companies were given large tracts of land to complete their respective sections. 

Small-town America. Santa Fe F7A #335 is southbound with a maintenance-of-way (MOW), weed-spraying train as it passes through the little hamlet of Glen Flora, Texas on the now-abandoned Cane Belt Branch during June of 1976. Gary Morris photo.

After several years of hard work, particularly for the Central Pacific, the two met at Promontory Point, Utah during a formal ceremony held on May 10, 1869.  

Without the Pacific Railway Act our country's history would likely be very different as rail travel opened the west to new economic opportunities.  

After the Transcontinental Railroad's completion the industry exploded by the 1890s there were more than 163,000 miles in operation.  

Eventually, four major railroads established direct lines from the Midwest to West Coast including the Great Northern, Northern Pacific, Santa Fe, and Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific (Milwaukee Road) while others worked together in linking both points.  

Conrail GG-1 #4800 ("Old Rivets," the original GG-1), in its vibrant Bicentennial livery, stopped at Leaman Place, Pennsylvania at the interchange with the Strasburg Railroad. Jerry Custer photo.

The era also saw many other advances as the late historian Jim Boyd notes in his book, "The American Freight Train." ꂯter several years of distrust a standard track gauge of 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches was adopted during the 1880s along with development of the automatic coupler and air brake.  

All three initiatives proved revolutionary, allowing for greater efficiency and much safer operations. ਏrom the late 19th century though the 1920's railroads enjoyed their greatest dominance and profitability in particular was the year 1916, which saw mileage peak at over 254,000 and railroads carried virtually 100% of all interstate traffic. 

Rail Mileage Throughout The Years

Below is a timeline of railroad mileage throughout the years: 

A Baltimore & Ohio 4-6-2 heads a local passenger train as it eases into the station at Williamstown, West Virginia some time during the 1940s. Passenger service on the Ohio River Subdivision survived until the mid-1950s. Author's collection.

1916: 254,037 Miles (Peak Mileage)

An Ohio River Rail Road 4-6-0 leads a work train near Parkersburg, West Virginia during the line's construction circa 1884. Author's collection.

Sources:  "The Routledge Historical Atlas Of The American Railroads," by John F. Stover.  New York: Routledge, 1999. �ral Railroad Administration's "Summary Of Class II and Class III Railroad Capital Needs And Funding Source" Report (October, 2014)

Penn Central U25Bs #2685 and #2674 lead a southbound Erie Lackawanna freight through North Tonawanda, New York on August 5, 1973. Doug Kroll photo.

During the 1930s the streamliner era hit the nation, all in an attempt to sway patrons back to the rails.  These fast, sleek new machines provided a new perk color and modernity never before seen.  

The industry's transportation dominance ended after World War II, as a long decline followed thereafter.  In response, the so-called mega-merger movement was launched in the 1950s in an attempt to cut costs through consolidation.

At the time the move was only partially successful as railroads slipped into despair by the 1970's.

The common observer could see this for themselves as tracks became weed-choked while trains were dilapidated. ਏor carriers like the Rock Island and Penn Central, both on the verge of complete shutdown, dirty and barely operational equipment was not uncommon.  

What happened in the 1970's has many causes although it can arguably be traced back to expanded powers placed upon the Interstate Commerce Commission following the passage of the Elkins Act (1903) and, in particular, the Hepburn Act (1906) and Mann-Elkins Act (1910).  

The latter two legislative actions gave ICC the authority to set freight rates and force railroads to explain why any rate change should be implemented.  

An A-B-A-B-B set of Santa Fe covered wagons, led by F7A #301, pulls the westbound San Francisco Chief during one of its final runs through Hercules, California in April of 1971. Amtrak was only a few days away. Drew Jacksich photo.

It was a lengthy, time-consuming process that was rarely successful.  The expanded federal oversight was all brought about to limit railroads' power as many executives had grown arrogant and forgetful of their ultimate purpose, to serve the public interest.  

Unfortunately, the legislation went too far and had placed an increasing burden on the industry by the post-World War II period, at which point they no longer held a transportation monopoly.  

During the 1970s several famous companies went under, now termed fondly as "fallen flags."  The decade also saw the collapse of Northeastern rail service following Penn Central's 1970 bankruptcy.  

Its failure led to others as neighboring railroads filed for reorganization. What eventually came out of the mess was the Consolidated Rail Corporation.  

A federally-funded corporation to restore service, Conrail began on April 1, 1976. ਊ few years earlier, also partially in response to PC's downfall, another government-sponsored railroad was born, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak).  It launched on May 1, 1971 and relieved many of their money-losing passenger services.

Before Penn Central was folded into Conrail, Federal Railroad Administrator John Ingram highlighted the difficulty for any railroad to abandon an unprofitable branch.  While touring the former Pennsylvania Railroad's Delmarva Peninsula trackage he said this during a speech highlighting the PC's plight:

"Let me tell you a little story about the abandonment of unprofitable branch lines.  One weekend last summer I was headed for Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, to enjoy the Atlantic Ocean.  

You have to drive across the Eastern Shore of Maryland to get there, and I asked my staff to list a few of those Eastern Shore branch lines that the Penn Central wants to abandon. 

I wanted to see for myself - perhaps count the boxcars on sidings to see if there really was a shortage of business.  I drove to the area, checked my maps, and simply couldn't findਊnything that looked like a railroad.  

On Monday morning, I hollered at my staff for having sent me off on a wild goose chase, but they stuck to their guns.  So we went back - this time with property maps and a surveyor.  

