The Gulf, Mobile and Ohio
By James H. Lemly





Changes in Operating Conditions, 1920-30

Dining and Sleeping Cars built at Alton shops, Bloomington, Ill.

E. D. Hogan, who had been Operations Officer under the Federal Manager was named Vice President and General Manager when the road was returned to private control in 1920.  He evidently had adjustment problems and resigned in the fall of that year and H. G. Sparks replaced him.  Sparks proved to be such a good man for this post that he was made Vice President of the Company in December, 1921.  His sudden death in August, 1922, cut short a very promising career at a critical time in the road’s operations.  His place was amply filled however, by P. E. Odell, who was chosen to succeed him.          

Unfortunately, efforts to improve operations in 1920 were severely limited.  First, the management was not completely familiar with its problems.  Moreover, its funds were very low throughout the year, so only the most urgent projects were undertaken.  Work to improve the roadbed took first priority.  The federal manager had undermaintained the road for the more than two years it had been under his control so this work had to be done as rapidly as possible.  A start was also made on improving the quality of rolling stock.  Four new and powerful “Mikado” locomotives were ordered from the federal government for freight service.  Two switch engines were bought, and some of the poorest locomotives were discarded.  A small amount of coal-handling equipment was bought, and a larger turntable was installed at New Albany to handle the larger freight engines.

Like other activities of the Company, 1921 was the year when GM&N’s improvement program really began to show results.  More new locomotives were bought, and again the road disposed of the poorest of the old engines.  A determined effort to reduce fuel consumption was started, with a 10 per cent cut as the announced objective.  Car mileage was increased and close attention paid to reduction in total per diem payments for foreign cars.  Little improvement was seen in this factor because of the increasing number of bad-order cars being turned back to the GM&N from extended service on foreign roads.  On December 16, 1921, the Board of Directors was advised that 42 per cent of all cars the GM&N owned were in bad order.  The 1920 Annual Report had listed 8.6 per cent of all cars as in bad order on December 31,1920.  Actually, it was rather remarkable that the year 1921 showed improvement in operating percentages when the road was faced with such conditions.  Improvements were made, however, and people not directly connected with the line began to see that a new spirit was at work on the GM&N. 

In March, 1922, the Interstate Commerce Commission agreed to allow the federal treasury to lend almost a million dollars for the primary purpose of rebuilding the road’s bad-order cars.  By the twenty-first of April, contracts had been let to repair 300 of those 700 bad-order cars at an average cost of approximately $1,000 per car.  By April, also, the road had decided to purchase a new, heavier-style locomotive than the Mikados bought previously.  Two new decapod engines were ordered, and this was to become the standard freight locomotive for the GM&N for years to come.  Succeeding units in later years were to be heavier and more powerful but consistently of the same type.  Concentration on this basic design was to prove helpful in ease and cost of repairs and maintenance along with their increasing efficiency in operation.

During this decade operating employees were expected to study improvements along with their regular work.  The “News” of December 30, 1921, carried announcement of the coming of an International Correspondence School’s rail study car.  It was equipped with models of operating mechanisms, so that classes could be held at any point along the road.  All employees in train and engine service were expected to attend these classes or give a satisfactory explanation for their absence to their supervisor.

Fast, through freight service from Jackson to Mobile was started in May, 1922, and passenger schedules also were improved.  Rapid improvement in operating conditions continued up to July 1,1922.  On this date the shop craft unions of the GM&N went out on strike in response to the nationwide call, and the July operating statistics dropped seriously as a result.  Car miles per day dropped from 30.6 in June to 22.4 in July.   By August, however, the upward trend had been resumed, and car miles per day stood at 24.6.   Although the strike officially lasted until April, 1923, the GM&N ceased to be seriously affected after October 25,1922, when a working agreement with the new shop force went into effect.   Many of the old shop employees did not strike; some new men were employed as the Railroad Labor Board urged the roads to do; and some of the strikers returned to their jobs.  The News of September 22, 1922, reported that as of that date the Superintendent of Car Service described operating conditions as favorable once more. 

