N.P. Ry.

From Shortage...

The Northern Pacific Railways Auburn Yard and the Road to Nationalization, Part I: 1914-1915

As the guns of August lashed out across the low countries, as the million-man British Expeditionary Force landed on the Continent, as the 27 million men of the French Army moved to check the German advance on Paris, the Pacific Northwest kicked off what was to become nearly a decade of struggle and strife which would not end, at least for Auburns railroaders, until the defeat of a nationwide shopmens strike in 1923.

Between 1914 and that fateful year however, Auburn was in for an uparalleled period of turmoil. The largest employer in town when war broke out was the Northern Pacific Railway. Scarecly more than a decade before, the Railway had opened the Palmer Cut-Off, a more direct route between the priciple city of western Washington and the NPs own route to the east over Stampede Pass. Barely a year before the Great War broke out the NP had opened Auburn Yard a clearinghouse for freight traffic to and from the Puget Sound region. A large amount of the yards business was a reflection of what was moving across the wharves of Puget Sound, and that usually meant the docks of Seattle. In 1914 Seattle stood poised to grab the brass ring; to surpass its cheif rival for Pacific trade, San Francisco, and become the dominant port on the Pacific Coast. Two days closer to Asia by steamship, Seattle had the additional benefit of cheaper wharf and warehouse rates. Gigantic port facilities which had been begun by the city were just being completed in 1914. (Berner pp. 198-9) The value of Seattles, the Northern Pacifics and Auburns business was about to go up.

The year began with Auburns local paper, the Globe covering the daily count of vagrants at the Police Departments Hotel de Gink, (Ibid., 1-21-15 p. 1) asking for clues about pet poisonings in South Auburn, (Ibid., 4-8-15 p. 1) reporting which luckless souls had managed to have their car smashed by the reckless trolleys of the Puget Sound Electric and telling readers the story of the bathroom fire in I. P. Iversens home. (Ibid., 12-3-14 p. 1) For days, then weeks and finally month after month in the weekly Globe, the news buried somewhere inside the papers eight to 12 page editions. Not until October 1 did the Great War reach the front page, when the Globe reported Robert J. Jones, a native of Wales working at the Northern Clay Companys terra cotta plant, left to join the 50th Highlanders at Victoria, B. C. (Ibid., 10-1-14 p. 1) Across the border in British Columbia the Canadian Pacific was giving its crews strange ultimatums: take a six-month lay-off, complete with loss of seniority, or enlist in the British Army and get a six-month bonus from the CP, in addition to the regular army pay. (Ibid., 11-26-14 p. 6) But back in Auburn, the war in Europe was not without its benefits, at least in the eyes of the Globes editor. The silver lining in the war cloud that hangs over Europe is the fact that the suffragettes have faded from view. (Ibid., 8-27-14 p. 4)

After Mr. Jones farewell, it didnt reach page one again until months later, when he returned. Rejected by the Highlanders, the Globe reported Mr. Jones was now intent on crossing the Atlantic to enlist in the British Army. They, he thought, would surely appreciate his effort, as well as have lower standards. Thus did the men and women of Auburn, and most of rural America, learn of World War I. For Yardmaster Iversen, trying to get the smell of smoke out of his clothes, for Puget Sound Division Superintendent J. J. McCullough, about to see his ninth and tenth children enter the world, for Agent W. J. Gregoire, about to purchase, only to have stolen, a new car, and for their employer the Northern Pacific Railway, it was going to be a very long war.

Business As Unusual

On the NP World War I began in typical fashion, with the talk of a strike. The state of Washington had recently enacted full crew laws, which the railroad managers were none too pleased with. Opinions would be bandied about the local papers for months on end, without real action from either side. Soon enough the NP and every other system in the country would need every worker they could lay their hands on. Perhaps the officials in St. Paul sensed this and let things lie.

In any case, the NP continued to lurch through its seasonal rushes. Yardmaster Iversen noted that at the beginning of the month there might be as many as 1,500 cars sitting idle at Auburn, only to find just weeks later he was hard pressed to find 150 for shippers. (Ibid., 1-14-15 p. 8) The ebb and flow of 1914 also found strange stories unfolding at the depot. In August, a car load of thoroughbred Holsteins being handled by the Northern Pacific was moving from Pennsylvania to a dairy at Orting. As the car passed the Auburn depot, a newborn calf slipped between the bars across the open door of the stock car and fell onto the depot platform. Clerk T. E. Golden was the first to find the newborn. It was taken into the depot, given milk and warmed by the stove. Everyone from the messenger to Agent McKee took turns caring for the calf and it made it through in good shape. When the car of Holsteins arrived in Orting minus the calf, McKee was bombarded with nearly a dozen telegrams. A new crate was constructed by the depot staff and the calf continued its journey over the NP. But not without a farewell ...The entire office force stood on the platform with a yearning expression at the vanishing train... The railroad reporter was unable to distinguish whether it was teardrops or raindrops that stood on their faces. (Ibid., 8-17-14 p. 6)

