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America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Transportation in America before 1876 Community Dreams: Santa Cruz, California, 1876 Delivering the Goods: Watsonville, California, 1895 A Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., 1900 People on the Move Americans Adopt the Auto Crossing the Country: Somewhere in Wyoming, 1903 The Connected City: New York, New York, 1920s The People's Highway: Route 66, 1930s-1940s Roadside Communities: Ring's Rest, Muirkirk, Maryland, 1930s Family Camping: York Beach, Maine, 1930s On the School Bus: Martinsburg, Indiana, 1939 Suburban Strip: Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, 1949 City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s On the Interstate: I-10, 1956-1990 Transforming the Waterfront: San Francisco and Oakland, California, 1960-1970 Going Global: Los Angeles Introduction The Salisbury Depot What Happened to Plessy? A Way of Travel Railroad Conductor Pullman Porter Carrying Everything Into Town--and Out Locomotive Engineer & Fireman Railroaders behind the Scenes Promoting Good Roads Spencer, an Industrial Community What Happened to the Railroads?
9: Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927
What Happened Next?

What Happened to the Railroads?

Before World War II, railroads were an integral part of peoples’ lives and one of the nation’s premier businesses. They employed between 1.5 and 2 million people annually—about 10 percent of all industrial workers—and transported hundreds of billions of ton-miles of freight. But after the war, as Americans embraced cars, trucks, and highways, the role of railroads changed.

In the 1940s, diesel locomotives began to be introduced on U.S. railroads in large numbers. Steam and diesel locomotives ran side by side for a brief time in the 1940s and early 1950s, but new diesel locomotives took over as they radically cut maintenance and operating expenses. Steam locomotive 1401 was last repaired at Spencer in 1951. All steam locomotives on the Southern were retired by 1953, and Spencer Shops, not easily convertible to diesel work, closed in 1960

By 1950, rail traffic was dropping steadily, motivating rail managers to cut costs. This drop in traffic and the fact that diesels needed far fewer people to maintain them combined to cut rail employment. In 1962, U.S. railroads had half the number of workers they had in 1946.

In the 1980s and 1990s, passenger trains were no longer a part of most travelers’ lives. But railroads rebounded economically, due to growth in rail shipment of freight containers, automobiles, coal, grain, food, and other products. In the 1990s, rails carried more commercial freight more miles than waterways or trucks.

Diesel locomotive (right) brings the Southern Railway's 'Tennessean' passenger train into Harrisonburg, Va., 1947
Diesel locomotive (right) brings the Southern Railway's "Tennessean" passenger train into Harrisonburg, Va., 1947
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