We found the branch line, all right. ਊt one place it was directly under a junkyard full of wrecked cars. ਊt another point the highway department had covered the tracks with at least eight inches of pavement.  

And just off the road we found a six-inch wide tree growing between the rails.  That line had been completely forgotten, yet grown men were arguing before the ICC that that stretch of track was vital to the Nation's economy!"

A postcard of Northern Pacific's train #1, the westbound transcontinental "Mainstreeter" (Chicago - Seattle), at Fargo, North Dakota in a scene that likely dates to the 1950s. Author's collection.

Railroads of today would likely be very different if it wasn't for the Staggers Rail Act of 1980, proposed by Harley Staggers of West Virginia.  Prior to this legislation there had been discussions of simply nationalizing the entire industry, a scary proposition that both executives and those in the government wished to avoid.  

The bill brought a great level of deregulation as railroads regained their footing thanks to renewed freedom in setting freight rates and abandoning unprofitable rail lines.

The 1980s saw a slow recovery as Conrail posted its first profits in late 1981 and the mega-merger movement continued, creating today's Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX Transportation that decade. I

Also, Union Pacific purchased the Chicago & North Western while Norfolk Southern and CSX gobbled up Conrail in 1999.  The freight growth has continued into the 21st century.  We have also seen a renaissance in rail travel as folks look to escape the highway gridlock.

U.S. government takes over control of nation’s railroads - Dec 26, 1917 -

TSgt Joe C.

Eight months after the United States enters World War I on behalf of the Allies, President Woodrow Wilson announces the nationalization of a large majority of the country’s railroads under the Federal Possession and Control Act.

The U.S. entry into the war in April 1917 coincided with a downturn in the fortunes of the nation’s railroads: rising taxes and operations costs, combined with prices that were fixed by law, had pushed many railroad companies into receivership as early as late 1915. A year later, in a last-minute bill passed through Congress, Wilson had forced the railroad management to accept union demands for an eight-hour work day. Still, many skilled workers were leaving the cash-poor railroads to work in the booming armaments industry or to enlist in the war effort.

By the end of 1917, it seemed that the existing railroad system was not up to the task of supporting the war effort and Wilson decided on nationalization. Two days after his announcement, the United States Railroad Administration (USRA) seized control. William McAdoo, Wilson’s secretary of the treasury, was appointed Director General of Railroads. The railroads were subsequently divided into three divisions—East, West and South. Passenger services were streamlined, eliminating a significant amount of inessential travel. Over 100,000 new railroad cars and 1,930 steam engines were ordered–designed to the latest standards–at a total cost of $380 million.

In March 1918, the Railroad Control Act was passed into law. It stated that within 21 months of a peace treaty, the railroads would be returned by the government to their owners and that the latter would be compensated for the usage of their property. Consequently, the USRA was disbanded two years later, in March 1920, and the railroads became private property once again.

FEMA - The Secret Government

Not only is it the most powerful entity in the United States, but it was not even created under Constitutional law by the Congress. It was a product of a Presidential Executive Order. No, it is not the U.S. military nor the Central Intelligence Agency, they are subject to Congress. The organization is called FEMA, which stands for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Originally conceived in the Richard Nixon Administration, it was refined by President Jimmy Carter and given teeth in the Ronald Reagan and George Bush Administrations.

FEMA had one original concept when it was created, to assure the survivability of the United States government in the event of a nuclear attack on this nation. It was also provided with the task of being a federal coordinating body during times of domestic disasters, such as earthquakes, floods and hurricanes. Its awesome powers grow under the tutelage of people like Lt. Col. Oliver North and General Richard Secord, the architects on the Iran-Contra scandal and the looting of America's savings and loan institutions. FEMA has even been given control of the State Defense Forces, a rag-tag, often considered neo-Nazi, civilian army that will substitute for the National Guard, if the Guard is called to duty overseas.


Though it may be the most powerful organization in the United States, few people know it even exists. But it has crept into our private lives. Even mortgage papers contain FEMA's name in small print if the property in question is near a flood plain. FEMA was deeply involved in the Los Angeles riots and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area. Some of the black helicopter traffic reported throughout the United States, but mainly in the West, California, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Colorado, are flown by FEMA personnel. FEMA has been given responsibility for many new disasters including urban forest fires, home heating emergencies, refugee situations, urban riots, and emergency planning for nuclear and toxic incidents. In the West, it works in conjunction with the Sixth Army.

FEMA was created in a series of Executive Orders. A Presidential Executive Order, whether Constitutional or not, becomes law simply by its publication in the Federal Registry. Congress is by-passed. Executive Order Number 12148 created the Federal Emergency Management Agency that is to interface with the Department of Defense for civil defense planning and funding. An "emergency czar" was appointed. FEMA has only spent about 6 percent of its budget on national emergencies, the bulk of their funding has been used for the construction of secret underground facilities to assure continuity of government in case of a major emergency, foreign or domestic. Executive Order Number 12656 appointed the National Security Council as the principal body that should consider emergency powers. This allows the government to increase domestic intelligence and surveillance of U.S. citizens and would restrict the freedom of movement within the United States and grant the government the right to isolate large groups of civilians. The National Guard could be federalized to seal all borders and take control of U.S. air space and all ports of entry.

Here are just a few Executive Orders associated with FEMA that would suspend the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. These Executive Orders have been on record for nearly 30 years and could be enacted by the stroke of a Presidential pen:

    EXECUTIVE ORDER 10990 allows the government to take over all modes of transportation and control of highways and seaports.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has broad powers in every aspect of the nation. General Frank Salzedo, chief of FEMA's Civil Security Division stated in a 1983 conference that he saw FEMA's role as a "new frontier in the protection of individual and governmental leaders from assassination, and of civil and military installations from sabotage and/or attack, as well as prevention of dissident groups from gaining access to U.S. opinion, or a global audience in times of crisis."