One other factor which slowed the improvement of operating conditions in the summer of 1922 was the death of H. G. Sparks.   It was not until November that the Company announced that P. E. Odell, formerly Assistant to the General Superintendent of Transportation for the Illinois Central, had become the new general manager.

In spite of these problems, the road was able to announce that on Sunday, October 15, it would begin to run through passenger trains from Mobile to Jackson.  This was the first time in the history of the GM&N that through service had been offered by the Company.  As an added service, Pullman cars to operate between Memphis and Mobile via the St. Louis-San Francisco and the GM&N were added to these through trains on December 1.7 Other evidences of improved operating conditions in this same period included the rearranging of schedules on the Blodgett branch to give better mail and express service to the area.

By the end of 1922 most of the Company’s bad-order cars had been repaired or replaced.  About 700 new or rebuilt cars out of a total of almost 1,600 were available on February 15, 1923.  The locomotive picture had also improved greatly.  Four new units had been purchased during 1922, with more to follow.  These four, added to the ten previously bought in 1920-21, made a substantial difference in operating conditions. 

In March, 1923, the Company announced a change in operating methods to make better use of this improved equipment with the institution of  “prior classification”.  Trains for Jackson, Tennessee, would now be made up at Louisville, Mississippi, and run to the northern terminal of the road without being broken up at New Albany.  Full trainloads to be delivered to the IC would be taken immediately to the interchange tracks, and parts of trainloads for the other connections would not have to be altered.  Southbound freight would not be affected so greatly because there was little interchange at Mobile.

During 1923 the campaigns to reduce expenses increased in tempo.  Evidence was mounting that employees were responding to the call to improve the operations of the Company, and no effort was spared to keep the good work going.  A no-derailment campaign was added to get the maintenance-of-way men into the movement.  In this period, too, the road increased its efforts to deliver all interchange freight cars to foreign roads before midnight.  Schedules of freight operations were speeded up whenever possible to let trains reach interchange points in time to reduce per diem paid out, and to increase per diem received on GM&N cars.

Additional evidence of the improvement in equipment and operating conditions appeared in the “News” for February 16,1923.  The average gross train load in January, 1923, was 1,060 tons; whereas in January, 1922, it had been 866 tons.  This was an increase of almost 25 per cent.

The road continued to seek to provide passenger service which would be appreciated enough to be largely self-supporting.  A new train to run between Louisville and Meridian was started in June, 1923.  It was scheduled to allow passengers in that area to shop in Meridian and return the same day. 

Fuel conservation was one of the biggest campaigns pushed in 1924.  Through the co-operation of the Illinois Central, a series of lectures on fuel economy was held throughout the Company.  Fuel saving teams traveled the entire road holding meetings at all terminal points.  In addition to fuel economy hints, the sessions included motion pictures on freight damage due to rough handling and improper loading.

The “News”, of course, was not an impartial observer.  The following story is frankly complimentary, but its basic facts are of interest nevertheless:

It has gotten to be the custom that each department on the best Railroad in the world hangs up some new record for the Road at least once a month, and the new record in the transportation department for April was in passenger train performance.  One hundred and eighty passenger trains were operated during the month, and 93 per cent of them maintained their schedule, 92 per cent of them arrived at terminals on time, and, needless to say, departures on time were 100 per cent.  These figures were against 76 per cent maintained schedule in March and 74 per cent arrivals at terminal on time. 

In its ongoing efforts to improve the quality of passenger service, the road installed its second gasoline-powered motor car in August, 1924.  This unit was put on the Meridian and Memphis running twice daily between Meridian and Union.   The first of these units had been installed during 1923 on the Blodgett branch.

