Sunday, May 24, 2009

Railroads of Grant County 1939-1949

Here is the unedited version of the Centennial piece that appeared in print on 5-22-09.

As if the Roaring ‘20s hadn’t brought enough change and the Depression era of the ‘30s weren’t too solemnizing, the decade of the ‘40s brought more of both across the country, as well as in Grant County.

The largest project the region had ever seen – the construction of Grand Coulee Dam – was progressing nicely in 1939. With the help of the government railroad line from Coulee City to Grand Coulee, a long-standing record was set for the largest amount of concrete placed in 24 hours, at an impressive 41,000 tons on May 25. Materials and supplies for the construction effort continued to pour into Grand Coulee for the rest of the decade.

As the county looked ahead to the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, plans began to be laid for creating irrigation districts to manage the water soon to be headed south from the great dam. The legislature first created the legal foundation for irrigation districts; then landowners locally and across the state were convened to vote on the creation of these districts. The Great Northern line was instrumental in this action, conducting a special train to bring absentee landowners from the west side of the state to Grant County to vote on this historic measure.

The special train itself was an unusual sight. Passengership on the railroad lines had been suffering from a severe decline throughout the Great Depression, which was only slightly preceded by the increased popularity of private automobiles over rail travel in the 1920s. Many measures were being employed to try to lure customers back to the railroad; one of these was to modernize the fleets.

Over the previous decade, passenger cars that had once been made of wood and iron were now being constructed of stainless steel, with additions of aluminum and Cor-Ten steel. This reduced the weight of the cars, giving streamlined speed and greater comfort to the passengers – as well as a more streamlined look – compared to the “rattletraps” described in the early history of trains. Many of these steel cars went unpainted except for the legally-required reporting marks.

Inside, car builders created luxurious rooms and private compartments, such as the Pullman Company’s roomettes – one-passenger suites similar to the twin-berth compartments used in Europe. Even these amenities, though, didn’t make up for low ridership. People were taking to the new highways at an unprecedented rate, and rail companies were beginning to sell off unprofitable ventures, such as the interurban rail system between Everett and Seattle, which had been in place for forty years.

The world was changing. Cars were becoming increasingly popular, prompting the construction of new highways; public transit in any form was in a long, slow decline, including the urban streetcar systems. Even the majestic steam engines of the past were on their way out, making reluctant room for new diesel-powered locomotives.

Steam engines were becoming unwieldy monstrosities. The size of the engine components had nearly outsized the capacity of the tracks to hold them, and required more mechanical operation than ever before. Maintenance requirements slowed turn-around time after each run, and the constant necessity for water stole precious time. With the advent of mass-production of the diesel locomotive, steam engines were being relegated to yard work, scrap yards, museums and amusement parks.

General Motors’ Electro-Motive Division was the first to mass-produce the new locomotives. Its “FT” toured the country at the beginning of 1940, showing off 5400 horsepower in four power units, and blowing past steam locomotives at every turn. Instead of the frequent water and maintenance stops, it seemingly turned on a dime and did twice the work or more. It could be idled for days at a time, run by one man instead of a team, and created less noise and smoke pollution. Multiple units could be coupled together – or scaled – to complete larger jobs as well. It was reliable, comfortable for both passenger and crew, and with thermal efficiencies running at 73% compared to steam’s 26% or less, it appeared to be an engineering miracle. Steam engine producers couldn’t keep up; as the companies began switching to the longer-hauling diesel trains, smaller division points began to close.

Besides the impressive sight of these new machines rumbling past (Milwaukee Road’s first diesel on the mainline ran from Avery, Idaho to Othello, Washington on November 6, 1941), much of the Basin was unaffected by these changes. Passenger service was still operational between the small towns of Grant County and surrounding areas, but sleeper compartments and luxury accommodations weren’t the most important features considered when travelling anywhere locally.

One change that made an appearance in 1940 was the name switch for the railroad post office on the Northern Pacific from “Coulee” back to “Coulee City” on February 25. Again, though, it was a minor change and few took notice.

