June 22, 2013

Iconic regional railroads transport shipyard workers across country

Nickel Plate train westbound at Cedar Glen near Cleveland, Ohio. Workers with Ray Ferreira on their way to Portland passed through here in 1942. Photo from the Cleveland Memory website, Cleveland State University.

In this post, we pick up on the story of a young Oakland couple who hitched their wagon to Henry J. Kaiser’s locomotive for a wild ride during World War II and after. In 1939, Anne and Ray Ferreira had just started their married life and she was working for the Kaiser Company in Oakland, Calif.

They soon found themselves in New York City, then Vancouver, Wash., and then back to Oakland, all working for Henry Kaiser.

This story involves trains, once the mainstay of American transportation, at a time when railroads were losing their charm. Air transportation was faster but more expensive, so most travelers still relied on the train in the 1940s.

Ray Ferreira’s employer, Pan American Airlines, transferred him to New York in 1942, and Anne stayed behind to close up the household — complete with two beloved dogs.

Traveling by train affordable

Anne wrote to Ray: “(A co-worker’s) wife phoned me and said she was leaving for New York this coming Friday. . . . She is flying. Said the train took too long and was too tiresome. I told her I would probably go on the Challenger (rail line) because it’s cheaper and . . . because it’s the train my dogs will be on, and I can go and see them all the time.”

Union Pacific Railroad Challenger sleeping car. Anne Ferreira took this train across the country to New York in 1942. Wikimedia photo.

She reports that the Challenger fare, with an overnight berth, was $104.85 with tax, a price they could afford. The Challenger was no ordinary train: The Union Pacific Railroad had started a new passenger service from San Francisco to Chicago in 1937 and spruced up the cars and added a special lounge for women and children. Meals were inexpensive: Breakfast, 65 cents, lunch 85 cents, and dinner, $1.

At the other end of the spectrum was the train — filled with 510 shipyard workers — that Ray Ferreira would shepherd across the country a few months later. Things happened fast for the Ferreiras. By September she was already in Vancouver, having worked a few months for Henry Kaiser in New York and then taking another Kaiser job out West.

Shipyard workers get restless on the tracks

At the same time, Ray, 29, was containing a volatile situation on austere train cars overloaded with hungry and sleepy workmen enroute to take jobs in the Kaiser Shipyards in Vancouver. The 11-car passenger train left Lackawanna Railroad Company’s Hoboken, N.J., station on Sept. 26, 1942.

Kaiser Company executive Todd Woodell had ordered 16 cars for the train so the men would have room to roam and stretch out to sleep on the 60-plus-hour trip. There were too few cars for comfort and the railroad hadn’t included a single dining car.

The Lackawanna rail company served dinner at 3:30 p.m. just outside of New York, and the workers started to grumble for an early breakfast. Ray wired Woodell in New York: “Afraid of unrest so Nickel Plate (railroad) to serve breakfast at 3:15 a.m.”

Nickel Plate served the tracks between Buffalo and Chicago, clacking through Cleveland and other Ohio spots, such as Rocky River and Lorain.

All's well that ends well

The ceiling of the main waiting room in the 1940s Hoboken, N.J., train station shows off the structure's fine architectural details. Kaiser shipyard workers bound for the West Coast shipyards boarded the train here. Library of Congress photo.

Ray wrote: “Men still with Kaiser 100 percent, but not entirely satisfied with facilities. . . (I’ve) received complaints about restroom cleanliness.”  When the train got to Chicago, the men’s tempers were ready to flare. On the platform, some stirred up a protest, urging others not to get back on the train.

Fortunately, the train picked up eight more cars in Chicago, including two dining cars. Ray stood on a makeshift platform and promised better service on the Northern Pacific railroad that would take them the rest of the way to Portland, Ore.

Only 11 men didn’t re-board. Ray wired Woodell: “Regret disturbance. Balance of men appear to be in good frame of mind.”

Six men lost in Chicago were picked up by another train and soon arrived at the Northwest Kaiser Shipyards.

Ray Ferreira’s East-West recruiting trip was the first of many to bring workers to the shipyards. It was the last for Ferreira who worked for a time in administration but left the shipyard to join the Navy in 1944.