FEMA's powers were consolidated by President Carter to incorporate:

    the National Security Act of 1947, which allows for the strategic relocation of industries, services, government and other essential economic activities, and to rationalize the requirements for manpower, resources and production facilities


FEMA's deceptive role really did not come to light with much of the public until Hurricane Andrew smashed into the U.S. mainland. As Russell R. Dynes, director of the Disaster Research Center of the University of Delaware, wrote in The World and I, ". The eye of the political storm hovered over the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA became a convenient target for criticism." Because FEMA was accused of dropping the ball in Florida, the media and Congress commenced to study this agency. What came out of the critical look was that FEMA was spending 12 times more for "black operations" than for disaster relief. It spent $1.3 billion building secret bunkers throughout the United States in anticipation of government disruption by foreign or domestic upheaval. Yet fewer than 20 members of Congress , only members with top security clearance, know of the $1.3 billion expenditure by FEMA for non-natural disaster situations. These few Congressional leaders state that FEMA has a "black curtain" around its operations. FEMA has worked on National Security programs since 1979, and its predecessor, the Federal Emergency Preparedness Agency, has secretly spent millions of dollars before being merged into FEMA by President Carter in 1979.

FEMA has developed 300 sophisticated mobile units that are capable of sustaining themselves for a month. The vehicles are located in five areas of the United States. They have tremendous communication systems and each contains a generator that would provide power to 120 homes each, but have never been used for disaster relief.

FEMA's enormous powers can be triggered easily. In any form of domestic or foreign problem, perceived and not always actual, emergency powers can be enacted. The President of the United States now has broader powers to declare martial law, which activates FEMA's extraordinary powers. Martial law can be declared during time of increased tension overseas, economic problems within the United States, such as a depression, civil unrest, such as demonstrations or scenes like the Los Angeles riots, and in a drug crisis. These Presidential powers have increased with successive Crime Bills, particularly the 1991 and 1993 Crime Bills, which increase the power to suspend the rights guaranteed under the Constitution and to seize property of those suspected of being drug dealers, to individuals who participate in a public protest or demonstration. Under emergency plans already in existence, the power exists to suspend the Constitution and turn over the reigns of government to FEMA and appointing military commanders to run state and local governments. FEMA then would have the right to order the detention of anyone whom there is reasonable ground to believe. will engage in, or probably conspire with others to engage in acts of espionage or sabotage. The plan also authorized the establishment of concentration camps for detaining the accused, but no trial.

Three times since 1984, FEMA stood on the threshold of taking control of the nation. Once under President Reagan in 1984, and twice under President Bush in 1990 and 1992. But under those three scenarios, there was not a sufficient crisis to warrant risking martial law. Most experts on the subject of FEMA and Martial Law insisted that a crisis has to appear dangerous enough for the people of the United States before they would tolerate or accept complete government takeover. The typical crisis needed would be threat of imminent nuclear war, rioting in several U.S. cites simultaneously, a series of national disasters that affect widespread danger to the populous, massive terrorist attacks, a depression in which tens of millions are unemployed and without financial resources, or a major environmental disaster.


In April 1984, President Reagan signed Presidential Director Number 54 that allowed FEMA to engage in a secret national "readiness exercise" under the code name of REX 84. The exercise was to test FEMA's readiness to assume military authority in the event of a "State of Domestic National Emergency" concurrent with the launching of a direct United States military operation in Central America. The plan called for the deputation of U.S. military and National Guard units so that they could legally be used for domestic law enforcement. These units would be assigned to conduct sweeps and take into custody an estimated 400,000 undocumented Central American immigrants in the United States. The immigrants would be interned at 10 detention centers to be set up at military bases throughout the country.

REX 84 was so highly guarded that special metal security doors were placed on the fifth floor of the FEMA building in Washington, D.C. Even long-standing employees of the Civil Defense of the Federal Executive Department possessing the highest possible security clearances were not being allowed through the newly installed metal security doors. Only personnel wearing a special red Christian cross or crucifix lapel pin were allowed into the premises. Lt. Col. North was responsible for drawing up the emergency plan, which U.S. Attorney General William French Smith opposed vehemently. The plan called for the suspension of the Constitution, turning control of the government over to FEMA, appointment of military commanders to run state and local governments and the declaration of Martial Law. The Presidential Executive Orders to support such a plan were already in place. The plan also advocated the rounding up and transfer to "assembly centers or relocation camps" of a least 21 million American Negroes in the event of massive rioting or disorder, not unlike the rounding up of the Jews in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

The second known time that FEMA stood by was in 1990 when Desert Storm was enacted. Prior to President Bush's invasion of Iraq, FEMA began to draft new legislation to increase its already formidable powers. One of the elements incorporated into the plan was to set up operations within any state or locality without the prior permission of local or state authorities. Such prior permission has always been required in the past. Much of the mechanism being set into place was in anticipation of the economic collapse of the Western World. The war with Iraq may have been conceived as a ploy to boost the bankrupt economy, but it only pushed the West into deeper recession.

The third scenario for FEMA came with the Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King brutality verdict. Had the rioting spread to other cities, FEMA would have been empowered to step in. As it was, major rioting only occurred in the Los Angeles area, thus preventing a pretext for a FEMA response.

