N.P. Ry.

...And Back Again.

The Northern Pacific Railway and the United States Railroad Administration at Auburn Yard: 1919-1920

In defeated Germany the national debt had moved from five billion deutschmarks before the war to 150 billion after. Soon Germany would be forced to pay giant war reparations as well. (Auburn Globe-Republican, 11-8-18 p. 3) Europe's economy was a shambles, and in addition to near bankruptcy, the Continent now had a whole generation in shallow graves . Germany alone had six million casualties. France, with nearly three million killed or wounded, had a total that was equal to the number that had been called up in United States. (Ibid., 1-3-19 p. 3)

But economic chaos was the least of Europe's fears, for the wake of war left nations from Britain to the Soviet Union on the brink of starvation. Reports from Washington, D. C. told of a food shortage that existed everywhere in Europe. It was depicted on maps as a wide black band running from Archangel, far to the north of Moscow, down to the Adriatic Sea and northern Greece. This area, covering nearly the whole of eastern Europe, was in a state of famine. (Ibid., 12-27-18 p. 6) Though Woodrow Wilson's administration labored mightily to prevent it, the general outcome of World War One was only to set the stage for the next.

Auburn behind the Wheel, 1919

Despite the grim news from Europe, the new year in Auburn began with the typical all-American post-war joi de verve. The end of the war seemed to touched a nerve amongst the Auburnites, and the rest of America, a nerve which led straight to the pocketbook. ...The automobile bug is getting an early start and a number of railroad men are 'looking them over' and will soon be viewing the landscape from behind a steering wheel. Conductor R. C. Rice was spotted in a new Willy's Six, W. D. Askew in a new Chevrolet, engineer H. L. Roher was sporting a new Country Club Overland and Travelling Engineer James Mathison acquired a new Hudson Super-Six. (Ibid., 4-4-19 p. 10) Prior to World War One there had been a mere 500,000 cars in all of America, but by 1920 the prosperity derived from the war's wages had spawned a buying spree of more than eight million automobiles and engaged Americans in a passion that would change their nation's landscape forever.

Apparently, not everyone was happy with war's end, as a firebug started to attract the attention of Auburn's railroaders. Two fires in the yards within four hours Tuesday morining leads to some suspicion of incendiarism, though the losses were not severe. Shortly after midnight the south end yard office was found to be ablaze, by 4 A.M. a switchman's phone booth by the rip track office was also in flames. (Ibid., 4-4-19 p. 10)

While some of the yard's buildings were going up in smoke, others were in the process of renovation. Some work is being done on the old yard office, which is to be made into an office for a Trainmaster who is to be stationed in Auburn, but the work is slow and the time of opening the office is quite indefinite. (Ibid., 4-25-19 p. 8) In June, the remodeling of a portion of the yard office to house a trainmaster began again. Work on the Assistant Trainmaster Page's office in the old yard office building is proceeding rapidly. The word 'Trainmaster' was painted on the door. This impressive work was followed by even greater events. After a delay of several months the yard office faucets were connected with the terminal water system this week, to the great relief of the famishing office employees. (Ibid., 7-18-19 p. 8) By the end of spring, things were looking up at the depot as well. The Northern Pacific park at the First Street Depot is being improved and is becoming a beauty spot. Geraniums and other plants have been planted in the beds and the bright flowers and lawn will make a pleasing impression on travellers. (Ibid., 5-30-19 p. 8)


Beginning in early 1919 Auburn saw a slow increase in the yard's forces. The ranks were filled out both by new faces and returning ones. The crew at the transfer shed swelled to 150, a record. (Ibid., 5-16-19 p. 8) Lieutenant George Kenrick, the Auburn Yard's designer also returned home from France that May ...He went over the Buckley Line into Tacoma but stopped off long enough at Puyallup to send greetings to Auburn friends. (Ibid., 5-23-19 p. 10)

