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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 16

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Road of the Century

Alvin F. Harlow

Creative Age Press, Inc.,
New York, 1947

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 18
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p398  Chapter XVII
Boston & Albany

In a book already overcrowded, it is scarcely necessary to retell the whole story of the Western Railroad of Massachusetts and its growth into the Boston & Albany, for that ground has been gone over with a fair degree of thoroughness in the present author's Steelways of New England. There we have told how President Chester W. Chapin of the Western tried in the 1860's, when control of the New York Central could have been bought below par, to induce the moneyed men of Boston to see the advantages that would accrue to that city in having the Central as its own western outlet. Had Boston instead of New York gained control of the Central, railroad history and the story of the Vanderbilt family would have been vastly different from what they are. But State Street, which had played so large a part in building the great railroads of the Midwest and far West, remained inexplicably obtuse to the ripe plum which dangled before its very eyes, and so New York instead of Boston became the head of the great system.

The irony of the story is seen in the eventual welding of the Boston & Albany into the New York Central, which was the inevitable result of the fact that the two form a natural and direct trunk line from the greatest port in New England to Chicago and other important cities en route. The Western and the Boston & Worcester were merged in 1866 as the Boston & Albany, and relations between this company and the New York Central became steadily closer. In fact, in 1880 a remarkable contract was signed, in which each road was given the privilege of considering the other as its main line. It was as if the two had been actually consolidated, save that the property and earnings of each still remained independent of the other.

But interweaving of interests had begun. One of the Commodore's  p399 most trusted advisers was President Chapin, whose name began to appear on the directorate of the Vanderbilt roads. The Vanderbilts bought some stock in the B. & A. — not a great deal for it was paying so well that the Yankee owners didn't care to let it go — and after 1887 Depew's name was on the B. & A. board, which courtesy was returned by the placing of President William Bliss, Chapin's successor, on the board of the New York Central & Hudson River. Bliss knew that the NYC wanted an entrance into Boston; and there was always the justifiable fear that if it didn't get the B. & A., it might take the Fitchburg and so hamstring his road.

By 1899 a lease was being talked of. But when the concrete proposal, a 999‑year lease at 8 percent per annum, tax free, on the stock, with a guarantee of interest and fixed charges, and $4,000,000 worth of B. & A. property reserved, reached the shareholders, there was an uproar. A "protective committee," including many prominent citizens observation, was formed to fight the deal.

[image ALT: A railroad map of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and eastern New York State, with a trunk line from Boston to Albany, another somewhat less prominently marked line from Springfield to New York City, and various smaller connecting lines. It is a map of the Boston & Albany Railroad system in 1900.]

The hearings on the subject fill a 352‑page book. It was pointed out that the lessee under the contract would pay the B. & A. only $2,000,000 per annum, while its income for 1899 had been $2,310,000. This was met with the rejoinder that there  p400 might come panic years and hard times when the road wouldn't earn half that much. In the end, there was a compromise. The term of the lease was reduced from 999 to 99 years, the $4,000,000 worth of property was to be bought by the Central for $5,500,000, the B. & A. Terminals in East Boston were to be improved, the corporation must remain subject to Massachusetts law and continue to make reports to the Massachusetts Legislature. With these stipulations, the contract was signed. But when the name "New York Central" began to replace that of Boston & Albany on the rolling stock, there was so much feeling on the subject in Massachusetts that the old name was hastily restored and remained for a few years until the soreness had been somewhat alleviated.

In one respect the Boston & Albany is unique. Of all the New York Central's great leased lines, it is the only one which is home-owned. The NYC owns nearly all the stock of the Michigan Central, Big Four and Harlem,º but of the $25,000,000 capital of the B. & A., it does not own a dime's worth. There have been various reasons advanced for this, but one outstanding fact is that the Yankee owners cling pretty tightly to their holdings; and who wouldn't, when they bring in 8 percent a year, come hell or high water, good times or bad? The Central management suffers acute pain as it contemplates the outgo, but endures it with philosophical equanimity.

The B. & A. maintains its individuality to this day. Never is its president the same man who is president of the New York Central, as is true of the Michigan Central, Big Four and all other large leased lines. As this is written in 1946, the B. & A. president is Allan Forbes, a State Street banker, collateral descendant of that John M. Forbes who was the first president of the Michigan Central. Officials are New Englanders, too, and while we do find one foreign name, that of Harold S. Vanderbilt, on the board, the post office addresses of other directors are apt to include such places as Boston, Concord, Westwood, Natick, Pittsfield, Framingham, and Gardiner, Maine.

In its big, high-ceilinged suite of offices in South Station, in Boston, the president's room is hung with portraits of past executives, going back to the Western and the Boston & Worcester. To Massachusetts, the Boston & Albany is still very much alive.

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