For the most part of 1914, depot life was not nearly as interesting. The most exciting thing that has happened at the NP depot this week is Agent McKees new hat. (Ibid., 11-19-14 p. 8) But odd occurrences still cropped up. On the afternoon of December 27 a special train of three coaches passed through Auburn on its way to Sedro-Wooley. The coaches, full of wards from the State Insane Asylum at Steilacoom were moving to a new facility in the north. Agent McKee said they wanted to stop here and take on the depot force, but he calmly signaled them to go on. (Ibid., 12-31-14 p. 5) Later that year death came to Auburn itself. On the night of December 17 the temperature dropped to a bone-chilling six degrees. The next day the Auburn section crew awoke to find their number reduced by one; J. J. Lane had died in the night. Lane was part of another quiet tradition on the NP. When he died the rough and tumble section hand was 60 years old. (Ibid., 12-17-14 p. 1)


The growing tide of traffic caused by the worlds going to war demanded a response from railroad managers. In Europe, this problem had already been addressed by the nationalization of privately controlled systems, such as in Great Britain and France, and the delegation of control to military authorities where state-owned systems existed, this being primarily in Germany. The United States, with a long tradition of private systems and almost no state-run systems to speak of, nationalization did not come until months after Americas entry into the war. Even then it was not readily accepted as the correct response to the crisis. Many believed, even as late as 1917, that the superior efficiency of private control offset the inclination of individual railroads to pull apart... (Daggett, Stuart Principles of Inland Transportation New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1934, p. 642)

Prior to the creation of the United States Railroad Administration (USRA) and nationalization, the American Railway Association (ARA) attempted to curtail rivalry between the competing systems to avert the effects of a car shortage and ensure efficiency. The first step the Association took was in 1915, when it created the Committee of Five on Cooperation with the Military Authorities, actually a response not to the World War, but to aid in the mobilization of troops to the Mexican-American border during a crisis that year. Its duties were to act as a liaison between the armed services and rail systems to ensure the prompt movement of men and equipment. The Committee eventually proved itself so useful that it was continued right up to the coming of the USRA. But for the moment, this measure was the extent of American railroads response. (Ibid., p. 644)

Nothing Doing...

In Auburn, January began with the shipments of war. Eleven cars of silk from the steamship S. S. Protesilaus in Seattle could be found racing eastward for New York on a passenger schedule, the bales having sat on Seattles piers just hours. The silk was not part of the normal flow of expensive goods from Asia to the east coast, but had been requisitioned by the British Army. (Globe, 8-6-14 p. 6) February saw trainloads full of cotton worming their way west. A solid train of 70 loads moved from the Frisco at Memphis over the Burlington to Billings and finally across the NP to Auburn. (Ibid., 2-18-15 p. 1) March saw 32 boxcars full of trucks headed for Seattle over the NP. (Ibid., 3-25-15 p. 6) This was followed in April by some 200 carloads of barbed wire. (Ibid., 4-8-15 p. 8) This material was destined for Czarist Russia via Vladivostok. No less than eight new ships were added on the Seattle to Vladivostok trans-Pacific run that year, supplying the Tsars army the hard way, via the Trans-Siberian Railway. (Berner pp.199-200) All of this helped Seattle to do a booming business in 1915, with the value of the imports and exports moving through its waterfront being pegged at $117 million. (Berner pp.198-9) For the first time, the dollar value of trade in the Washington Customs District had exceeded that of San Francisco. (Berner pp. 197-7) It was the best year in the ports history. It proved to be just the beginning.

The flood of export traffic was not without its repercussions; Auburns facilities were expanded almost immediately. By April the NP was adding 2,500 feet of car capacity in two new tracks at the transfer shed. (Globe, 4-15-15 p. 1) At the same time, new demands were being placed on the yard. Beginning May 17, five freight trains would originate at Auburn instead of Seattle. Trains 675 and 676, Sumas freight; 686 and 687, Everett time freight, and train 679 would all be calling Auburn home. (Ibid., 4-29-15 p. 8)