What did bring notice, though, was the news in June that Nazi Germany had conquered France. Four months later, the military initiated the first peacetime draft in United States’ history. GN’s president, Ralph Budd, was appointed to be the Transportation Commissioner on the Council of National Defense, and began to determine the plan for the transport of troops and supplies during the inevitable involvement of the U.S. in the war. During WWI, this level of planning hadn’t been accomplished and railroad officials wanted to be prepared for changes affecting their business practices.

Budd’s policy centered on the “discontinuance of trains that are not necessary.” He warned the railroads six months ahead of time to expect troop movements to double in 1942, but advised they not expand their fleets; in fact, he asked them to consider which trains could be dropped. A month later, the military issued the same directive, and when the country entered the war on December 4, 1941, these predictions came true. Troops moved from the interior of the country to the coasts, and supplies for military production moved back to the interior from coastal ports. The entire state of Washington was actively engaged in converting raw materials into finished products and shipping them back to military posts on the west side of the state. Passenger service was all but suspended. Civilian riders holding tickets were regularly bumped from their scheduled train due to lack of seating.

Abandonment of branch line tracks was considered, to help with the wartime shortage of metals, but other than a few spur tracks to nowhere, no rails were lifted in the Columbia Basin. Most branch line traffic in Grant County was agricultural in nature, not participating in wartime industrial expansion, and so remained fairly stable.

The notable exception was, of course, the U.S. government railroad to Grand Coulee. A year after the draft was initiated in 1940, the first generator came online at the new dam, providing the first delivery of locally-generated electricity to Nespelem’s Rural Electric Association on September 12. Other generators were yet to be completed, and the construction of the irrigation pumping plant was just beginning, so the rail line continued to be used heavily.

With the war raging on the other side of the world, though, the country again went into wartime industrial mode, salvaging metals, mass-producing supplies, and conserving food and resources. In a fictional “letter home from the war” published in a Milwaukee Road magazine in 1943, the company advertised the success of their salvage operations:
The folks at home who work on The Milwaukee Road are doing all right too. President Scandrett had a message in the magazine the other day telling about it: "Four thousand pounds of scrap and fittings were removed from under buildings. There have been 98,650 pounds of shop-made tools taken from the blacksmith shop and converted into scrap ... also from the shops, 1,849 pounds of brass recovered ... also 36,559 pounds of miscellaneous scrap recovered from the roundhouse and shops." (The Milwaukee Magazine, May 10 1943)

When the war came home with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the realities of the situation did finally touch the Columbia Basin. Local Japanese immigrants and naturalized citizens were forced off their farms and out of their communities as far east as Yakima by Lieutenant General De Witt’s Public Proclamation Number One, delivered on May 26, 1942. These evacuees were shuttled to Portland by train, and then on to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, northwest of Cody, Wyoming.

The construction of the irrigation system stemming from Grand Coulee Dam was put on hold as well, in order to supply much-needed energy to aluminum plants and to the top-secret Manhattan Project at Hanford, which began in March of 1943 after the condemnation of private land for an undisclosed military purpose. Generation of electricity took precedence; officials at Grand Coulee even borrowed generators from other facilities for a short time until the dam was sufficiently completed to do the job.

While Hanford was specifically chosen by the Army and its contractor DuPont because of its remote location from highways and railroads, 158 miles of new track were built on the site and linked to the Milwaukee mainline at Beverly. The Milwaukee was also used to move much of the town’s population in one quick operation to other locations outside the project site.

Not even the 51,000 employees at Hanford knew what was being created there. Secrecy and defense of those secrets was a focus of a great deal of energy, since no one had any idea when one or all major projects could become a target for Japanese and German attacks. Grand Coulee Dam, too, could be a target, as could the government railroad supplying workers there with materials to create greater hydro-electric generating capability.

A young married couple living in a remodeled railroad car in Odair, at the head of the government line, took the job of Air Raid Warden in 1942 under the national Air Raid Program. Roy and Maxine Ramey watched the sky for suspicious airplanes and policed the use of blackout shades in their tiny neighborhood of four people. In an interview with the couple, they shared that Roy’s hours, and thus Maxine’s as well, numbered 62 a week – nine each on Monday through Saturday, with an extra eight on Sundays. Maxine reported that they typically saw one or two planes a day during the six years Roy served his country and community under this program.