While life started to slow towards its pre-war pace, so did the traffic levels. U.S. Railroad Administration Regional Director R. G. Aishton's report of shipments in this district for the week of June 14th shows nearly 10,000 cars less than in the correponding week of last year. While the overall shipments had fallen, some specific items, primarily grain, livestock and lumber, had increased by nearly 19,000 carloads over 1918 levels. (Ibid., 6-27-19 p. 8) And even though the traffic levels were beginning what was to become a disastrous slide, the car shortage showed now signs of lessening. Yardmaster Jeffries noted that ...No empties are being brought in from the east, though there is an inistent call from the Gray's Harbor District for more cars to move the products of the big lumber mills. (Ibid., 6-27-19 p. 8) Again, the boom and bust nature of railroading reared its head, as two weeks later the Globe-Republican's railroad reporter wrote There is a marked falling off of lumber movement through the years, attributed to the fact that many mills have temporarily clsoed down for summer repairs. (Ibid., 7-11-19 p. 8)

Concurrent with the drought in business came a flood of men. The armed services had expected to discharge nearly a million men by Christmas 1918, and by the middle of 1919 the Army alone had discharged over three million men. (Ibid., 7-25-19 p. 2) Most would be leaving camps in America, with just a small percentage returning from overseas. What was happening to the post-war armed services illustrates the transition of the war-time economy to the peace time economy, with its inherent danger of a deep economic recession. The budget of the Army, pegged at 19 billion dollars in the last year of the war had now dropped to just three, almost overnight. (Ibid., 12-6-18 p. 1)

The Double-Edged Sword Looms Large Again

To combat the problems the flood of unemployed workers would create in the home front job market, 'employment offices' were set up at every military base in the country, 13 of which were in Washington state, by the Department of labor in late 1918. In conjunction with the War Department, these offices canvassed employment opportunities in an attempt to regulate the flow of discharged men so as not to destroy the labor market. In the spirit of cooperation, every employer in the nation was asked to send the Departments a list of the jobs they had available. (Ibid., 12-6-18 pp. 1, 6)

The oversupply of workers was a double-edged sword for the Railway. In one way it was an answer to Saint Paul's prayers, as positions emptied by better pay and military service could now be filled, construction projects could be pushed on to completion and the life of the company could begin to return to the pre-war status quo.

For the working men and women of the Railway, the tremendous pool of unemployed laborers could only be viewed as a threat. From the beginning of the USRA's control of the rail systems railroad workers had benefitted from numerous pay increases, increases which had been a response to the spiraling war time inflation of prices that had left the buying power of the railroader's wages far behind. Now those prices were declining as fast as they had risen on the way into the war, and the USRA responded by putting a hold on those wage pay outs. And why pay if help was now available to replace anyone who quit over the matter?

But quit they did, with nearly 100 of Auburn's shop men walking off the job and onto the picket line on the evening of August 6, a Wednesday. Machinists, boilermakers, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, pipfitters, their assorted helpers ...And practically all men employed about the shops... went out in protest over the governments' delay in responding to their demand for a wage increase. They joined a growing national strike which had started earlier that week that may have encompassed as many as 250,000 union members. The carmen at the rip track were awaiting the order to strike from local officials, but had not yet left their jobs. (Ibid., 8-8-19 p. 1) The following week found the men still out on the picket line, now joined by the carmen, and caught up in a less than humorous version of Catch-22. It came about when the USRA announced that the matter of wage increases would not be taken up until ...The last of the strikers have returned to work. President Wilson backed the Railroad Administration, demanding that the union members return to work immediately and await a settlement. The strikers, on their part, insisted that ...They will not return to work until asurances are given that their demands will be granted. (Ibid., 8-15-19 p. 1) Stalemate.

Union leaders had little luck getting their membership to heed the call and return to work. Messages out of some of the union's headquarters in Chicago stated that ...The situation is improving in every section of the country. The Globe-Republican's railroad reporter noted otherwise ...Not true so far as the Northwest is concerned, and scarecly borne out by reports from throughout the country.

