What route did this "government girl" take in 1942?

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Sep 19, 2014
Washington, DC and Pittsburgh, PA
I'm exchanging emails with dear friends and fellow fans of old movies, spurred by the Joel McCrea/Jean Arthur classic The More the Merrier about the housing crunch in wartime Washington. (Highly recommended, by the way.) One friend's mom, still with us at 98 though getting frailer, actually came to Washington as a "government girl" in that very era. From my friend: "My mother has remarked on the impression she had arriving at Union Station in a snowstorm in March, 1942, and seeing the Capitol. Quite a change for a farm girl from 'the dobies,' who had never been outside Colorado except for a trip to see relatives in California, and had never seen a black person in person until she was in high school (at a school football game, a kid on the marching band for the hated 'big city' rivals of Grand Junction High, the county seat)." [Mom came from tiny Mack, CO, near the Utah border and about 20 miles from Grand Junction.]

It's easy to map out this journey on Amtrak. California Zephyr to Chicago, then the Capitol Limited to DC. But what trains did she likely take in 1942, and how long was the trip?

(This group previously figured out itineraries followed by author Laura Ingalls Wilder in 1902 and 1915, see https://www.amtraktrains.com/threads/how-long-did-this-journey-take-in-1902.75871/#post-813101. So I know I'm asking the right folks. Thanks in advance.)
My best guess: (Reference: The March 1942 Official Guide of the Railways as posted on Timetable World)

Depart Mack, Colorado at 4:39 a.m. on day 1, train no. 2, the Scenic Limited (Denver & Rio Grande Western)
That evening, arrive Denver, Colorado at 6:50 p.m. after transiting the Royal Gorge in the early afternoon and riding up the Front Range from Pueblo.
In Denver, transfer to Burlington train no. 6, the Royal Gorge section of the Exposition Flyer, departing eastbound at 8:00 p.m.
Train No. 6 arrives Chicago Union Station at 8:30 p.m. on day 2.
In Chicago, transfer to Pennsylvania train no. 54, the Gotham Limited, departing at 10:15 p.m.
The Washington section of the Gotham Limited arrives at Union Station at 4:45 p.m. on day 3.

There are other possible combinations; if you postulate a flag stop for D&RGW train no. 6 at Mack (approximately 2:30 a.m.) it would be possible to have her connect via Missouri Pacific and St. Louis, and then potentially via B. & O. National Limited without ever going through Chicago. But this is a workable route.
Oh, why guess at the alternate....?

Postulated: D&RGW No. 6, the Exposition Flyer, flag stops at Mack about 2:30 a.m. to pick up a through passenger.
No. 6 arrives Denver at 11:50 a.m on day 1. Transfer to D&RGW no. 3, the southbound/westbound Royal Gorge, departing 3:40 p.m.
The Royal Gorge arrives Pueblo at 6:30 p.m., operational transfer to Missouri Pacific train no. 12, the Scenic Limited, departing Pueblo eastbound at 6:40 p.m.
The Scenic Limited arrives St. Louis at 1:15 p.m. on day 2.
Close connection! Head immediately (probably with a passenger agent as escort) to Baltimore & Ohio train no. 4, the Diplomat, which departs at 1:25 p.m.!
The Diplomat arrives Washington Union Station at 4:10 p.m. on day 3.

So both routes get you to the same place at about the same time, but the Chicago routing has more backup possibilities available in the event of a delay and/or missed connection. So that's the one I'd bet on.
Thank you, ehbowen, for this and for similar previous research on the "1902" thread.

So about a 60-hour journey, from 4:39 a.m. in tiny Mack, CO on day 1 to 4:45 p.m. in Washington, DC on day 3 (itinerary 1) or a bit longer (itinerary 2), ignoring the different time zones. Actually I'm impressed that Mack had train service, whether scheduled or "flag." I likewise bet on itinerary 1.

I've seen photos of passenger trains in wartime and assume that she was lucky if she got a seat for the journey. A sleeper? For an 18-year-old Colorado farm girl? Forget it.
The gentlemen of that era were gentlemen and would readily have given up their seats for a young girl. A sleeper, though, would be highly unlikely unless someone else was footing the bill...and even then reservations would be difficult to obtain in the wartime travel crunch. So, almost certainly, two (and a half!) nights in coach.
If the ticket was purchased in Mack, which would have been something of a project for the agent, I would vote for the routing with the MoPac due to the Grande's close relationship with them. Reservations were held by the originating office, which meant telegraphing or telephoning for any reserved seat leg. The B&O reservation bureau in St. Louis probably also would have said whether they would assist in making the connection.