At the other end of the county, ten military passengers – not yet to the front where they would serve – were killed, ten others injured, and one railway official also injured in a train wreck near Warden on August 4, 1943 at nearly 1 a.m. In this case, the length of one car caused severe destruction and loss of life when a regular train didn’t pull far enough into the clear to allow a special military train to pass safely. When the locomotive of passenger train Extra 251 West collided into the locomotive of mixed train Extra 849 West, which was frantically trying to move backwards off the mainline at 2 miles per hour, the former train was moving at 55 miles per hour. Train 251 was pulling twelve Pullman sleeper cars of military personnel; car eleven telescoped more than thirty feet into car twelve. With the increased traffic came increased chance of accidents; until this point, the county had been spared any major rail casualties since 1917.

In Ephrata, more changes were afoot. A rail transportation department had been created to fill government orders for the transportation of freight and troops whether by train, or by other means. On August 27, 1942, this name was changed to the Transportation Corps, and more personnel were granted to it to accomplish its duties. Two personnel were assigned to the Ephrata GN Railway station, where Mr. E. C. Pittinger, railway agent, allotted them 100 square feet in which to set up their operations.

In the next two weeks, the GN and military engineers began construction of a railway spur track from the GN mainline to a warehouse area on the new Ephrata Air Base. This short spur minimized freight handling, added efficiency, and provided secrecy for military movements on and off the air base.

As published by Patricia J. Dunsten in “Certain Lands Southeast of Ephrata,” the GN made its first trip on the spur on November 15, 1943, “bringing in one carload of coal for the post engineers, one carload of targets for the base ordinance, one carload of engines for the sub-depot and one carload of Teletype equipment for the base signal.”

The air base eventually purchased their own Plymouth gas-powered locomotive, but before this, the GN used its own local power to switch cars on the military spur. Small gas-powered “tug” vehicles, used to move planes between the hangars and the airfield, were also used to move rail cars from the spur to various unloading points. Walt Thayer, a Civil Service guard for the spur, recalled in an interview in 1993, that he often had to repair switchpoints and rerail cars after these tugs mishandled the boxcars. He also recalled that penny-pinching railroad employees would stop their trains on the air base spur while they grabbed lunch at the mess hall for a measly “two bits.” On their way back to the train, they’d convince some other civilian with privileges to find them cigarettes, a rationed item highly desired by many trainmen.

To the northeast, at Hartline, the NP tore down the 50-year-old depot on February 3, 1944. This was also the same year the NP built its last new steam engine.

In other places outside the county, the war continued, oblivious to the changes the locals were experiencing. In September, the first reactor at Hanford went critical, launching the production of uranium and plutonium that would eventually be used to end the war. Two months later, Japan launched 9000 incendiary balloons from Hokkaido into the jet stream, hoping to set fires on the west coast of the United States and draw resources away from the war effort. On February 12 of the next year, the first of the 28 balloons ultimately to be found in Washington State was discovered north of Spokane. Another balloon exploded on power lines at Hanford, causing a blackout and a halt in operations for a short time.

Five days before President Truman announced Victory-in-Europe Day in May of 1945, the Soap Lake depot in the Grant Orchards area burned down under non-military circumstances, to be replaced by a 10’x16’ watchman’s house from a siding by the name of Columbia River, near the Rock Island Dam. It took crews five months to move the small building. Winchester, too, replaced its 37-year-old depot that year with a small shack, which only lasted another six years.

With the European end of the war finally over, the Milwaukee Road published yet another letter between their fictional father and son, which included the assertion that the company was planning for peacetime improvements to the line, including new track. The company continued to speak highly of their own ability to handle the increased traffic and requirements during the war, as well as the successes of the Army’s 744th Railway Operating Battalion, whose 6916 members – some employees of Milwaukee – had served on the European railroads during the first half of the war. Little did they know their fictitional prediction that “the Japs won’t last long” would be so accurate.

