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World War I Brought Upgrades to the Nation's Rail Network, Including Washington

The year was 1918. World War I has been raging in Europe for almost 4 years. The strain on US railroads to furnish transportation of equipment, supplies and finished materials to the United States Atlantic Ocean ports for shipment overseas to the Allies on the battlefronts, along with the need to keep critical munitions factories and war industries supplied with raw materials has been increasing every year and with the U.S. entry into the war in June of 1917, it is now unprecedented.

With the burden of moving the goods and people necessary for everyday business, coupled with the heavy demands of war, the nation’s railroad network - which was owned and operated by over 440 different entities- had bogged down, nearing the point of total collapse. In December 1917 the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) recommended federal control of the railroad industry to ensure efficient operation. The takeover measures were to go beyond simply easing the congestion and expediting the flow of goods; they were to bring all parties—management, labor, investors, and shippers—together in unified effort to work on behalf of the national interest. President Wilson issued an order for nationalization of the nation’s railroads on December 28th, 1917. The United States Railroad Administration (USRA) was created to oversee operation of the nation’s railroads and bring them to operate together as one complete unit. The railroads were to remain nationalized under USRA’s control until March of 1920.

During this time, USRA encouraged more standardized equipment amongst the different railroad companies, including locomotives and rolling stock. Priority was given to improving key railroad shops and terminals. It was through USRA that B&O obtained approval for funding the shop improvements.

Shops Indiana (Washington)

The local shop facilities had been constructed in 1888-1889 and were now three decades old. In the meantime, in a continued quest for more efficient and profitable operations, railroad companies had continued to build locomotives and cars larger and larger in size and capacities. The infrastructure built to support the everyday maintenance and repair of the equipment in the late 1880’s had now become outdated and a hindrance to progress. The newer equipment could not be deployed locally account it could not be properly maintained due of the limitations of the older (smaller) 70-foot turntable and short 75 foot tracks in the roundhouse stalls. In order to move forward, it was decided to upgrade the local shop facilities.

The Washington Democrat reports that on May 20th, 1918 construction commenced on improvements to the B&O roundhouse located at Shops. The improvements included the removal the existing 70-foot turntable and replacing it with a modern 100-foot table. Of the 34 stalls in the local roundhouse, 12 stalls in the northwest section of the roundhouse were lengthened an additional 25 feet from the original 75 feet for a total distance of 100 feet. These changes were designed to accommodate USRA’s standard design of a new larger 2-8-2 Mikado locomotive. B&O had ordered 100 locomotives of this type from the Baldwin Locomotive Works also in 1918. These locomotives would spend most of their service life working on the B&O’s St. Louis line across Southern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois with many serviced and maintained at Shops in Washington. They were in service from the time of their delivery in 1918 until finally being retired and replaced by diesels in the late 1950’s.

It should also be noted that the replacement of the turntable was an “All Hands on Deck” type of event. It was obviously a major disruption to the railroad operation as a whole. One should keep in mind that every locomotive on every train arriving or departing Washington at this time needed to be serviced and possibly turned at the roundhouse. An operational turntable was a critical component not only to the roundhouse and shop but to the entire division. Down time had to be kept to a minimum as evidenced by the preliminary preparedness, down to the new table being complete with doghouse attached.

This first photograph is a view looking East South East taken from the roof of the west side of the roundhouse. The final preparation of the general area for the removal of the existing older 70-foot turntable (center in the photograph) and installation of the new 100-foot table can be seen taking shape. It shows the original 70-foot turntable still in position and still in use. The new larger table can be seen it the upper right of the photograph just to the right of the brick sand house. It already has the control house or “dog house” attached. This is the small white structure near the three men standing on the new table. The new turntable pit of a larger diameter has been completed. Worth noting is the fact that the day to day regular repair and maintenance of the locomotives is still necessary and is being conducted at the roundhouse, greatly compounding the complexity of the operation. This is why there are temporary bridges and trestles connecting the ends of the 70-foot turntable with the outside diameter of the 100-foot table’s pit wall and the radial tracks.

In this second photograph, also taken from the roundhouse roof, is looking West South West, almost 180 degrees opposite from the first photograph. In it can be seen that the new table assembly (which was visible on flatcars in the first photograph) has been moved onto the old table. Still resting on flatcars, preparations are being made to lift the new table from the flatcars and set it aside. No less than four rail cranes are employed in the procedure. The importance and magnitude of the operation is evident by the number of management men in suits and hats, intermixed among the workmen in overalls.

In the lower left corner, now resting on a flatcar, can be seen the “dog house” or controller’s station of the retired 70-foot table. Due to the size and width of the new table assembly, it was necessary to remove the dog house in order to maneuver the new table into the desired position.

In this last photograph of the three, it can be seen that the new turntable bridge is now only supported by one flatcar and has been positioned onto the old turntable and turned counterclockwise a few tracks from its previous position shown in the second photo. It is being lifted by cranes attached on both ends. Additionally, more of the temporary trestles and bridge timbers between the new and old diameters of the turntables has been removed as final preparations for the replacement of the old with the new are underway.

Unfortunately, as of this writing these are the only three photographs of this intriguing exercise found. I’m fairly certain there were more… and hope that they will surface as time goes on.

Information contained in this article was drawn from news articles of the day and artifacts contained in the Daviess County Museum collections. It was submitted by Chris Palmer, a member of the Daviess County Historian Team. Clarifications and comments are always welcome. Email:

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