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Boilermaker-built steam engines aid rail boom

Members of Local 560 built 20 of these steam locomotives around 1947 for the Reading Railroad in Pennsylvania.

The growth of shipyards was so explosive during WWII it overshadowed the expansion of the railroads during the same period. Largely due to military spending, rail travel and transport increased throughout the war and for several years after its end.

Railroads were vital to the war effort. The U.S. used railroads to move troops. The Canadian Railway also transported troops by rail from 1939 to 1945. German prisoners of war, who were housed on U.S. soil during the later years of the war, were transported to their destination by rail. Millions of pounds of munitions were shipped using the railroads as well. And on the civilian side, passenger travel on United States trains quadrupled.

Boilermakers who worked on the railroads also grew in number during the war, but their portion of the union shrank because of the explosive growth of shipbuilding. In 1940, about 54% of members worked in railroads, less than 25,000 members. But shipbuilding had so much growth that many shipbuilding lodges boasted membership in their locals numbering 25,000 members per local.

Boilermakers continued to build locomotives after the war, which broke records for their size and their power. But within 10 years, the industry was in sharp decline along with the number of members in railroad locals. By 1954, there were only 8,302 railroad members despite the union’s merger with the blacksmith’s union. The rise of diesel engines ended the era of the steam engine. The decline caused the union to consolidate the railroad districts from 38 to seven—six in the U.S. and one in Canada.

At a railroad conference in the mid-20th Century, International President William Calvin said “…we know there is nothing temporary about the change from steam to diesel locomotives…On the contrary, we know that such employment conditions in all probability will get worse.”

While President Calvin was correct and jobs did indeed decrease for railroad members following the advent of diesel, Boilermakers adapted and came through the dawn of new technology maintaining a strong rail sector that continues today. And the Boilermakers union continues to evolve to meet the demands of changing technology in many of its sectors, just as the union has done throughout its history.