On July 16, the first atomic explosion was tested at Alamogordo, New Mexico. Less than one month later, when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the northwest would hear for the first time what was happening south of Grant County in that secret complex. The world – and especially the Columbia Basin – was still reeling from this revelation when the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki; this particular bomb specifically used the plutonium created alongside the Columbia River. When Japan surrendered the next day, all the trouble and sacrifices paid by the railroads, industry, business, government, and even individual citizens seemed to have paid off. The war was finally over, and everyone had contributed to that end.

Life slowly began to return to normal. The Milwaukee Road, constantly fighting bankruptcy, announced that it was once again out of receivership in December of 1945. Construction resumed on the pumping plant at the Grand Coulee Dam the next year. In 1947, the Washington State legislature finished its legal battle to construct limited-access highways to ensure fewer accidents on the greatly-popular car routes.

The railroads felt this. Officials noted the increase in rail traffic due to the war, following a long, slow slump in passengership. The hope was that, after the war, numbers would average out and level off. This didn’t happen, and still more passenger-service programs were scrapped, including Tacoma’s Municipal Belt Line Railway. It was a continuation of earlier trends, and it didn’t bring encouragement to rail companies or their employees.

Despite this reality, the railroads continued their vision of modernizing their lines, expecting that doing so would ultimately bring riders back to the rails. The older wood and iron passenger and box cars had been completely worn out during the war, making the purchase of new cars vital. The choice of luxury cars, though, was rarely allowed by tight budgets.

In 1947, the GN was the first northwest road to receive streamlined cars, which they had ordered during the war. The riding public saw these cars as the wave of the future, and for a limited time, ridership improved.

New diesels were also featured on the Milwaukee line at the same time. The streamlined “dreamliner” Olympian Hiawatha pulled its first train in June from Chicago to Seattle/Tacoma with a SkyTop lounge on the end, a rounded glass-top observation car. The train also included coach cars, Touralux sleeper cars, and a Tip Top Grill and dining car, but lacked the Pullman private-room sleepers for which the Milwaukee Road had hoped. The trip took 45 hours, the fastest schedule yet recorded between these two endpoints. The Milwaukee also began using end-to-end and dispatcher-to-train radios in Washington that same year.

The NP placed its new cars into service in 1947 too. In an ad run locally on June 10, 1947, by Mr. H. L. Hutchinson, railway agent at Coulee City, the NP boasted of their new 4-unit, 6000-horsepower diesel locomotives, 1500 new boxcars, and a fancy, new yard machine called a forklift that could raise “a million peas high enough to walk under.” It seems this common machine today caused great excitement in 1947.

Mr. Hutchinson had had plenty of his own excitement that January when the Coulee City depot nearly burned down. The fireplace had burst into flames, and threw embers onto the roof shingles. Hutchinson praised the local fire department for saving everything in his family’s apartment on the second floor, and said that only a package of shingles was needed to fix the damage.

Coulee City seemed to be in the news often in 1947, especially in the month of January. The Coulee City News reported on the 24th that wheat couldn’t be shipped out of town due to a shortage of boxcars after the war. Only 29 cars of wheat had been loaded and shipped over the winter, but another 350,000 bushels remained in the Centennial Mills elevator and on local farms.

That summer, the old NP roundhouse at Coulee City burned in a “spectacular fire” which completely destroyed the structure. Telephones and power went out during the fire, leaving the fire department’s notification of the blaze to a passerby who opted to drive to the stationhouse. Efforts were also hampered by the distance to a fire hydrant and lack of sufficient hose to reach it. The building was owned at the time by Bitco, a tool-sharpening business involved with the Bureau of Reclamation’s Columbia Basin Project at the nearby Bacon Siphon Tunnel.

The railroads finished out this busy decade with high hopes, but deepening worries about their future. Agriculture still reigned in Grant County, though, and the railroad was the most efficient way to deliver those goods to the rest of the country. No one at the time doubted railroads would continue indefinitely in the Basin.

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