John W.  Platten, Chairman of the Board, made an inspection trip on the GM&N in the fall of 1924.  He found many changes which had taken place since his last trip in 1921.  He congratulated  Mr. Tigrett and all the employees, and showed genuine gratification for all the improvements that had been made.

Jake Haman, who had just become associated with the road in 1921, went along on both trips.  The changes along the line so impressed him that he listed the most important in the News of October 10, 1924.  He said:                   

FIFTEEN new locomotives have been put in service since the trip three years ago.  Ten of these are those known as the “Russians” and the other five are the pride of the service, the 250 class. 

ALL LOCALS now are operated with 100 class engines.  Three years ago these locomotives were all in through service and were considered heavy for the Road.

THREE YEARS AGO grade revisions between Ripley and Middleton were being contemplated only.  Last week the inspection train was operated over as smooth a piece of slag ballasted roadbed between these points as can be found in the South.  Mr. Platten’s comment was to the effect that it was as good as the Chicago Division of the C.&E.I., inspection of which had just been completed. 

FIFTY MILES OF 85 pound steel have replaced 70 pound steel or lighter in the last three years while the best of the 70 pound steel has been relayed, replacing that of lighter weight.

GRADE REVISION, ballast and new steel were marked improvements where a bad piece of track had existed south of Ackerman. 

NEW SHOPS at Louisville have been built since the trip three years ago and the yards have been enlarged and improved.  A new tank has been erected at Louisville and one at Jackson.   New tracks have been laid at Union.     

PIKE’S PEAK, marking the most difficult piece of roadbed to keep in condition on the Line, had on a new coat for the inspection.  Grade revision work is almost completed; new steel will be laid and the track ballasted.

TERMINALS at Mobile have been improved; channel has been dug on south side of dock and dock improved.

STEAM TRAINS on the Blodgett branch and the Meridian branch have been replaced with motor trains for passenger service since the inspection trip of 1921, and a new steam passenger train is in operation between Laurel and Louisville.

THE 250 CLASS ENGINES are being operated through from Louisville to Jackson, a run of 188 miles.  This is a haul that represents economy and service, and is something that few railroads have attempted.  From 100 to 120 miles is the average run for a locomotive. 

Scores of other improvements and betterments worthy of note have been made during the three year period.  An exact comparison has not been attempted, it being the editor’s desire to picture those outstanding improvements which are most noticeable when comparing the Road as it is today with a mental picture of it three years ago.


    Along with the other campaigns to reduce expenses and improve earnings figures, the Operating Department in 1924 and 1925 worked very hard on reducing damage losses.  A much better record was made in 1924 than in 1922, as the following table shows:



Damage Claims paid by the Gulf, Mobile and Northern During

1923 and 1924

                                                  1924                                        1923

Injuries to persons             $ 62,400.00                            $138,400.00

Damage to property               3,808.00                                  5,130.00

Clear wrecks                            8,700.00                                20,600.00

Damage to livestock              15,748.00                                23,344.00

Loss & Damage Freight         21,122.00                                25,621.00

                                            ___________                         ___________

                                              111,778.00                             213,095.00

 Source: GM&N News, February 13, 1925


The Road especially sought to improve the record on employee accidents and injuries.  In an article in the News for February 13,1925, General Manager Odell reported the Company’s safety record for 1924.  Within its group among all the nation’s railroads, the GM&N stood in tenth place in its percentage of personnel injuries.  A definite program to improve this standing for 1925 was begun, and all employees were encouraged to work for a better safety record for their own protection.  Although the GM&N did not place first in the safety standings in 1925, this program bore fruit in later years.  From 1928 to 1940, the GM&N’s safety record was not equaled by any road in its classification.

Improvement in operating conditions continued throughout 1925.  Car miles per car day passed the mark of 35 set as a goal some months earlier.  This achievement demanded a new goal, and immediately 40 car miles per day became the objective.   Much attention was being given to keeping trains, both passenger and freight, on schedule.  A fuel handicap contest was run to choose four crewmen to attend the International Railway Fuel Convention which was held in Chicago in the summer of 1925.