The results of the strike could be seen around the yard. Crews were laid off and the movement of eastbound traffic slowed noticeably, although the NP managed to keep local and perishable shipments on the go. The roundhouse foremen that remained did their best to keep the engines running, while the local travelling engineer and trainmaster found themselves pressed into service as car inspectors at the rip track. (Ibid., 8-15-19 p. 1)

Before the end of the month, both the shop and carmen were back at work, with the assurance that their demands would be considered and adjusted within 30 days. (Ibid., 8-22-19 p. 12) But by the beginning of September President Wilson was modifying this course of action. Wilson brought 100 union representatives before him and posed a momentous question, asking the representatives ...To forego their demands until normal conditions come again, [for a] suspension of pay increases until a permenant basis for a solution can be acheived. For the stick there was a carrot, however. Wilson offered a four cent an hour pay increase for shopmen earning between 45 and 68 cents an hour, and a nine cent an hour increase for carmen earning up to 58 cents an hour. Wilson's proposal was a quickly turned down, and the representatives went back to their respective unions and prepared to vote on a general strike. (Ibid., 8-29-19 p. 3)

More bad news befell Auburn's railroaders in early September. Another epidemic had broken out: smallpox. Ten families had been quarrantined since the newest health threat showed up in late July. This time however, health authorities, perhaps from the lessons learned from the previous year's terrible attack of influenza, began vaccinating at the earliest opportunity. Dr. George H. Sparling, the King County Health Officer started with Auburn's schools, then ...Swooped down upon the roundhouse and shop Wednesday and pulled off a vaccination stunt that included about 90 percent of the employees. Starting in with Roundhouse Foreman McKee the Doctor went down the line injecting virus into the arms of whosoever willed, and most of the boys 'willed' rather than take chances with the smallpox epidemic. It is understood that Dr. Sparling will return and continue the good work throughout the yard. (Ibid., 9-5-19 p. 12) The vaccinations must have worked well, for there was only one new case of smallpox in town by the middle of September. (Ibid., 9-12-19 p. 1)

Concurrent with the end of the war came a return of special trains, as late March saw a 25-car shipment of rice for New Orleans and eventually Cuba sail through Auburn. (Ibid., 4-4-19 p. 10) Not only rice specials were moving through Auburn, but the 'Trophy Train' returned as well. As part of the third war bond drive the special train bedecked with the spoils of war, including a two-man tank and various field pieces was sent out to tour the country. It arrived in town on a Saturday evening for just two and a half hours before moving on to its next stop. (Ibid., 4-11-19 p. 1) In addition, the the oddball traffic returned as well. The movement of logs through the yards has been heavy the past week, a train of 30 carloads which was pulled out for Seattle Wednesday contained some of the biggest fir and cedar logs ever seen in the yards. Among them were a half dozen logs that vocered the full length of three flat cars, being about 130 feet in lenght. They went to the Seattle shipyards for use as spars. (Ibid., 8-8-19 p. 8) Washington's other major crops were also moving through Auburn. Fruit from eastern Washington averages about 50 cars per day of apples, peaches, prunes and melons for Seattle. (Ibid., 9-5-19 p. 12) Some of this traffic went through Auburn only to come back to town. A carload of partly decayed cantaloups rejected by the consignee at Seattle was run out here Wednesday and dumped in the lower yards. Many of the melons were found to be in a good state of preservation and furnished quite a feed for some of the yard boys. (Ibid., 9-26-19 p. 12)

From One Strike to Another

The shopmen's battle for higher wages ended in capitulation in the last week of Septemeber. The USRA and six unions agreed to the four cent an hour increase as offered by Wilson, together with an eight-hour a day schedule, until the Railroad Administration ended its control of the rail systems. Locally there was little time to celebrate, at least for the carmen. Their duties were extended to a nine hour day in early October. The reason was simple, there were too many bad-ordered cars. (Ibid., 10-3-19 p. 1) The Globe-Republican reported shortly thereafter that bad-ordered cars were being returned to service at the rate of 200 a day across the Northwest. (Ibid., 10-24-19 p. 10) That fall the USRA was also sending its inspectors to yards where traffic was heaviest in an effort to spped up shipments and free up cars being held for too long a period of time. On October 14 an inspector visited Auburn and reported that ...Cars here were being promptly and efficiently handled. (Ibid., 10-17-19 p. 10)