Having been privileged to sit behind the counter at the SP&S station in Vancouver when I was a kid, I know that station agents often came up with routings from memory, based on past experience and feedback from customers. (In the first year of the Pioneer it was sabotaged by Amtrak agents in favor of itineraries from Portland via Seattle and Minneapolis.)

As noted above, there were a lot of options to those routings back then, but most agents didn't bother bringing them up. And if they did, customers rarely wanted to know anything about them. My father's favorite example of that was the SP reservations clerk in Portland who would ask a customer going to Sacramento if they wanted to ride down the east side or the west side of the Sacramento Valley. "Huh?"
I did some more reading in the Guide and the equipment listing shows a through coach from the Rio Grande to the Burlington, eliminating the change in Denver. Staying on the Exposition Flyer, she would have arrived in Chicago Union Station at 8:55 a.m. That connected to a train that was a familiar one to Westerners, the Manhattan Limited, at 11:30 a.m.

That Pennsy Train 22 had a Washington, DC sleeper section, but only carried coaches Chicago to New York City. Coach passengers changed in Pittsburgh where the real Train 50 set out for Washington, DC., arriving in the nation's frenetic capital city at 7:40 a.m. on Day 3.

The Manhattan Limited would have been quite a train and probably there were days when it was split into sections, avoiding some of the switching in Pittsburgh. In addition to the cars for NYC and DC, it carried a through Cleveland to New York City sleeper via Youngstown and a Pittsburgh to Scranton sleeper via Sunbury.

There was a pseudo-section named Train 36 -- the Philadelphia Night Express. It carried coaches and sleepers between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia AND a through sleeper to Atlantic City. AND there was a sleeper off of Train 36 at Harrisburg that provided suburban Main Line customers with a through Pittsburgh-Main Line-Philadelphia service.

She could have arrived in DC five minutes earlier and avoided changing cars in Pittsburgh by waiting till 1:30 p.m. in Chicago for the all-coach streamliner, The Trailblazer. However, that required a seat reservation and the agent in Mack might not have wanted to bring that up.
Thank you, ehbown and willbridge, for bringing this eight-decade-ago journey to life. (As you did for my previous query about 1902 and 1915.)

Friend's mom is 98, with cognitive decline, yet in many such cases long-term memory is intact.

My friend has the date "March 26, 1942" committed to memory. But I'm wondering whether that's the departure date, not arrival date. Reason: The Palm Sunday blizzard of 1942 is legendary, dumping an unprecedented 12 inches (DC) to 20 inches (Baltimore) of snow over the area, more in rural MD. See Palm Sunday Snowstorm of 1942. Friend's mom distinctly remembers arriving at Union Station and first glimpsing a blurry Capitol dome in a snowstorm. If March 26 was the departure date, and if mum broke her journey for a day in either Denver or Chicago or St. Louis, and thus arrived on March 29, the dates would fit. Or maybe March 26 is a red herring.

Trying to imagine what it was like to be 18, in wartime, on a first trip east of the Rockies, not knowing how to tip or manage luggage or meals and probably having been warned by the folks back home of pickpockets and worse. At least ehbown is right: gentlemen probably did give mum a seat.
It's very likely she broke her journey in Chicago - my downstairs neighbor growing up (who would have been several years older than your friends mother at that time) lived in New York in the 30's and definitely changed trains in Chicago on her way back and forth to Utah - no idea which RR she took.
I'm not a rail-history expert (unlike other posters), but I found a neat website: Railroad History of the Western Slope • MWC. Excerpt: "With the rapidly approaching CM [Colorado Midland] tracks, both railroads started plans to build to standard gauge. The D&RGW went so far as to reorganize into a completely new company, including a new name – Rio Grande Western (RGW). When the RGW changed to standard gauge it also changed its route to a straighter one and utilized Ruby Canyon southwest of Mack, Colorado....In 1904, the Gilson Asphalt Company founded the [narrow-gauge] Uintah Railway. The Uintah built north out of the newly founded town of Mack, Colorado that was in part founded by the railroad. The goal of the Uintah was to reach the new gilsonite mines near the towns of Dragon and Watson in Utah..."

So tiny Mack was a bit of a rail crossroads.

As far as I can tell, the current route of the California Zephyr passes very near or through Mack.
It doesn't look like the Uintah got very far per Openrailwaymap (unless it's been completely built on as a road)- yes, the CZ turns from (westbound) NW to SW at Mack and briefly follows the Colorado river to the SW.
More from my friend (when I asked if his mom was traveling alone, at 18, on her first trip east of the Rockies):

"A friend who wanted to 'get out' was taking the Civil Service typing test in Grand Junction, didn't want to go alone, talked my mother into taking it with her. Mum passed, the friend did not (at least not on her first try), it became Mum's ticket out."

Wartime Washington's need for "government girls" must've been voracious, to justify holding typing tests in Grand Junction, CO.