Spring, 1915 brought out the civic pride in the yard forces. Traffic might be burgeoning and the overall effects might last for long, but there was still enough esprit in Auburn to see a shop-wide spring cleaning carried out. In a place full of soot and cinders, boulders were white-washed, Car Foreman W. F. Windleys office was tidied up with a mowing of the lawn, and flowers were planted. (Ibid., 4-8-15 p. 8) The coming of spring brought out the sports enthusiasts as well. A baseball league was formed with the roundhouse, transfer shed and the R. I. P. track all fielding teams. An empty lot to the northeast of the roundhouse was put under the plow and soon there was a diamond. (Ibid., 4-15-15 p. 12) Other things were coming to the yard that Spring. W. J. Gregoire, the NPs Transfer Agent, purchased a new Ford. ...No more do he and his little black grip make trips through the yard. (Ibid., 4-29-15 p. 8) Shortly thereafter, another shiny new item showed up on the Gregoires doorstep, a baby daughter. Like the car, she would cause Agent Gregoire some consternation in the near future. (Ibid., 6-3-15 p. 1)

Not everything went as well as the spring cleaning, team forming and the buying sprees. April also saw a rash of derailments. On April 24 engine 4010 jumped the track just east of Kanaskat at Lemolo; Train 603 split on a switch at Ravensdale on the siding on the same day and finally on April 26 engine 4013 blew a flue at Kanaskat while on Train 602. (Ibid., 4-29-15 p. 8) The trains were not the only things derailing around Auburn that April. As Train 603 slowly entered the yards on April 30 a car dynamited, throwing the train into emergency. Future Auburn Mayor and then NP Conductor O. P. Bertsch, watching the world go by from the rear platform of 603s caboose, was caught unaware. He was thrown from the platform to the cinders below, eating a mouthful of grime and getting bumped and bruised, but coming through for the most part unharmed. (Ibid., 5-6-15 p. 8) Conductor Bertschs explanation for his fall from grace, and subsequent black and blue appearance was ...His association with the newspaper fraternity. The railroad reporter shot back ...If he would follow Rule G (Prohibiting drinking on the job) more closely he could stay on the platform with little trouble. (Ibid., 5-13-15 p. 8)

Other little problems were also cropping up. The Trainmasters Office issued an edict requiring all callers to wear a name badge. Callers Les Gove and Ernest Bugs Von Lossow, although sincerely wishing to comply with the order, found themselves in a bind. They only had one badge ...and they are having a hard time deciding which shall wear it. (Ibid., 5-20-15 p. 8) In addition, Transfer Agent Gregoire now found himself the butt of jokes, all due to a pram. When his new daughters stroller arrived on June 18 he must have been over-awed by the femininity of it all, for at the depot he was seen to worry over having to push the thing home through the yards. He settled on a simple scheme, bribe somebody else to do it. Gregoire started with Ed Johnson for 50 cents, only to be turned down flat. Failing this, he fell back on good, old-fashioned friendship. He asked Agent Jack McKee to do it. And upped the bribe to a dollar. McKee's answer was a straightforward Nothing doing. Gregoire finally threw in the sponge and pushed the stroller home himself, braving a storm of ...Quips, jests and jibes all along the street. He afterwards confidentially admitted that it was the longest four blocks he ever traveled. (Ibid., 6-24-15 p. 1) Thus, the NPs Auburn Yard in the first year of the war.

Still On the Job

Amidst the background of this lightheartedness, the war overseas was showing up more and more at home. The tidal wave of traffic that would stop American railroads in their tracks was building. It could be seen in the records being set. At Auburn, May saw an increase of 8,000 cars handled over just the month before. In addition, 98 eastbound manifests, trains with cars for Spokane or farther east, were made up in the yards. This was the largest number since the opening in 1913 and proof of the NPs fortunate timing in building at Auburn. (Ibid., 6-3-15 p. 5) The traffic also diverged into new areas as shipments from the northwests lumber industry now began in earnest. The clerks were soon reporting that Auburn was shipping 250 cars of lumber and shingles eastward each day. (Ibid., 6-24-15 p. 8) The boom in lumber and shingles was on its way to creating a car shortage in the northwest. By June 23 Auburn was so busy, and so shorthanded, that General Yardmaster Iversen himself was out cutting cars. The local railroad reporter noting that he ...Got out and made himself otherwise useful. (Ibid., 6-24-15 p. 8) July 1 saw seven engineers and six firemen moved off the extra list and set up on the big board in the roundhouse. At the R. I. P. track, ten men were being put on. Finally, the tally for June came in. One hundred eastbound manifest trains. (Ibid., 7-1-15 p. 8)

