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Westbound Freight: 1943

Westbound Freight: 1943

March 1943. "Chillicothe, Illinois. Changing crews and cabooses of a westbound freight along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad." Medium-format safety negative by Jack Delano, Office of War Information. View full size.


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Caboose change

Season's greetings from Germany. It certainly is a change of caboose. The switcher in the picture had just taken off the old caboose - a Sante Fé with number 1860 - and crew, while having pushed the new caboose coupled to its front and dropped off the new crew there in the coldness. Now the switcher again has returned only with the now-empty new caboose - A.T.S.F. 1743. The last of the three crew members picks up his bags and climbs aboard while the switcher puts into reverse and is ready to leave. I am the proud owner of Delanos picture book with the above information.

Helper service

The caption is probably correct. Almost assuredly the locomotive is changing cabooses or making some sort of switching move on the rear of the train. The caboose looks like an old wooden style so a helper locomotive would have to be cut in ahead of it. Also, if it were a helper, the markers would have to be placed on the rear of that locomotive, not the rear of the caboose.

USRA locomotive designs were classics

"the resulting United States Railroad Administration is still cited as an example of government ineptitude to this day"

Oh? Perhaps in rabidly pro-corporate and anti-government circles, but aside from the Ayn Randies many people recognized that the USRA delivered some classic locomotive designs, as well as promoting coordinated planning. Railroad management was rarely cooperative unless colluding to screw their customers. And not just a turn of the century thing, either - look at the crooks that looted the Penn-Central years later.

Helper Assignment

Since the picture was labeled as Chillicothe, it would most likely be that we are seeing the helper engine coupling onto a westbound Santa Fe train that is about to climb Edelstein Hill. After the shove up the hill, the helper and crew would back down from Edelstein to the Chillicothe Yard. This line is double tracked. Besides the engine crew, the helper would have carried a flagman (brakeman). That is my take on this picture. An excellent exposure and composition.

On the Road Again

Not a tramp — that's likely the conductor waiting at trackside. The waycar (caboose) is carrying marker lamps, so technically this is now a train. The switcher has completed its shove and come to a full stop, so it’s safe for the man on the ground to climb aboard. He's bent over slightly and has his right hand around the handle, so I'm guessing he's picking up his bag.

While a crew would work between division point terminals roughly 100 or so miles apart, they could be on duty up to 16 continuous hours during this era (very common during the war with the volume of traffic and shortages of manpower). Crews would be away from their home terminal for several days, so they carried everything they needed in a small suitcase or "grip" in railroad slang.

I believe waycars were still assigned to conductors at this time (that's why they would be changed), so he and the rear brakeman would live in the car until they got home.

The talented Mr. Delano

I was intrigued to learn, via Wikipedia, that Jack Delano was also a classical composer of some note, including an early experimenter with electronic music techniques. Also a film director. And related by marriage to Ben Shahn.

He was born in Ukraine (birth name Ovcharov), and grew up in Pennsylvania. (Shorpy's capsule biography of him is not quite accurate: he was 9 when his family emigrated, well before the Depression.) For the last fifty years of his long life (1914-1997) he lived in Puerto Rico, where he made use of local folk material in his ballet and choral compositions.


I find it interesting that there is a man with his valise standing on the right of way. I suspect he was going to hitch a ride.

that looks a lot like the

that looks a lot like the shot from "Days of Heaven"


It was the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, not AT&SF Railroad. The Office of War Information seems to have consistently mangled this particular bit of information.

Why Photograph Railroads

WWII honed logistics to a science. We had never fought a war of such magnitude, and documenting the inner workings of the nation as it converted to war production was valuable for tactical reasons. Virtually everything needed by a modern industrial nation and military had to move incredible distances in a short time. Railroads were the only long-distance, all-weather, heavy-duty transportation system available and they hauled everything from staples to Sherman tanks. Trucks were used, but with a national 35mph speed limit, plus gas and tire rationing, cross-country haulage as we take it for granted now was limited.

As propaganda, these photos showed our enemies we could make guns and butter at the same time. And in the end, our ability to out-produce and move supplies ultimately secured victory.

I believe the Office of War Information grew directly out of the Farm Home Administration photo project, where Delano had worked during the Depression. He was simply on assignment (he really wasn't railfan as we know them now, although his work is still very much appreciated and respected by us) when he took these photos. He later wrote a book "The Iron Horse at War" showcasing his cross-country wartime rail travels, in black and white photos.

It's not well known, but railroads also had an agenda in publicizing these photos. The War Powers act allows the government to nationalize and operate critical infrastructure (like the railroads) during a national emergency — this occurred after the US entered WWI, and the resulting United States Railroad Administration is still cited as an example of government ineptitude to this day. Railroads wanted to avoid this at all costs and made no secret of the fact they were doing twice the work with half the equipment they had in 1917 at every opportunity.

Helium tank cars

Helium tank cars were in use at least into the 70's. It is used in a variety industrial and medical applications. The U.S. had the monopoly on helium which was drawn from natural gas drilled in Texas.

He's a good photographer!

Man, that Jack Delano had an eye for a photo.

Lighter Than Air

Another wonderful railroad scene. You can almost feel the chill. It's hard to tell from this angle, but the fourth and fifth cars in front of the cabin, (caboose to you non-Pennsy fans), look very much like helium cars.

These fairly rare cars were used by the U.S. Navy to ship helium gas for their "Blimp" fleet. They consisted of multiple horizontal tanks on a specialized flat car. Their use was discontinued shortly after the war so they really date the photo.

Historic revelation

My dad started in Chillicothe, Il for the Santa Fe in 1939 as a switchman, by 1943 he was in Britain with the American army railway division headed to France after D-Day. Even as cold as it looks in this photo I am sure he would rather have been in Illinois.

Why the War Information Office?

Jack Delano seemed to specialize in photo's of railroads (and this one in particular) during WWII. But why?

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