Gross tons per train showed a steady climb upward during these days of constant improvement.  In May 1925, a new peak load of 1,268 tons was hauled.   Along with this record, the car-miles per-day goal of 40 miles was also met, necessitating a new goal in car miles, as well as gross tons per train.

The efforts to reduce the number of derailments and pulled drawbars also showed success during 1925.  In the month of July only one derailment took place, and this was on a sidetrack.  No drawbars were pulled out during the entire month.  The News of August 7 said that this was the best record in the history of the road.  Previously, at least one minor derailment on the main line had marred every month’s performance; June had also been a month in which no pulled drawbars had been reported.  As the News said, “The fact that some of those engineers handled over a hundred cars on some trips is an indication of the degree of skill and effort put forth in the proper handling of air brakes.”

Recognition for the degree of improvement on the GM&N came not only from the executives of the road, but from many outside sources.  One of the most noteworthy statements was that of J. E. Roberts, Chairman of the Car Service Division of the American Railway Association.  Speaking in New Orleans before the Southeast Shippers Advisory Board he said,  “The railroad showing the greatest improvement in factors affecting operating efficiency in the United States during the period of 1920-1925 is the Gulf, Mobile and Northern.”  These factors were: car mile movement; per cent loaded to total car mileage, train loads; fuel consumption; percentage of bad order cars to total cars; and average tons to the car.  Mr. Roberts also announced that the Chesapeake and Ohio was second in improvement for the same period.  The operating record of these two roads from 1921 through 1926 is summarized in Chart I.


      There was no slackening of effort toward over-all efficiency after 1925.  By that time, however, the GM&N had improved its operating position so much that the rate of improvement was slowed considerably.  In the years following 1926, additional records were set, but the effort necessary to reach new levels of efficiency became successively greater.  The changes brought about by the extension of service to Paducah, Kentucky, and Jackson, Mississippi, also slowed up the improvement statistics somewhat.  Another cause of decline was the shift of freight tonnage from lumber and timber products to other, less weighty items.  Tons per car dropped from 25.1 in 1921 to 23.1 in 1926, and the percent loaded to total number cars in trains increased only 0.1 per cent to 78.7 per cent for 1926, as compared to 78.6 for 1921.

Improvements in general operating conditions continued.  The increase in average tractive power, average train load, car miles per car day, and many of the other factors which indicate operating efficiency kept right on upward during the decade, but at a slower rate of climb.  Improvement to the roadbed was ongoing, and grade revisions and improvement of drainage systems were increasingly important projects in the years after 1926.  The installation of better ties and heavier rail continued, in an effort to keep pace with the development of longer and longer trains making for better time and fewer stops for service.

By 1930 the GM&N did not have the best roadbed in the nation neither did it have the finest equipment.  Few railroads in the country, however, operated their property to better advantage.  The GM&N was still a “country” railroad, and its management knew that.  No frills were in evidence, but the road was in admirable shape to do its job of hauling more and more freight at lower and lower cost. 

Four factors seem to have been of prime importance in establishing the improvement records of the GM&N during the decade.  First, the road’s past operating record was so poor that it was not hard to show relative improvement.  Second, the GM&N had a group of employees whose loyalty and native ability was above average.  Third, the road acquired a group of top supervisors and executives who developed superior knowledge and skill in railroad operation and management.  Lastly, under the astute control of these executives, GM&N employees acquired an almost fantastic degree of esprit de corps, and they became willing to merge their personal ambitions with the Company aims of improving the road.

The depression however stopped the upward climb of tonnage and operating records.  Fortunately, the men who had accomplished so much to improve the road in prosperous years were able to find ways to hold their road together in the bitterest days of the depression.  As soon as economic conditions improved, the upward trend began again with the programs for growth still intact.

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