On this date in 1935, railroad executive William Wallace Atterbury died in Philadelphia at the age of 69. If all he had done was lead the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) he would be remembered as a leader. But he accomplished a great deal more…
Atterbury was born in New Albany, Indiana in 1866. He graduated from Yale University and began his railroading career as an apprentice in the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) shops in Altoona, Pennsylvania. His wages were five cents per hour. However, Atterbury didn’t stay an apprentice or shop employee long, rising rapidly through the PRR system. By 1903 he was the general manager of the railroad’s various lines east of Pittsburgh.
Appointed vice president in charge of PRR operations in 1912, Atterbury was elected president of the American Railway Association (ARA) in 1916.
Working with and for the federal government
As the president of the ARA, he worked closely with the federal government to arrange the transport of troops and supplies by rail to the U.S.-Mexico border during the U.S. Army’s operations against revolutionary Pancho Villa.
General John J. Pershing led the U.S. troops against Villa. When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Pershing was tapped to lead the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in Europe. Pershing sought to more effectively transport soldiers and munitions using French railroads. The French government put the rail lines under U.S. control; Atterbury was recruited to coordinate the rail operations. He was named the AEF’s director-general of transportation. Between August 1917 and May 1919, Atterbury supervised the construction of harbor facilities and a portion of the railways in France that were assigned to the U.S. Army for maintenance and operation. U.S. troops in France nicknamed him “General Attaboy” and “The Railroad General.” He was promoted to a brigadier-general in the U.S. Army during his time in Europe.
He also was recognized for his work during the war, and received formal honors from Belgium, France, Great Britain, Romania, Serbia and the United States.
Discharged from military service on May 31, 1919, Atterbury returned to civilian life in Pennsylvania.
Following his return from World War I, Atterbury resumed his position as vice president of operations at PRR in 1920. He became the railroad’s president In 1925, and maintained that role until he retired.
In his role as president, Atterbury led the railroad in a $250 million project to electrify 245 miles of its main line between New York City and Washington, D.C. The project began in 1928 and was not completed until 1935. At the time, it was the largest capital improvement project ever undertaken by an American railroad. Atterbury also assisted in the development of the PRR’s first M1-class steam locomotive. Under his leadership, the railroad acquired interests in airplane, truck and bus lines to remain competitive; and began the railroad’s door-to-door collection and delivery of freight.
Atterbury retired from the railroad in 1935 due to ill health and died of apoplexy a few months later.
In 1942, Camp Atterbury was opened as a U.S. Army training camp west of Edinburgh, Indiana and named in Atterbury’s honor. Atterbury Army Airfield (which was renamed Bakalar Air Force Base and is now the Columbus, Indiana, municipal airport) was also named in his memory. Today, the Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum is located at the Columbus municipal airport.
Wakeman Army Hospital was located on the base; it was used during World War II and the Korean War. Patients were flown to Atterbury Army Air Base for treatment and recovery; many troops were then discharged from Camp Atterbury.