A reminder of how railroad history is American history, for better or (sometimes) worse. From the homesteaders who settled the West (see thread at https://www.amtraktrains.com/threads/how-long-did-this-journey-take-in-1902.75871/) to the Great Migration of African Americans out of the rural South (see Atlas Obscura and the Great Migration, by Rail).
She almost certainly traveled coach and there was virtually no such think as reserved coach seats. You got on and took your chances. However, her safety doing that would be far better than today. Anyone choosing to make "improper advances" toward a girl / young woman at that time would almost certainly have his attitude adjusted if not his face adjusted by any of several men in the coach. Any train with accommodations that had extra fare would have been off the list of possibilities. There are a couple of things I could mention from my family history. One, my mother had one of those highly desirable secretarial jobs in DC beginning in 1935 at the ripe old age of 20. From Jackson TN, it was GM&O (M&O) to Corinth MS, then Southern the rest of the way, or was it GM&O (GM&N) to Middleton TN, then Southern the rest of the way? I have no idea. She did this by bus once, which was more direct without the change, but certainly slower, but being subject to motion sickness, and given the highways as they were at that time, it was ONCE, even though slightly cheaper. Sometime later, 1939, she managed to get to a position in Memphis, which is where she met my father. They married in December 1940. He was drafted in mid 1942, despite being 35 and married. By the way, WW2 military ID cards had an issue date, but no expiration date. Draft was "duration of hostilities plus six months". Here are the travel experiences I was getting to: During the war years if it had wheels and seats it was running and running full. At sometime in here they were riding from Memphis to Jackson TN and the train was so crowded she was sitting in his lap, and the GI in the other seat was drifting off into sleep, ending up slumping against my father but they did not wake him. Second, he was a transport pilot (Warrant Officer), This meant usually carrying freight, equipment, or people in C47's but on several occasions this simply meant fly a plane from A to B and go back by train. During the war the policy was that the military had priority on sleeping car space, actually meaning berths usually unless having at least field grade rank. On one of these occasions after getting the assigned space back to Memphis from, I think it was Oklahoma City, he happened upon a plane being flown from there to Millington Navy Base, which is about 15 miles north of Memphis. He hitchhiked aboard it. About a week or two later he got a letter of reprimand from the Transport Command demanding an explanation as to why he did not use the provided transportation. Apparently during the war years there was a lot of this informal hitchhiking within the air arms, as this was not the only time he either was the hitchhiker or carrying some. As a final comment, when the bomb was dropped he was in California going through the orientation to be flying support for the invasion of the main islands of Japan. That would have been a blood bath, I think the estimates were around 100,000 lives on the Allied side, so don't talk to me about how horrible dropping the atomic bomb was. If you think the Japanese would have folded without tremendous destruction and loss of life, listen to Churchill's "We shall never surrender" speech and realize that the Japanese version would have been even stronger.
It doesn't look like the Uintah got very far per Openrailwaymap (unless it's been completely built on as a road)- yes, the CZ turns from (westbound) NW to SW at Mack and briefly follows the Colorado river to the SW.

The Uintah got to its intended destination, and yes, most of the abandoned roadbed is now a road. County Roads 4 and 201 follow the old roadbed up West Salt Creek except for a few washouts where the road has moved up onto the hillside, and then up and over Baxter Pass and down the other side to the mining sites on the CO-UT border.

In particular, that hairpin turn at 39°34'32"N 108°55'40"W was navigated by some *cough* very specially designed mini-2-6-6-2s.
During the war the policy was that the military had priority on sleeping car space, actually meaning berths usually unless having at least field grade rank.
This reminds me of my father during the war. His company had a contract with the government for a project that he was working on. The work was of a high enough priority that he commuted from Paoli to Chicago each week to work on it and was assigned a roomette. Can you imagine what it was like to travel then!
Thanks, all, for making this 80-year-old journey come alive. Both ehbowen and George Harris have opined that friend's mum almost certainly traveled coach to her new life as a "government girl," that she was safe on the train, that gentlemen of that era would have watched out for her welfare and given up a seat if overcrowded. All very likely true. (My impressions of wartime trains were partly formed by The Thin Man Goes Home, 5th in the 6-film series. See The Thin Man Goes Home 1944.) That jibes with unrelated threads on this forum, in which most regular riders say they have always felt very, very safe on the train. I assume that crowded stations might've been another matter. They've always been plagued with pickpockets and other petty criminals and I bet that friend's mum held on tight to her pocketbook...as I did at Prague's Praha hlavní nádraží where I vividly remember being shoved and jostled.

