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Railroad Travelers


The War Department was ill prepared to handle the massive numbers of men and supplies required to fight the war in Europe. After leaving North Dakota, the troops saw minimal training at Camp Greene. Although they drilled eight hours a day, most combat exercises involved wooden rifles. Target practice consisted of only a few rounds of ammunition. Once the units were moved to Camp Mills in New York, almost all training stopped due to the extreme cold and lack of equipment. On this date in 1917, the 164th North Dakota and the 116 Engineers, now at Camp Merritt, New Jersey, were awaiting orders for overseas deployment – whether ready or not. Finally the orders came to transfer the sixteen miles to Hoboken to board ships and begin the journey to the front.

For the families back home in North Dakota, heavily censored letters had been arriving. Most concerned the conditions at Camp Mills with only a slight mention of Camp Merritt. Troop movements and embarkation dates were carefully guarded. Any leaked information could be relayed to German submarines off the Atlantic Coast, endangering the troop ships.

With Christmas soon approaching, any news of the North Dakota boys was welcome. The fact that loved ones were on the verge of going to the front was on the minds of everyone. Red Cross chapters across the state were seeing an increase in membership and an increase in production of socks, helmet liners, and other cold-weather items. Like the troops at the front, North Dakota was undergoing a period of frigid temperatures.

At Langdon on the first week of December, the thermometer hit thirty-nine below. Coal remained in extremely short supply and the suffering was widespread. But to complicate matters, the shortage affected the railroads. Railroads ran on coal, and due to the shortage, the Great Northern announced a reduced schedule. Daily passenger service was curtailed, and the number of passenger cars reduced, replaced by an increase in baggage cars for war supplies. At the busiest travel time of the year, seats meant for passengers were often taken over by huge stacks of mail. It appeared that for the holiday season, the coal shortage left the already congested railroad system in a significant tangle. The homecoming for Christmas travelers was a journey of uncertainty.

Dakota Datebook by Jim Davis


Courier Democrat, Langdon, ND, December 18, 1917

Ward County Independent, December 13, 1917