1917-1918: Indiana, Railroads and War

6 April 1917. The United States has entered World War I. And train traffic is about to become very heavy moving troops and material to the east coast to be shipped overseas. Indiana, being literally right in the middle of everything, would see the increase of that traffic first hand. And the decrease in traffic at the same time.

At the time, Indiana had six major routes crossing the state west to east: Baltimore & Ohio; Erie; New York Central/Big Four (including the Nickle Plate at that time); Pennsylvania; Southern; and Wabash. There were other railroads that were servicing the Hoosier state at the time to add into this massive amount of steel rail. Indiana had been very dependent on the railroads, to get people and freight in and out.

With the coming of World War I, and other things that happened around the same time, the lives of normal Hoosiers was about to be greatly affected. Even more so, to an extent, than the railroad people who had to do their best to supply them.

It all started with the war traffic itself. At first, there were few disruptions to the “normal.” Yes, traffic started to increase. Passenger trains were starting to be curtailed within a month of the entry of the United States into the war. The Baltimore & Ohio would be one road that was hit hard by the increasing traffic. That railroad announced in newspapers in mid May 1917 that passenger trains would be cut off to transport troops for the war effort. But, they said, it would be done to cause as little disruption to the civilian population as possible.

Another effect of the war on the railroads was simply the car shortage. This confuses people, since the idea is to take a railcar to its destination, empty it, and send it back for more loads. During World War I, this is not what happened…directly. Yes, the cars were loaded and sent east to the ports. And then they sat there, unable to be unloaded for up to months at a time. The cars would go east…and not come west for a long time, leading to a shortage of cars still trying to transport things east to go to the war.

Amidst the car shortages, coal strikes led to a shortage of coal loads to ship to the war effort. Or to the civilian population that used it to heat their houses. Many businesses would be closed several more days a week due to a shortage of heat producing coal. Towns throughout Indiana declared a day of the week as “heatless,” recommending that the public forego the use of coal on that day to extend the supply.

With the shortage of coal, and the shortage of cars to transport it, the Winter of 1917-1918 was going to be a long one. Then, it got worse. A blizzard tore across the northern part of the state in January 1918. The Indianapolis News of 28 January 1918 reports that Rochester, a city served by the Erie and the Nickle Plate roads at the time, had no traffic coming in and out of the town on that particular Monday. No new newspapers, visitors, or goods were able to get to Rochester. On top of “the observance of heatless Monday, made Rochester a dull place.” Such reports were coming in from all over the northern part of Indiana.

And with all of this going on, it was decided that the Federal Government would take over the railroads for the duration of the war in an effort to improve efficiency. This, as usual, had the opposite effect. Some of the backlog of cars would be broken up. But as Indiana’s freight started to back up for lack of transportation, the value of other forms of transport, other than the railroads, began to really come into view.

A lot of the reason for the a) downfall of the railroad and b) the major road system in Indiana can be solely laid at the feet of World War I. Not all of it, mind you. There were other factors at play. But it was World War I, and the constipation of the railroad system, that helped push Indiana into creating a State Highway Commission. While the ISHC was formed before the United States joined the war, the importance of such an organization came screaming out due to the war.

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