On July 5, 1987, the Miami Herald published reports on FEMA's new goals. The goal was to suspend the Constitution in the event of a national crisis, such as nuclear war, violent and widespread internal dissent, or national opposition to a U.S. military invasion abroad. Lt. Col. North was the architect. National Security Directive Number 52 issued in August 1982, pertains to the "Use of National Guard Troops to Quell Disturbances."

The crux of the problem is that FEMA has the power to turn the United States into a police state in time of a real crisis or a manufactured crisis. Lt. Col. North virtually established the apparatus for dictatorship. Only the criticism of the Attorney General prevented the plans from being adopted. But intelligence reports indicate that FEMA has a folder with 22 Executive Orders for the President to sign in case of an emergency. It is believed those Executive Orders contain the framework of North's concepts, delayed by criticism but never truly abandoned.

The crisis, as the government now see it, is civil unrest. For generations, the government was concerned with nuclear war, but the violent and disruptive demonstrations that surrounded the Vietnam War era prompted President Nixon to change the direction of emergency powers from war time to times of domestic unrest. Diana Raynolds, program director of the Edward R. Murrow Center, summed up the dangers of FEMA today and the public reaction to Martial Law in a drug crisis: "It was James Madison's worst nightmare that a righteous faction would someday be strong enough to sweep away the Constitutional restraints designed by the framers to prevent the tyranny of centralized power, excessive privilege, an arbitrary governmental authority over the individual. These restraints, the balancing and checking of powers among branches and layers of government, and the civil guarantees, would be the first casualties in a drug-induced national security state with Reagan's Civil Emergency Preparedness unleashed. Nevertheless, there would be those who would welcome NSC (National Security Council) into the drug fray, believing that increasing state police powers to emergency levels is the only way left to fight American's enemy within. In the short run, a national security state would probably be a relief to those whose personal security and quality of life has been diminished by drugs or drug related crime. And, as the general public watches the progression of institutional chaos and social decay, they too may be willing to pay the ultimate price, one drug free America for 200 years of democracy."

The first targets in any FEMA emergency would be Hispanics and Blacks, the FEMA orders call for them to be rounded up and detained. Tax protesters, demonstrators against government military intervention outside U.S. borders, and people who maintain weapons in their homes are also targets. Operation Trojan Horse is a program designed to learn the identity of potential opponents to martial law. The program lures potential protesters into public forums, conducted by a "hero" of the people who advocates survival training. The list of names gathered at such meetings and rallies are computerized and then targeted in case of an emergency.

The most shining example of America to the world has been its peaceful transition of government from one administration to another. Despite crises of great magnitude, the United States has maintained its freedom and liberty. This nation now stands on the threshold of rule by non-elected people asserting non-Constitutional powers. Even Congress cannot review a Martial Law action until six months after it has been declared. For the first time in American history, the reigns of government would not be transferred from one elected element to another, but the Constitution, itself, can be suspended.

The scenarios established to trigger FEMA into action are generally found in the society today, economic collapse, civil unrest, drug problems, terrorist attacks, and protests against American intervention in a foreign country. All these premises exist, it could only be a matter of time in which one of these triggers the entire emergency necessary to bring FEMA into action, and then it may be too late, because under the FEMA plan, there is no contingency by which Constitutional power is restored.

The Railroads and the U.S. Government

The relationship between the U.S. government and the railroads began in the 1850s with the land grants given to railroads. The government had a vested interest in seeing the expansion of the railroads because this expansion made use of previously unused or underused land, creating new, and taxable, wealth.

A more direct relationship between the government and the railroads was forged during the Civil War. Before 1860, the majority of the railroad track in the United States was in the North. Railroads ran west from the North to the interior of the country when the war started in 1861, railroads lost their markets in the South, but gained an even bigger market, the military. Railroads in both the North and the South became vital to the Union and Confederate militaries, and large railroad termini, like Atlanta, became prime military targets.

Railroads were used to move large numbers of troops to the sites of major battles. The outcome of the First Battle of Bull Run was determined by troops shifted by rail from the Shenandoah Valley to the vicinity of Manassas, Virginia. In preparation for the launching of General Braxton Bragg's Kentucky campaign, the Confederate Army of Tennessee was moved by rail from Tupelo, Mississippi, to Chattanooga, Tennessee. A more remarkable accomplishment was the movement of General James Longstreet's army corps by rail from Virginia through the Carolinas and Georgia, just in time to secure the Confederate victory of Chickamauga, Georgia. Most remarkable of all was the movement of General Joseph Hooker's two corps of twenty-two thousand men over a distance of twelve hundred miles from Virginia to the vicinity of Chattanooga, via Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville, and Nashville.

More important even than these spectacular shifts of large army units from one strategic field to another was the part played by the railroads in the day-to-day movement of men, food, ammunition, matériel, and supplies from distant sources to the combat forces. Such movements reached their height during General William Tecumseh Sherman's campaign to capture Atlanta in the summer of 1864. His army of one hundred thousand men and thirty-five thousand animals was kept supplied and fit by a single-track railroad extending nearly five hundred miles from its base on the Ohio River at Louisville.

The military continued to use railroads in later wars. In April 1917, when railroad mileage in the United States was at its peak, the country entered World War I. A volunteer Railroads' War Board was established to coordinate the use of railroads to meet military requirements. When this board proved unsatisfactory, the railroads were taken over by the government on 1 January 1918 the takeover lasted twenty-six months.

