Maury Kleins “A Hell of a Way to Run a Railroad,” gives a new perspective of reliable transportation. During much of the 19th century railroads dominated the American industrial landscape. The railroad enabled people to travel farther and also more widely. The railroad was one of the greatest technological advancements of the 19th century. Two hundred thousand miles of track were laid by 1900. The railroad began to symbolize American prosperity. By the 1890s the rail industry was near collapse. Expansion during the 1880s caused rate wars that took the financial strengths of some of the strangest railroads.
Regulation of the railroads was controlled by the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887. Railroads were the first industry to be watched under the federal government. Between 1893 and 1897 one fourth of the nations mileage sank into receivership. The railroads affected were the: Union Pacific, Northern Pacific, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, Erie, and the Philadelphia and Reading. For two decades rail managers had tried unsuccessfully for some form of regulation to take away the criticism put upon them.
In the phrase of Albro Martin the leading railroad historian, “The final hour had struck for the Victorian Railroad Corporation” (2). The growth of the nineteenth-century rail system had relied on conditions unique to the era. As more railroads reached cities and towns competitive wars erupted that drove rates down despite efforts to maintain them.
The railroads task was not to simply haul freight but to help create the towns, factories, and farms that would help generate the freight. The railroad industry had reached a turning point in its history. The question remained who would lead the railroad into the new era? E. H. Harriman would be the leader who brought the rail industry into the new era. Harriman was known as a skilled banker.
Harriman was a bantam rooster with a fierce competitive streak in everything he did. During the 1880s Harriman had dabbed in smaller upstate New York railroads, but his role had been largely financial. Stuyvesant Fish landed him on the board of the Illinois Central when Fish needed allies to modernize the companys management and policies. Harriman became vice president. Tension between Harriman and Fish caused Harriman to resign as vice president. Harriman landed a seat on the executive committee of the Union Pacific Railroad in in 1897. By proving his abilities he was elected chairman in 1898. Harriman toured the rails of the Union Pacific.
He traveled to the western part of the U. S. Harriman saw growth and prosperity coming towards the West. He telegraphed New York and requested 25 million dollars for equipment and improvements on the railroad. Over the next decade Harriman spent a staggering 160 million dollars modernizing Union Pacific at a time when the total expenditures by the federal government averaged only 561 million dollars a year. In the process he created the most efficient railroad in the West. Harriman faced the task of rebuilding older lines with shaky financial pasts. Harriman had his top engineer John B. Berry transform lines in Wyoming.
Harriman invested large sums in automatic block signals, still an expensive rarity on American roads, but an innovation that made the handling and control of trains moving on the same tracks much more safe and efficient. “By 1909 the Harriman system had already installed more than five thousand miles of block signals; twelve years later only thirty-nine thousand miles of the nations railroads had them”(6). Between 1899 and 1909 he fleet of locomotive increased only 11 percent, and that of rolling stock 20 percent, yet the tonnage carried triplet over a system that had grown in mileage by 36 percent.
In May of 1906 he went from San Fransico to New York in seventy-one hours and twenty-seven minutes. Harriman was amazed at how smoothly the track ran. Harriman was able to sell 208 million dollars worth of new bonds. Fixed charges increased by 3 million a year while net income jumped 125 percent and the surplus 188 percent. More a warrior than a diplomat, Harriman moved to impose his own brand of order. Harriman, his rival George Gould said “Aims to ominate, and if he dont like us hell throw us out”(8).
Harriman also took control of the Southern Pacific and 247 million to make the Southern Pacific equal to the Union Pacific. Harriman had led the rail industry into a new era and had helped modernize the railroad system. Dividends from the Union Pacific are still paying today. Harriman faced the criticism of himself as being arrogant, yet no doubts were cast on his effectiveness of his ability to improve the railroad system. I agree that Harriman was a Napoleon of our time. He changed the railways into major players of the industrial and commercial landscape.