Inside the Barriger Library: When the government took over the TP&W

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John Barriger’s World War II diary, his draft report on his management of the TP&W for the Office of Defense Transportation, and two files on the railroad from his papers. Photo by John W. Barriger III National Railroad Library/St. Louis Mercantile Library

For the past few years I’ve been researching railroads of Pittsburgh, Pa. When I moved to my new job at the John W. Barriger III National Railroad Library in St. Louis, I found myself with direct access to a collection of materials directly related to my research. John W. Barriger III was the former President of the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad and his papers contain a wealth of information about that company and its operations. However, I wanted to know more about certain decisions made while he was president, so I decided to pull his diaries in from our off-site storage facility. After reviewing the items for the time period when he was running the P&LE, I idly started poking through other items in the box and discovered that Mr. Barriger had had his World War II-era diary transcribed. On a whim, I opened it up and learned about an event in railroad history that I had never heard of: the federal takeover of the Toledo, Peoria & Western.

Barriger was appointed federal manager of the Toledo, Peoria and Western for 6 months in 1942. He had been working at the Office of Defense Transportation for just a few months when he was sent to the TP&W. The railroad was a small bridge line that linked Western and Eastern trunk lines using its bypass around Chicago. Cars routed this way could save 24 hours of travel time by avoiding Chicago’s yards and interchanges. The government had taken over the TP&W because of the prolonged labor strife between workers and the railroad’s owner, George P. McNear. The crux of the dispute involved work rules for road crews. McNear wanted them to work for 8 hours, regardless of whether or not they had covered their 100 miles. The labor unions wanted the same deal they had with other railroads: 100 miles OR 8 hours of work, whichever came first.

The conflict continued despite the outbreak of World War II, and thus what normally would have been a nuisance labor issue became a threat to the war effort, at least as far as the Roosevelt Administration was concerned. The government took over the railroad to keep traffic flowing. Barriger ended a strike and returned operations to normal. Although Barriger left in 1943, the government kept the TP&W until October 1945, when McNear (who consistently and vocally criticized the takeover throughout the war) successfully won a lawsuit against the government contesting its seizure of his railroad. (Two years later, amid more labor strife on the railroad, McNear was shot and killed. His shooter was never found.) I had no idea any of this had happened until I came across Barriger’s diary from World War II.  That led me to his files on the TP&W and a wealth of information on the event, Mr. Barriger’s role in it, and the aftermath.

The details of the story are fascinating and it was just waiting for me to find at the Barriger Library. We’ve got more stories to tell and hopefully you’ll enjoy reading about them as much as I enjoy discovering them.

  • The fact that George P. McNear was shot comes as a surprise.  I can only wonder if it was related to the labor dispute.  

  • Yes, it was very much related to the labor dispute.  The July 1947 issue of Harpers Magazine has an article by John Barlow Martin about the incident and the lack of evidence for the investigation.

  • Over the next many decades there will be reported as many perpetrators as ever worked for the  TPW. You know how family lore develops: "It was my uncle/grandfather/ cousin (etc.) who done it."

  • It's interesting that the labor fight that McNear was involved with on his railroad would probably not have happened today.  The TP&W could have been a short line and avoided organized labor issues and he still could have gotten his 8 hours of work from his employees.  (Further McNear's rehabilitation of the TP&W is itself a noteworthy story and one that merits further writing.)

  • Nick, this is a great find!  Though I had never heard of this, it makes sense that this "bridge" between eastern and western railroads during WWII was critical, and that the Government did what it had to do to assure continued and smooth flow of traffic during a national emergency.

  • Thanks Wade! The whole railroad is a great story.  McNear bought it in 1926 when it was literally two streaks of rust and then turned it around into a profitable bridge line.  If he wasn't so intransigent about his labor negotiations he'd have lived past 1947 and avoided a great deal of grief and hardship on the part of his managers and employees.  If he had been born 60 years later he'd have made a pretty good short-line operator today.

  • This library is wonderful. I visited the first time when they were located in downtown St. L. Mom found a book with Frisco pictures and it showed the old Lindenwood station where she caught their commuter train to work at Frisco's General office.  I visited again a few years ago at UMSL campus and had no idea how extensive the collection is.  

  • It's still growing.  We've gotten collections in from Maine and New York State this past year with more to come and we're working on some really great digitization projects too!

  • It is very interesting little tidbit.  Of what can happen right or wrong during times of national strife.

Inside the Barriger Library: When the government took over the TP&W