Specials were also causing a delays on the system. From July 10 to July 15, sixteen trainloads of Shriners moved through Auburn. Beginning at midnight of July 8 until 5 p.m. on July 10, not a scheduled freight or extra turned a wheel in revenue service. Potentate Smith and his merry band, on their way south from Seattle to San Francisco, must have paid a dear price to St. Paul. In addition to the clear tracks, engine 2199 was decked out in bunting, replete with an oversized Shriner emblem on the number plate. (Ibid., 7-15-15 p. 8) If the traffic wasnt already tied up with the specials, the lumber, the silk or the trucks, it certainly wasnt helped by the harvest. July 6 saw 1,500 crates of berries moving out of Auburn, the largest one-day shipment ever. (Ibid., 7-6-15 p. 6) Next month, in Yakima on the Pasco Division, the orchard barons were stuffing peaches and apricots into 200 cars a day. (Ibid., 8-19-15 p. 6) This surge of shipping might be slowing the local divisions, but what was occurring at the other end of the NP system, in the monstrous wheat fields of the middle west, must have been unimaginable. For one of the few times in American history, farm prices were climbing. Wheat, starting the war at 40 cents a bushel, had shot to $1.65 a bushel by 1917. (Ibid., 2-23-17 p. 7) The rush of farmers eager to get their crops to market must have made Agents heads spin from Washington to Minnesota.

Early August saw another five crews had been set up on the board in Auburn, (Ibid., 7-22-15 p. 8) and the Globe reported that for the first time in eight months the roundhouse was at full swing, three eight hour shifts a day, six days a week. The R. I. P. track it reported, was bracing for the grain rush. (Ibid., 8-12-15 p. 8) A Missouri-Kansas-Texas boxcar that rolled through Auburn that month showed the plight of American railroads, and caught the attention of the yard office. It had been sent from the Katy to the Florida East Coast, then ferried to the Cuban Railway, where it lingered 29 days. From Cuba the car had been forwarded all the way across the country to the Pacific Northwest. (Ibid., 8-26-15 p. 6) To help with all the cars coming in from these far-flung points, the NP added a third track scale to the yard. It was built and in service in less than a month. (Ibid., 10-14-15 p. 8)

October began with a new round of wrecks and injuries. First, the Auburn wrecking crew was called to Lester to clean up a wreck. A broken wheel had derailed two cars east of town on the massive viaduct over the Green River. One car actually fell the 150 feet down to the river, only to have its load of presto-lite tanks explode on impact. The second car was luckier, hanging half-on and half-off the bridge. The clean-up work took three days. (Ibid., 10-7-17 p. 6) From there the wrecker was sent to Eagle Gorge to right two more derailed cars. At the same time, back in the wreckers base, more mischief was lurking. As Car Foreman Frank Windley was showing new carmen the delicate art of how to lift a car the jack slipped, falling on the Foremans toe and breaking it in two places. Hes still on the job though, on crutches. (Ibid., 10-21-15 p. 6) Finally, in the mishap department, A misunderstanding of the occupancy of track six demolished three boxcars and two cabooses Saturday night at 10 and injured engineer C. W. Huffman. A switch crew making up a train at the north end of the track when a south end crew shoved a string of cars onto the same track. Engineer Huffman, deadheading to Tacoma in the caboose of the south bound train was struck by shrapnel, which knocked his teeth out. A reefer was thrown on end, striking a switch engine two tracks away. Two crewmen on the foot boards of this engine jumped clear. The yards switch foreman was suspended pending the outcome of an investigation. (Ibid., 10-28-15 p. 6)

November saw the car situation worsening, and taking on an air of mystery in the Globes columns. Where were all the cars? Tuesday Assistant Yardmaster Graham and his crew spent a good share of the afternoon sherlockholmesing through the yards and finally detected one car down near the transfer sheds. Other odd things were afoot. Tea, usually given extra attention by railroads, is being shipped through Auburn in stock cars. The tea having been crisped in a Seattle warehouse fire. (Ibid., 11-4-15 p. 6)

The year ended on a high note for the nations railroads. Cars stored nationwide, which stood at over 300,000 near the beginning of summer, by the end of fall the number had been cut nearly in half, to 180,000 idle cars. This, the Globe reported, was A good indication that business over the country is picking up and general prosperity isn't far away. (Ibid., 11-25-15 p. 6) For Auburns crews, 1915 ended with the loss of one of the symbols of that prosperity. Agent Gregoires eight-month-old Ford was stolen. (Ibid., 12-30-15 p. 1)

This article was first published in the White River Valley Museums Journal.

The White River Valley Museum has an excellent collection of period newspapers, railroad photographs and railroad union documents from the south King County area. The Museum is open from 1:30 to 4:30 Thursday through Sunday.

The museum is located at:

918 H Street Southeast
Auburn, Washington 98002
Phone: (206) 939-4523
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Author: John A. Phillips, III. Title: Auburn 1914-1915. From Shortage... URL: www.netcom.com/~whstlpnk/shortage.html.

© March 20, 2002