During World War II, railroads initially remained under private directorship. Improvements made in the interwar years, perhaps in part because of needs realized during World War I, allowed the railroads to meet World War II military requirements despite less operational railroad track within the United States. Between the world wars, new, more powerful steam locomotives had been put into use the diesel engine was introduced to passenger travel in 1934 and to freight service in 1941. Wooden cars had been replaced and passenger cars were air conditioned starting in 1929. Passenger train speeds increased and overnight service was instituted for freight service. Railroad signaling was centralized, increasing the capacity of rail lines. The organization and operation of car supply and distribution were improved to the extent that train car shortages became a thing of the past.

Railroad service was so improved that the government did not need to seize the railroads during World War II, but shortly after the war ended the situation changed. In 1946, President Harry S. Truman was forced to seize the railroads to handle a nationwide strike of engineers and trainmen that had paralyzed the railroads (and much of the nation) for two days. Strikes in 1948 and 1950 precipitated further government seizures. The intervention of the government in railroad-labor relations illustrates not only the importance of the railroads, but also the regulatory power the government wields in its relationship with the railroads.


Although all the physical pieces required to fight a war fell quickly into place, the question of national unity was another concern. The American public was strongly divided on the subject of entering the war. While many felt it was the only choice, others protested strongly, feeling it was not America’s war to fight. Wilson needed to ensure that a nation of diverse immigrants, with ties to both sides of the conflict, thought of themselves as American first, and their home country’s nationality second. To do this, he initiated a propaganda campaign, pushing the “America First” message, which sought to convince Americans that they should do everything in their power to ensure an American victory, even if that meant silencing their own criticisms.

1870-1900: Industrial Development

After the Civil War, the United States rapidly transformed into an industrial, urbanized nation. Technological innovation, economic growth, development of large-scale agriculture, and the expansion of the federal government characterized the era, as did the social tensions brought about by immigration, financial turmoil, federal Indian policy, and increasing demands for rights by workers, women, and minorities.

This group of objects highlights innovation and industrialization in the late 1800s, and the benefits as well as detriments of becoming an economic and industrial power.

Century Vase, 1876

Made by Union Porcelain Works, Greenpoint, New York

The American Industrial Revolution transformed the nation from a scattering of isolated communities into an economic and industrial giant, in part due to the country’s wealth of natural resources. Forests, minerals, waterways, and huge tracts of arable land for farming and ranching provided the raw materials that fueled growth and development, often at the expense of the environment.

This vase celebrates 100 years of American progress and depicts now-vanished icons of the American landscape such as bison, a wooden reaper, and a steamship.

Railroad Spike, 1869

Commemorative of the final spike that completed the transcontinental railroad

Railroads were the basis of the nation’s industrial economy in the late 1800s, creating new markets, carrying billions of tons of freight to every corner of the country, and opening up the West for development. Thanks in part to the railroad providing access to new land for farming, agricultural production doubled in the 1870s, which in turn increased railroad traffic.

Gift of Union Pacific Railroad, Mr. A. E. Stoddard, President

Stock Ticker, about 1900

Made by the Western Union Telegraph Company

The U.S. economy grew rapidly after the Civil War, fueled by an astounding rise in wealth, wages, production, and corporate mergers, along with limited government regulation. The volume of stocks traded rose sharply with corporations’ need for investment capital and the development of new technologies. The 1867 invention of the stock ticker, transmitting up-to-the-minute share prices over telegraph lines, modernized the stock exchange.

Gift of Western Union Corporation

Incandescent Lamp, about 1891

Made by Edison General Electric Company

Many inventions in the late 1880s helped speed urban growth, allowing for taller buildings, more efficient factories, and better transportation. One of the most dramatic improvements occurred in artificial lighting. Thomas Edison’s development of an electric lamp that did not rely on open flames made lighting more practical for factories, offices, and homes, and transformed city life.

Gift of General Electric Lighting Company, through Terry K. McGowan

Tinfoil Phonograph, 1878

Invented by Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Edison helped usher in an age of organized research in support of commerce and industry that reshaped American life. Vowing to turn out inventions on a regular basis, Edison and his team of scientists, engineers, draftsmen, and laborers developed or improved over 1,000 patents, from huge electric generators to this early phonograph.

Gift of American Telephone and Telegraph Company

Alexander Graham Bell's Big Box Telephone, 1876

One of the first commercially available telephones

Telegraph lines could carry only one coded message per wire at a time, which became a hindrance as the volume of communication increased. To overcome this problem, Alexander Bell used his knowledge of acoustics to devise a method of sending multiple tonal messages over a wire. This led to the telephone, and a communication revolution that transformed business and daily life.

Gift of American Telephone and Telegraph Company

Cross, 1875–99

Made by a Hispanic Catholic in New Mexico

New Mexico has experienced many cultural encounters since the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500s. Following the United States’ 1848 annexation of the area at the end of war with Mexico, the population of the territory boomed, bringing together Catholics of Spanish descent, indigenous tribes, Protestant missionaries, and Anglo American settlers. Though often in conflict, these communities forged a distinctive regional identity that survives to the present.

The American West, 1865-1900

The completion of the railroads to the West following the Civil War opened up vast areas of the region to settlement and economic development. White settlers from the East poured across the Mississippi to mine, farm, and ranch. African-American settlers also came West from the Deep South, convinced by promoters of all-black Western towns that prosperity could be found there. Chinese railroad workers further added to the diversity of the region's population.

Settlement from the East transformed the Great Plains. The huge herds of American bison that roamed the plains were almost wiped out, and farmers plowed the natural grasses to plant wheat and other crops. The cattle industry rose in importance as the railroad provided a practical means for getting the cattle to market.

The loss of the bison and growth of white settlement drastically affected the lives of the Native Americans living in the West. In the conflicts that resulted, the American Indians, despite occasional victories, seemed doomed to defeat by the greater numbers of settlers and the military force of the U.S. government. By the 1880s, most American Indians had been confined to reservations, often in areas of the West that appeared least desirable to white settlers.

