IRT EL Trains Go to War

by John Delach

This story begins on June 1, 1940 when the City of New York merged the two privately operated subway lines, the BMT, (Brooklyn Manhattan Transit) and the IRT, the (Interborough Rapid Transit) systems into the IND, their municipal system. Overnight, the city fathers accomplished a form of urban renewal so extensive that even Robert Moses might have been impressed, if he ever gave a damn about rapid transit which is doubtful.

On that day, most of the original elevated lines serving Manhattan and Brooklyn were condemned to oblivion. Like a light switch being clicked, two of three IRT Manhattan Elevated lines ceased to be in service, the Second Avenue Line and the Ninth Avenue Line. (The Sixth Avenue Line had ceased operating in 1938.) In Brooklyn, the BMT’s Fulton Street Line and the Fifth Avenue line also ceased operating.

Coincidentally, a similar scenario played out in San Francisco Bay area as two of the three interurban passenger lines that only began running from Oakland to San Francisco over the Bay Bridge in 1939 quit in early 1941. Only one, the Key Line remained.

After the fall of France in June of 1940, when Britain stood alone. FDR rallied a reluctant America with his “Short of War” aid to England, lend lease, destroyers for bases and the beginnings of our arsenal for democracy.

Henry J. Kaiser was already building merchant ships for the United States Maritime Administration (MARAD) when they accepted his proposal to build a new shipyard in Richmond a suburb of Oakland on December 20, 1940. Initially, its purpose was to build sixteen merchant ships for Great Britain. On April 14, 1941, steel was laid for the first ship, the SS Ocean Vanguard. Five months later, work began on a second shipyard to build the new class of inexpensive merchant ships, simple-to-operate that could be produced quickly to replace the drastic loss of ships being sunk at the hands of the Nazi U-Boats. Rightfully deemed, the Liberty Ship, the first was built at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point Yard and christened the SS Patrick Henry. Each Liberty ships was engineered to finish one Atlantic crossing should it be lucky.  

The SS James Otis was the first to be built at Richmond, laid down in September of 1941 and delivered early in 1942. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR’s arsenal grew to become a manufacturing behemoth beyond imagination. Kaiser increased production at Richmond, again and again opening shipyards 3 and 4. Workers were recruited nationwide reaching a total of 93,000 shipyard workers of whom 27% were women – Richmond’s pre-war population of 23,000 multiped to 130,000.

An entire new infrastructure had to be created; housing, schools, medical facilities, shops and schools. Transportation for the workers and their families was critical. The shipyards operated seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. At their height, those four yards turned out two new vessels every week a feat unequaled by any other shipbuilding facility.

Ferries carried workers across the bay from San Francisco. Car-pooling workers earned extra gas and rubber coupons to drive to work and bus lines were extended to the shipyards. Still they were not enough to transport all the workers. Another solution was needed, a commuter railway from downtown Oakland to all four shipyards with intermediate stops at the new housing projects within the shipyard.

The Key System obtained a cost-plus contract from the Marad to build and operate a line that didn’t exist. Built from scratch, the line relied on scrap and whatever other materials were available. The rails came from abandoned streetcar lines. The overhead wiring came from the Bay Bridge and the wooden supports needed to build a vital overpass came from timbers once used at a discontinued ferry mole.

That left the need for rolling stock. After the demise of the Manhattan els, the wooden cars were mothballed in the IRT’s massive two-level train yard north of the Polo Grounds. Marad selected 90 of these units all dating from the turn of the century, removed the wheel assemblies, lifted the bodies onto flatcars and shipped them cross-country to the Key Line shops in Oakland. On arrival, they were re-assembled, overhauled and converted from third rail ready to overhead wire ready by removing the third rail shoes, strengthening roofs and mounting pantographs. Service commenced on January 18. 1943 and continued 24 hours a day, seven days a week until September 30, 1945 when the yard closed after delivering the last of 747 ships.

This total was a record number for any shipyard, they included 519 Liberty Ships, 143 Victory Ships, 34 C-4 troop ships, 24 coastal cargo carriers, 15 LSTs and 12 corvettes.

The Maritime Commission offered to sell the shipyard railway to the Key System for a nominal sum, but management wisely declined. Without the Richmond Shipyard it became a line to nowhere. The line was quickly demolished but two cars, #561 and #563 were donated to the Western Railway Museum.

Both have recently been restored and are believed to be the oldest operational electric cars in the United States although the folks at the New York City Transit Museum may take exception to that boast.

The story behind the Richmond Shipyards and the Shipyard Railway is not uncommon and demonstrated the scope of America’s industrial might and the nation’s determination to do whatever was necessary to win the war.

What was extraordinary became commonplace and once the war ended these facilities created nation-wide solely to support the war effort were dismantled and disappeared as if they never existed.

America, God shed his grace on thee…