On August 29, 1916, Congress passed "An Act Making Appropriations for the Support of the Army for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1917," and it contained the following language: "The President, in time of war, is empowered, through the Secretary of War, to take possession and assume control of any system or systems of transportation, or any part thereof, and to utilize the same, to the exclusion as far as may be necessary of other than war traffic thereon, for the transfer or transportation of troops, war material and equipment, and for other such purposes connected with the emergency as may be needful if desirable."
The best-remembered example of a president using this power was in 1950, when President Truman seized the railroads to avert a strike-related shutdown a few weeks into the Korean War (see August 25). But President Wilson made use of the act much earlier, in December of 1917.
According to Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century, (2000) Stephen B. Goddard wrote: "Railroad leaders held the key to effective mobilization [in World War I]. Feeling the public’s angry glare upon them, they created a war board, to gather their independent lines into one massive network. But asking bitter rivals to cooperate in servicing each other’s customers predictably produced only bickering and backbiting. And the smothering restrictions upon them by the Interstate Commerce Commission compromised their efficiency. By December, Wilson knew that the time for jawboning and conciliation had passed. The President seized control of the nation’s railways but left their ownership untouched.
"To relieve the overwhelmed railroads, the military had little choice but to order trucks bound for the European front to drive from Midwestern plants across narrow, frozen dirt roads to the Atlantic Coast, during a winter that turned out to be one of the most severe on record. Thirty thousand trucks bumped along as crews worked around the clock to clear heavy snowdrifts. Throughout 1918, America’s shackled and antiquated railroads and its pitifully inadequate roads did their best to mobilize and supply an overseas force of two million men."