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Atterbury, William Wallace (Jan. 31, 1866 - Sept. 20, 1935), railroad president, son of John G. and Catharine (Larned) Atterbury, was born in New Albany, Ind., the seventh son and the youngest of twelve children. His father, formerly an attorney in Detroit, had given up the law to become a Presbyterian home missionary; later he was secretary of the American Bible Society. When William was five, the family moved back to Detroit. The boy attended school but was expelled for fighting with his teacher; as he declared in later years, it ended with the teacher's kicking him downstairs. He finally completed the common-school work, however, and went to Yale University, where he helped to pay his way through Sheffield Scientific School by tutoring. He was graduated in 1886. An elder brother aided him in obtaining a place as apprentice in the Pennsylvania Railroad shops at Altoona, Pa., where his pay was five cents an hour. He made arrangements with a policeman--who worked at night and slept in daytime--to occupy his room at night for a small rental. His father aided him a little, but he worked thirteen and fourteen hours a day, instead of the usual ten, to ease the burden on his family. By the third year of his apprenticeship he was earning seven cents an hour and was able to pay all his pinched expenses. He was so apt and hard a worker that he completed his apprenticeship in three years instead of four and in 1889 was made assistant road foreman in charge of locomotives on the Philadelphia division of the road. He was transferred for a short time to the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore, a Pennsylvania subsidiary, but came back to the parent road in 1892 as assistant engineer of motive power of the northwest division. During the great railroad strike of 1894, when many railroads were completely halted and the western department of his own company seemed about to be tied up, he managed to keep things moving. At one time he drove an engine himself through one of the worst trouble zones, jumping from the cab to throw switches. This achievement at the age of twenty-eight gave him greatly increased prestige. He was, however, no ruthless strike-breaker; on the contrary, he had a keen sense of the rights of the worker, wrote and talked of them in public, and put his sentiments into practical operation.
At thirty Atterbury went back to the shops at Altoona as superintendent of motive power of the lines east of Pittsburgh. In 1901 he became general superintendent of motive power. A boom in the steel business in 1902 was chiefly instrumental in clogging rail lines with business, and A. J. Cassatt [q.v.], then president of the Pennsylvania, took a party of officials over the road in private cars to see what could be done. He notified Atterbury to join them at Altoona and was so impressed with the latter's grasp of the railroad's whole situation that he took the young man back to Philadelphia with him. Within a week he had advanced him over the heads of several of his seniors and had named him general manager of the lines east of Pittsburgh, effective Jan. 1, 1903. In 1909 Atterbury became fifth vice-president in charge of transportation, in 1911 fourth vice-president and a director of the company, and in 1912 he was made vice-president in charge of operations. In 1916 he was elected president of the American Railway Association, and in that year, during the troubles between the United States and Mexico, he rendered valuable service to the government in the transportation of troops and war supplies to the Mexican border and the Atlantic seaboard. This paved the way for his service in Europe a little later, for when the American Expeditionary Force reached France in 1917-18, its commander, General Pershing, had so much difficulty in moving troops and munitions over the French railroads that the French consented to put the lines under American direction. Pershing asked that a "man with large experience," the "ablest man in the country" be sent to take charge of them. The War Department selected Atterbury, and within a short time he left for France, studying the problems all the way across and arriving, as Pershing found, with already a fair grasp of the subject. He was designated director-general of transportation of the American Expeditionary Forces, with the rank of brigadier-general. So efficiently did he organize American transportation requirements in France and coordinate them with those of allied governments that he was later decorated, not only by the United States, with the Distinguished Service Medal, but by France (Legion of Honor), Great Britain (Order of the Bath), Belgium, Serbia, and Rumania.
In 1925, upon the retirement of Samuel Rea, Atterbury succeeded to the presidency of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The railroads were now being faced with competition from other vehicles of transportation, and the new President, to meet this threat, steered his company into part ownership of airplane, bus, and truck lines, and the door-to-door collection and delivery of freight. One of his greatest achievements was the conversion of the line between New York and Washington to electric operation. Begun in 1928, this task was halted by the panic of the following year. Later Atterbury negotiated a loan from the national government, by means of which it was completed in 1934 at a cost of $200,000,000. Because of ill health, Atterbury retired from the presidency in 1935. He died of apoplexy five months later. For a few years he had been prominent in Pennsylvania politics, becoming Republican national committeeman in 1928, but resigning in 1930. He was married first, on Nov. 13, 1895, to Matilda Hoffman of Fort Wayne, Ind. She died in 1910 and on June 10, 1915, he was married to Arminia (Rosengarten) MacLeod, whose three children he adopted, and by whom he had one child, William W. Atterbury, Jr.