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Railroad at War: The B&O and World War II


Railroad at War: The B&O and World War II


During the late 1930’s our nation was struggling to lift itself out of the Great Depression. The unemployment rate was still at a chilling 17 percent, meaning that 9.5 million people were out of a job.  The entire railroad industry had seen its profits fall and its workforce drastically cut from the heady days of the 1920’s. The news reports from Europe and Asia were disturbing, suggesting that the world was on the brink of another major war. Still, many Americans were hoping that we could avoid direct involvement in the conflict.

The demand for military hardware and other supplies spurred an upturn in the American economy and an increase in rail traffic. Rail industry operating revenues jumped 10 percent over the previous year. They grew again in 1940 to a level not seen since 1930, before the depression put its grip on the country.  But as Hitler’s armies marched into Poland in September of 1939, a growing number could sense that providing war materials to the victims of aggression was just the beginning for the United States.

As the clouds of war were building on the horizon, the leaders of the nation’s railroads communicated their desire to avoid a government takeover of the railroad industry as had occurred from 1917 to 1920 during WWI. The president of the United States was a friend of the railroads, and he agreed that cooperation and coordination were preferable to a takeover. When the attack on Pearl Harbor ended any doubt about our role in the war, and full mobilization was begun, the railroads were on board to assume a major part in the war effort.

This lesson plan focuses on the role played by the railroads during World War II. It also examines the impact of the war on railroads and their employees, with an emphasis on the B&O.

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