The cowboy became the symbol for the West of the late 19th century, often depicted in popular culture as a glamorous or heroic figure. The stereotype of the heroic white cowboy is far from true, however. The first cowboys were Spanish vaqueros, who had introduced cattle to Mexico centuries earlier. Black cowboys also rode the range. Furthermore, the life of the cowboy was far from glamorous, involving long, hard hours of labor, poor living conditions, and economic hardship.

The myth of the cowboy is only one of many myths that have shaped our views of the West in the late 19th century. Recently, some historians have turned away from the traditional view of the West as a frontier, a "meeting point between civilization and savagery" in the words of historian Frederick Jackson Turner. They have begun writing about the West as a crossroads of cultures, where various groups struggled for property, profit, and cultural dominance. Think about these differing views of the history of the West as you examine the documents in this collection.

Early Twentieth Century Railroads

By 1900, America's railroads were very nearly at their peak, both in terms of overall mileage and employment. In the 20 years leading up to World War I, however, the foundations of railroading would change drastically. New technology would be introduced, and the nation would go to war, during which time the railroads would be run by the government. Most significantly, the railroads would enter the age of government regulation.

The dawn of the twentieth century was, for the most part, eagerly anticipated by America. There was much to celebrate. Things were going well for business, and that meant there was employment for almost everyone.

Railroads capitalized on the prosperity with colorful brochures promoting top-notch passenger trains. The West was glorified as the nation's wonderland, regularly being featured in railroad-commissioned paintings and in the pages of numerous magazines. Posters featuring dreamy damsels lured vacationers to exotic destinations like California, while fast "Limiteds" raced business travelers across the land.

The nation's railroads were still growing. By 1900, more than 195,000 miles of track were in service, and there were still another 16 years of expansion ahead. The biggest opportunities existed in the West and in the South, where large portions of the landscape were still lightly populated.

During the years preceding World War I, the Florida East Coast Railroad extended its rails all the way to Key West the Union Pacific reached Los Angeles by crossing through the Utah, Nevada, and California deserts the Western Pacific completed its line from Salt Lake City to Oakland, California and the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific linked the Midwest to the West Coast.

It was around this time that the passenger train achieved levels of dependability, comfort, and speed that rail passengers would generally enjoy for the next 50 to 60 years. Trains became so reliable as to encourage entire generations of business travelers to schedule meetings in distant cities the next day, and the basic amenities of train travel -- a comfortable lounge, impeccable dining car service, sleeping cars with restrooms and running water, and carpets throughout -- were here to stay. Railroads even began to regularly operate their finer trains at speeds that even today's travelers would consider "fast" -- 80 to 100 miles per hour.

Learn more about railroads of the twentieth century:

Nowhere was the railroad more evident than in the newsworthy events and popular culture of the day, which often featured colorful tales of railroading and railroaders. Take the story of Casey Jones, for instance. Although apparently due to Casey's own misjudgment, the famous wreck of his passenger train in 1900 at Vaughan, Mississippi -- in which he perished -- resulted in the deaths of no passengers. By sticking with his locomotive until it was too late to save himself, engineer Casey was able to slow the train appreciably, minimizing the collision's effects. The resultant publicity painted Casey as a hero here was the story of a "brave engineer" who gave his life to save those of his passengers. The tale -- and the popular song that soon followed -- remain a permanent part of American folklore and history today.

With the rise of motion pictures and movie theaters, railroads and railroaders would enjoy a lengthy stay in the cinematic limelight. The success of the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery -- a simple, fast-paced "shoot-'em-up" Western -- guaranteed that more train-related movies would follow.

In 1905, a record-breaking dash by train, from Los Angeles to Chicago via the Santa Fe, was another railroading event that captured the nation's attention. The instigator, Walter Scott -- popularly known as "Death Valley Scotty" and widely remembered for his colorful claims about his mining exploits -- apparently hired the train purely for publicity's sake.

Periodicals, literature, and even the Post Office featured railroads in ways that could not escape public notice. Following its celebrated dash in 1893 at a top speed of 112.5 miles per hour. New York Central's famous locomotive, No. 999, had its likeness reproduced on a two-cent postage stamp. From accounts of cross-country rail travel in Harper's Weekly to Frank Norris's emotional, less-than-flattering fictional account of the struggle between farmers and the railroads in "The Octopus," the nation's train system was constantly being observed and scrutinized.

Threats to Early 20th Century Railroads

Of course, there had to a be a downside, too. And indeed there was, in the form of a growing uneasiness among Americans about the ownership and management of the nation's biggest business -- which the railroads had collectively become -- being concentrated in the hands of a relative few. How much power was too much? Was government regulation or control necessary, or were market forces the best way to keep these empires in check? Widely talked about by citizens and politicians alike, and discussed in books such as "The Railroad Question," these were issues that would not go away in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Before the turn of the century, railroads were engaged in an ongoing process of innovation, expansion, and consolidation. Railroads shaped the nation, and were in turn shaped by it.

The new century was no different in a basic sense the changes continued. But while some of the changes offered promise others seemed of less use, at least to the railroads. There were even innovations that, down the road, would pose competitive threats to railroads, though these were largely unrecognized at first.

Consider the telephone, for instance. In the early 1900s it was supplanting the telegraph on American railroads. The idea was the same -- electrical impulses carried over wires -- yet "telephony" represented a way to make these transmissions accessible to everyone. Previously, the station agent in many small towns was often the only person who had the "power" to translate telegraphic messages sent in Morse code.