The end of October saw the threat of a strike, this time by the nation's coal miners. Coal was not only lifeblood of the NP's locomotives, but the major heating fuel of the day as well. The threat of the strike caused a run on the available black diamonds, and shortly there was a serious shortage of hopper cars. Around Auburn fuel dealerships had ordered more than 30 carloads of coal, but they had yet to be delivered. The NP, with its tremendous company owned mines, had managed to stockpile 15,000 tons of coal in Auburn Yard. A total which was, the Globe-Republican reported, enough to run the Puget Sound Division for a week. (Ibid., 10-31-19 pp. 1, 10) The USRA, taking no chances, had also ordered the NP to hold 75 cars of coal under load as a cushion against the effects of a drawn-out strike. (Ibid., 11-7-19 p. 10) Reports began to trickle in from eastern Washington that the fuel situation was so bad that people were resorting to burning sawdust in place of coal. As the effects of the strike worsened, the goverment released the coal stored in Auburn, but unless the strike ended quickly, the effects would be minimal. The NP's own stockpile had now withered down to just a few days' supply. (Ibid., 11-21-19 pp. 1, 10)

Other troubles were about to come to the Railway, and Auburn. By mid-November the post-war slowdown had brought the demotion of of six Auburn engineers, with an additional four firemen cut off. (Ibid., 11-14-19 p. 10) The economic bad news did not end there. Next the NP found its water supply for Auburn Yard condemned. It seems a slaughter house had set up shop right next to the Railway's intake on Soos Creek. From across the border in Kittitas County came the news that thousands of tons of hay were being held up for lack of cars. (Ibid., 11-21-19 p. 1)

The year seemed to end the way it had started, with a fire. Far worse than the blaze which had envloped a yard callbox back in April was a fire which gutted six old boxcar shacks near the sandhouse. The carbodies, which were used as housing by laborers around the yard, went up in smoke the morning of November 11, a Tuesday. The fire began in the small stove of a night shift laborer named Tanaka. It caught him asleep in bed and he was burned over the face and hands before getting clear of the shack. Other Japanese, Italian and Greek immagrent laborers lost bedding, cooking utensils, a $65 watch and a new suit of winter clothes, in addition to their homes. The roundhouse's fire crews extinguished the flames quickly enough ...That the shell still stands. (Ibid., 11-14-19 p. 10) Thus, the first anniversary of Armistice Day would not be remembered as anything more than the day when they lost everything they had in the world to a few of Auburn's residents.


On March 1, 1920 by order of President Wilson the USRA closed its doors and ended American railroad's 26 months of nationalization. (Daggett, Stuart Principles of Inland Transportation New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1934, p. 645) For the 'rental' of the majority of America's land transportation systems the USRA had paid $965 million in 1918, $963 million in 1919, and $158 million for two months use in 1920, a total of over two billion dollars. (Ibid., pp. 648-9) However, U.S. systems had paid in over half this amount in revenues to the Railroad Administration, lowering the cost to just over $810 million. The majority of this rental pay out, some $788 million dollars all told, went to the rail systems.

Along with the rental charges, the USRA also paid out over $554 million for additions and betterments, as well as $185 million in undermaintenance. (Ibid., p. 649) This latter item was incurred as a result of the USRA's having deferred maintenance on many lines because of material and worker shortages, as well as handling equipment in manners they were not designed for, such as running lightweight wood cars in conjunction with steel frame cars. This practice which was used to lessened the car shortage also hastened the demise of the older wood cars in the railroad's inventory.

Finally, a benevolent Congress offered American systems a six-month subsidy after the end of the USRA. Under the Transportation Act of 1920, individual systems were offered a sum equal to half of their annual operating income averaged from three years ending June 30, 1917. Any revenues over this amount would be turned over to the Treasury, any deficits under it would be made up by the Treasury. (Ibid., p. 650) It was a timely measure for American roads, taken as a whole, operated in the red for six out of twelve months in 1920. In February, and every month from April to August, they piled up a deficit amounting to nearly $232 million. In the space of a year's time operating incomes dropped from $516 million to just over $58 million. The Federal government adverted a potential disaster with this support and brought the total bill for nationalization and its aftermath to a grand total of $1,674,500,000. (Ibid., p. 650)

Author: John A. Phillips, III. Title: Auburn 1919-1920. ...And Back Again. URL: www.netcom.com/~whstlpnk/backagain.html.

© March 20, 2002