1,000,000 is the correct number according to Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War, 1940-45
Thank you. I knew it was large, didn't remember exactly, so I had the decimal in the wrong place. And, remember this did not include Japanese lives which would probably have been a much higher number. In any rate, there was the thought that the bomb could well have kept my dad from being part of this 1,000,000. Even though when he went in he was considered over age for combat zone flying, that age kept going up as the war progressed, plus there were a lot of non-combat zone accidents both military and civilian that were for the most part kept secret. Everything and everybody was fairly well worn out by the time the bomb was dropped. My grandmother's statement was that there were so many accidents in transportation in the last years of the war that they did not count anyone home safe until they walked in the door. There were some crazy things my father went through without ever getting west of Hawaii or east of New York, including one excursion to the Canal Zone that nearly ended up with a swim. (Most of these I think my mother never heard.) Remember, most of the radar and other navigation aids we take for granted now did not exist then, or were at best spotty.
Fact: Seventy-six years later, the U.S. military is still issuing the Purple Heart medals which were struck in anticipation of the mass casualties expected during Operation Downfall (invasion of Japan).

My favorite uncle might've gotten one of them. (Or killed.) Rudy, my mother's older brother, turned 18 just two days after Pearl Harbor, and of course he served. Including at the Battle of the Bulge, an experience he never talked much about. After V-E Day his division awaited orders to Japan. Orders that didn't come.

He was the same age as my friend's mom, the "government girl," and I try to imagine the emotions of young people from big and small towns all over America as the U.S. went to war.
Both of my parents and many others who I knew experienced the home front in Portland, Oregon during WWII. (My dad was drafted in 1943 and was medically discharged by the Air Corps back to Portland.) Portland was the port for 90% of the value of Lend-Lease materiel for the Soviet Union.

It also almost had the distinction of being the biggest city to be declared off-limits due to a VD rate exceeded only by Providence, RI. A secret 1940 federal study observed that "law enforcement in Portland is typical of that in other West Coast ports." (Think movies Chinatown, Maltese Falcon, films noir.) As my mother said: "anything good for you was severely rationed, anything bad for you was widely available." As my father says "you could see the slot machine in front of the Vanport supermarket from the steps of the sheriff's precinct" in the doomed unincorporated housing development.

Some transport notes: the SP&S ran a commuter train from Union Station for the Vancouver Shipyards. Rolling stock came from Interurban Electric cars from the SF Bay Area. A redundant SF Bay coal-fired ferry ran between downtown Portland and Swan Island shipyards, until the ODT and MarAd buses showed up. Vanport Express motor coaches overlapped the Interstate Avenue trolley coach line, with the drivers madly cranking the registering fareboxes to get change, while shifting gears and punching transfers. Commissioner of Public Utilities Dorothy Lee had to fight to get copper feeder wire for Portland Traction because the loads on the outer ends of streetcar and trolley coach lines were way higher than the power distribution could handle. PTCo took 40 streetcars off the rip track, painted them and put them in service. PTco ripped the asphalt off of a stretch of the Bridge Transfer line (Grand Avenue line) and replaced buses with streetcars. Transfer rules were cracked down on to prevent riders from going downtown and back to shop during their layover. The 1:32 a.m. St. Johns Owl trolley coach had to be double-headed due to the load (owls met hourly at :32). The overnight North Coast Line buses to Seattle from Portland (later Greyhound) picked up commuters to Boeing Field along US99 to ride as standees. My dad rode Pool Trains 401/402 as a standee. The NP pulled a bunch of tourist sleepers into the shops and installed walkover seats salvaged from wooden cars.

During the blackout my father was delivering the morning Oregonian. People were waiting at salespoints in the middle of the night for editions that had served rural readers in pre-war days. His future father-in-law was patrolling the Rose City Park neighborhood in the blackout as an air raid warden. And about every 15 minutes the huge flare of poisonous gas from the Portland Gas & Coke Co. "lit up the Willbridge junction, the Shell oil tank farm, and the docks like a giant flashbulb in the blackout."

All of this strenuous effort had good and bad effects. Posted bus stops were introduced to save rubber and gas. For railroads and transit, many people who had never ridden a train got their first impression in overloaded, obsolete equipment. Conductors and motormen included men in their 70's who didn't really want to work a 48-hour week. My father-in-law for the rest of his life was mad that the CPR Great West had no dining car between Edmonton and Winnipeg. (It did before the war.) Demand for new autos soared, even if they had needless accessories. Dorothy Lee was elected mayor in 1948 and cleaned up the town.

Another Dorothy and other women became "operators" instead of "motormen" and while many women left the transit and rail jobs after the war, PTCo retained Dorothy and she lasted in service into the 1970's on my neighborhood line. My high school added Russian to the curriculum, which I took up in 1960.

And going out for coffee before or after the crazy night shifts, my parents got to know each other.

Postscript: Vanport wartime housing, see attached.
1948 Vanport.jpg