The telephone held tremendous possibilities for business as well. It offered a way to communicate in real words, in real time -- and at a moment's notice. Some observers speculated that there would be less need for traveling and face-to-face meetings in the future there was even the possibility that telephones might prove useful in the home.

The internal-combustion engine also held promise for railroads. As early as 1890, a primitive 18-horsepower gasoline engine was used near Chicago to demonstrate the usefulness of self-propelled railcars. Just after the turn of the century, primitive gas-mechanical and gas-electric cars (the distinction being manifest in the transmissions) were built for such railroads as the Erie, the Pennsylvania, the Union Pacific, and the Southern Pacific.

As it turned out, self-propelled cars offered savings in the form of labor, but were generally quite troublesome to keep functioning properly. The gasoline engine would turn out to be better suited to the personal automobile, which was also being developed at this time.

Then there was the diesel engine. In the early years of this century, the diesel -- named for Rudolf Diesel, its German inventor -- was already being put to work in a variety of industrial uses.

The Corliss Engine Works, considered the world's largest in 1902, ran its huge manufacturing plant entirely with diesel power. Brewer Adolphus Busch built the first diesel engine constructed in America for use at his brewery, eventually forming a new firm, Busch-Sultzer, to manufacture diesel engines for American and Canadian users. Even mighty American Locomotive Works, the nation's second-largest builder of steam locomotives, had tested the diesel with favorable results. Still, it would take American locomotive builders another quarter of a century to begin a serious program of building and testing these prototype designs.

Railroad Passenger Improvements

The railroad passenger benefitted greatly from technology's advance. For example, the introduction of steam heating got rid of the coal stove, always prone to uneven warming and unsafe in the event of collision. Following Edison's successful demonstration of the incandescent light bulb, electric lighting was introduced aboard passenger trains (although only on the finer trains it would take until World War II for many railroads to fully convert to electricity for lighting). ­Tanks for fresh water would be introduced as well, allowing drinking and washing to be undertaken in good hygiene. And the all-steel passenger car's introduction in 1906 helped to assure greater safety in the event of a collision, at the same time reducing the likelihood of fire if such a misfortune did occur.

Electricity eventually provided clean, safe lighting aboard passenger cars, but a related event in Richmond, Virginia, in 1887 was almost immediately of concern to America's steam railroads. When inventor Frank J. Sprague successfully electrified that city's street railway system, the stage was set for the large-scale application of street railways to towns and cities of all sizes. Up to this time, only the largest cities could support the necessary high ridership or large capital investments required for horse- or cable-propelled railway systems.

In a pre-automobile age, Sprague's success meant that city workers could now get to and from their jobs much more efficiently it also meant that development was spurred to the edges of cities, a precursor to our modern-day pattern of suburban living.

Soon the new technology of the trolley car was being applied to elevated railways as well, allowing large cities such as New York, Chicago, and Boston to continue to grow rapidly. As the century-turned, the boom was on. The electric railway industry mushroomed in size until by 1920 it was the fifth largest industry in the United States. In 1890, street railways carried two billion passengers by 1902, the number had risen to five billion, more than several times the number carried on the nation's steam railroads.

Another variation, the interurban electric railway, competed directly with steam railroads for the first two decades of the twentieth century. These interurbans, as they were called, followed major streets in urban areas, then set out -- often paralleling existing railroads -- across the countryside to serve nearby towns.

Although the trip often was slower than the paralleling steam road's service, it was offered more frequently. Thus the interurban grew to its biggest proportion in regions that had scattered towns and suburbs surrounding a major metropolitan core -- such as Los Angeles and Indianapolis -- or had concentrated development along a population corridor, such as those connecting Chicago-Milwaukee, Cincinnati-Day ton, or Oakland-Sacramento-Chico (California).

The interurban turned out to be little more than a transitional step between sole reliance on the steam railroad for intercity transit and almost sole reliance on the personal automobile (which was still several decades in the future). Although a few interurban systems actually prospered -- usually due to the fact that they also carried freight, in direct competition with steam railroads -- few industries have grown so rapidly or declined so quickly, and no industry of its size ever had a more dismal financial record.

Not surprisingly, the interurbans began their precipitous decline on the eve of World War I -- as the automobile was becoming available to all -- and during the Depression the industry was virtually annihilated.

Early 20th Century Railroad Competition

Competition is expected to be keen in a free-market society, but railroads prior to the turn of the century were engaged in a particularly cutthroat version. Railroad mileage was expanding, but particularly in the East and Midwest -- where the railroad network by 1900 was densely packed -- this new mileage was often built at the expense of competing lines. "The day of high rates has gone by got to make money now on the volume of business" said W. H. Vanderbilt, eldest son of "Commodore" Vanderbilt and head of New York Central.

Controlling costs was one way of helping make railroads more profitable, and the many improvements in technology around the turn of the century helped to accomplish just that. At the same time, the American railroad system was going through a period of consolidation that was unprecedented. By 1906, seven major interest groups controlled approximately two-thirds of all railroad mileage in the United States.

The Harriman lines -- Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, and Illinois Central -- comprised 25,000 miles the Vanderbilt roads -- New York Central and Chicago & North Western -- 22,000 the Hill roads -- Great Northern, Northern Pacific, and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy -- 21,000 the Pennsylvania group -- the Pennsylvania Railroad, Baltimore & Ohio, and Chesapeake & Ohio -- 20,000 the Morgan roads -- Erie and Southern systems -- 18,000 the Gould roads -- Missouri Pacific and several other southwestern systems -- 17,000 the Rock Island group -- Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific system -- 15,000.

Consolidation, interestingly, went largely hand-in-hand with a trend toward less expansion. By 1910, the nation's railroads aggregated 240,293 miles by 1916, the total reached 254,037 -- America's all-time record for railroad mileage.

Railroad employment grew as well, to a 1916 peak of 1.7 million persons, but the trend would be downhill from there. The era of the big-name "empire builders" was also coming to a close the last, James J. Hill, died in 1916.

Increasingly, business managers and bankers -- rather than entrepreneurs -- would assume the challenges of running the nation's railroads. And difficult though it may be to comprehend today, a number of forces were at work to drastically alter the competitive picture -- just as the railroads, it seemed, had reached some kind of equilibrium.

Those forces had actually been at work for some time.

Early 1900s Railroad Laws

As early as 1871, railroad regulation had been enacted within individual states, in response to agitation by farmers for rate controls. The first significant federal regulation -- the Interstate Commerce Act -- followed in 1887 even then, the railway industry had little to fear, since "supervision is almost entirely nominal," wrote Attorney General Richard S. Olney in 1892.

The following year, President Benjamin Harrison signed the Railroad Safety Appliance Act into law, requiring air brakes (replacing manual ones cranked down "at speed" by brakemen atop swaying railroad cars) and automatic couplers (replacing the infamous "link and pin" variety that was responsible for the crushing of dozens of brakemen each year, and the loss of thousands of their fingers) to be phased in on most locomotives and cars around the turn of the century.

Although the Interstate Commerce Commission was largely ineffectual prior to 1900, the onset of the Progressive Movement revived the issue of regulation. Most Americans were of the opinion that more stringent controls were needed to prevent abuses such as those perceived within the financial markets -- and which on occasion had led to great collapses of railroad systems, as well as the resultant loss of investor fortunes. It was obvious that something needed to be done to restore the public's confidence.

In this light, President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901 directed his attorney general to file suit -- under the provisions of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act -- against Northern Securities, a giant holding company formed by railroad consolidationists Edward H. Harriman and James J. Hill. The company was outlawed in 1904, and later that year Roosevelt was reelected to a second term. Before the year was out, Roosevelt asked Congress to increase the powers of the I.C.C. This was done overwhelmingly with passage of the Hepburn Act, which empowered the commission to establish "just and reasonable" maximum rates.

"Within two years of [the Hepburn Act's] passage, more rate complaints -- some 1,500 -- were made with the I.C.C. than had been filed in the two preceding decades," writes historian John F. Stover in his book "The Life and Decline of the American Railroad." A related bill strengthened the I.C.C.'s powers in 1910, requiring railroads to prove that any future rate hikes were reasonable and necessary. A related piece of legislation in 1913 provided for the regulatory agency to begin assessing the true value of each railroad, information that was needed if rates were to be established that would provide a fair return for investors.

Not unexpectedly, rate increases requested by the railroads were not always granted by the I.C.C. Rates between 1900 and 1916 dropped slightly, even though the nation's general price level increased by almost 30 percent.

Investment in railroads fell maintenance standards went down and new freight and passenger equipment was not ordered in sufficient quantities to keep up with the ongoing demands for replacement and modernization of railroad fleets. The nation had succeeded in regulating its railroads, but with unintended results.

Railroads During World War I

On the eve of World War I, America's railroads were afloat in a sea of dramatic contrasts. On the one hand, the railroad's influence could still be felt in the towns and cities of America, and long-distance travel was still almost exclusively the domain of the passenger train.

And yet, in contrast to these healthy signs, wooden passenger cars were still in use on many railroads, as were outdated and underpowered locomotives. Freight-car fleets still were made up, in large part, of older, lower-capacity (30-ton) cars, even though the increasing use of steel had made the 40-ton car a reality by now.

The outbreak of war in August of 1914 at first resulted in decreased American industrial activity. Rail ton-miles decreased four percent in 1914 and another four percent the following year. It was not until 1916 that the allied nations began to draw upon the economic resources of the United States. That year, ton-miles increased dramatically -- 32 percent -- and soon the nation's railroads were feeling the strain. As the flow of traffic was mostly eastward, serious congestion was experienced in the yards, terminals, and ports of the Northeast and New England.

A car shortage developed as a result, primarily in the West and South. Car shortages were not unusual during peak periods of business prosperity, and a number had occurred before this time. Yet this one would he different. Things went from bad to worse, and in January of 1917 the Interstate Commerce Commission reported that, "The present conditions of car distribution throughout the United States have no parallel in our history . . . mills have shut down, prices have advanced, perishable articles of great value have been destroyed. . . . Transportation service has been thrown into unprecedented confusion."

By the time war was actually declared by the United States, in April of that year, the situation had grown intolerable. American railroads experienced their heaviest traffic in history during the preceding eight months, and the onset of war simply increased the burden. Yet the American spirit of individualism prevailed, and an executive committee called the Railroads' War Board was formed by industry leaders. This body succeeded in lessening car shortages and other problems. Unfortunately, the winter of 1917-1918 struck with a vengeance. That, plus a series of conflicting "priority shipment" orders from the federal government's own war agencies, finally brought things to a standstill.

On December 26, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson finally proclaimed: "I have excercised the powers over the transportation system of the country, which were granted me by the act of Congress of last August, because it has become imperatively necessary for me to do so." He addressed Congress just a few days later, on January 4, 1918, telling all assembled that he had excercised this power "not because of any dereliction on their [the Railroads' War Board's] part, but only because there were some things which the government can do and private management cannot."

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