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Chapter 4

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Railroad Builders

John Moody

in the
Chronicles of America series,
Yale University Press,
New Haven, 1921

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 6

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p95  Chapter V
Crossing the Appalachian Range

The story of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad takes us back more than ninety years. When the scheme for the construction of a railroad from Baltimore to the waters of the Ohio River first began to take form, the United States had barely emerged from the Revolutionary period. Many of the famous men of that great day were still living. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had been dead only a year; Madison and Monroe had recently retired from public life; John Quincy Adams held the office of President, and the "reign" of Andrew Jackson had not yet begun.

At this time steam navigation on the rivers was only in its beginnings, but no one could doubt that it would come into general use. Two decades had passed since the Clermont had been launched on the Hudson by Robert Fulton, and steamboats were now carrying cargoes successfully against the swift  p96 currents up the Mississippi from New Orleans and were threatening the extinction of the aggressive flatboat traffic. Great strides had also been made in the construction of turnpike roads. The famous National Pike from Cumberland to Vandalia, Illinois, had been in large part completed and had done much for the opening up of the Western territory.

Canal building was likewise an extensive development of this period. The idea of connecting the waters of the Chesapeake with those of the Ohio havd been broached by George Washington before the Revolution, and he had also prophesied the union of the Hudson and Lake Erie by canal. He believed that a country of such great geographical extent as the United States could not be held together except by close commercial bonds.

The opening of the Erie Canal to New York in 1825 stimulated other cities on the Atlantic seaboard to put themselves into closer commercial touch with the West. This was especially true of the city of Baltimore. A canal connecting Chesapeake Bay and the Ohio River was advocated to protect the trade of Baltimore and the South from the competition of New York and the East which would inevitably result from the construction of the Erie Canal and the Public Works of  p97 Pennsylvania. But discouragements in plenty frustrated the plan. The cost was believed to be excessive and the engineering difficulties were said to be almost insuperable. George Bernard, a French engineer, was of the opinion that the high elevations and scarcity of water along the route would prevent such a canal from having much practical value. For these reasons Baltimore believed that its position as a center for the rapidly developing Western trade was slowly but surely slipping away.

This was the situation that led to the building of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Two men — Philip E. Thomas and George Brown — were the pioneers in this great undertaking. They spent the year 1826 investigating railway enterprises in England, which were at that time being tested in a comprehensive fashion as commercial ventures. Their investigation completed, they held a meeting on February 12, 1827, including about twenty-five citizens, most of whom were Baltimore merchants or bankers, "to take into consideration the best means of restoring to the city of Baltimore that portion of the western trade which has lately been diverted from it by the introduction of steam navigation and by other causes." The outcome was an application to the Maryland Legislature  p98 for a charter for a company to be known as "The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company" having the right to build and operate a railroad from the city of Baltimore to the Ohio River. The formal organization took place on April 24, 1827, with Philip E. Thomas as president and George Brown as treasurer. The capital of the proposed company was fixed at five million dollars.

The construction of the railroad began on July 4, 1828. The venerable Charles Carroll of Carrollton, then more than ninety years old and the only surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence of fifty-two years before, said on this occasion, as he laid the first stone: "I consider this among the most important acts of my life, second only to my signing the Declaration of Independence." His vision was indeed prophetic.

It was determined that the first section of road constructed should extend to Ellicott's Mills, twelve miles distant, but, owing to delays in obtaining capital, the actual laying of the rails was not begun until the fall of 1829, and this first station was not opened for traffic until May 22, 1830. At first, experiments were made with sails for propelling the cars, but it was soon found that a more effective source of power was supplied by mules  p99 and horses. The Flying Dutchman, one of the cars devised to furnish motive power, provided for the horse or mule a treadmill which would revolve the wheels and make the distance of twelve miles in about an hour and a quarter. Steam locomotives at this time were in their infancy and, until the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester in this same year, they had attained a speed of only six miles an hour. Horses and mules, and even sail cars, made more rapid progress than did the earliest locomotive. In spite of these crude and primitive facilities for transportation, however, the traffic on the new railroad was of large volume from the beginning, and the company could not handle the amount of merchandise offered for transport in the first months.

Construction was now rapidly pushed ahead, and by 1832 the whole line had been opened to Point of Rocks, with a branch to Frederick, Maryland, making seventy-two miles in all. In 1831, steam locomotives were tested, and one of them, the York, was found capable of conveying fifteen tons at the rate of fifteen miles an hour on level portions of the road. This achievement was regarded as a great triumph, and in 1832 the directors of the road called attention to "the great  p100 increase in velocity" that had been obtained in this way.

From this time forward the expansion of the railroad proceeded with a certainty born of success. A branch was built to Washington and the main line was extended to Harper's Ferry. Beyond this point construction was slow because financial difficulties stood in the way, and it was not until after the panic of 1837 that further aggressive building began. But by 1842 the line was completed to Cumberland, Maryland, and by 1853, to Wheeling. Meanwhile, the branch from Cumberland to Parkersburg, Virginia, was built. The road now comprised a total system of more than five hundred miles and reached two points of importance on the Ohio River, one northward near the Pennsylvania-Ohio state line and one southward in the direction of Cincinnati. The Parkersburg extension was of great importance because it opened a through route to St. Louis, by means of the Cincinnati and Marietta Railroad — which was at this time completed from Cincinnati to Belpre, Ohio, opposite Parkersburg — and the Ohio and Mississippi, which extended more than three hundred miles from St. Louis to Cincinnati.

Times were not the best, however, and, although  p101 much traffic was developed, the immense cost of the extensions heavily burdened the Baltimore and Ohio Company, while the panic of 1837 seriously embarrassed its credit. Soon after this panic and before the company had begun to recover from its effects, John W. Garrett, one of the large stockholders in the road and son of a Baltimore banker, was elected to its presidency, and a new chapter in the history of Baltimore and Ohio began. Almost immediately following Garrett's election, a remarkable change became apparent. Losses were turned into gains; deficits were converted into surpluses; and soon Garrett had gained the reputation of being the most remarkable and efficient railroad manager in the world. He seemed to be almost an Aladdin of railroad management for, even when he could not show increases in amount of business done, he reported greater profits by showing lower expenses. In those days the railroads did not furnish detailed reports of business to the stockholders or to the public. At the annual meetings it was customary for a president or the directors simply to announce, either orally or in a brief printed statement, the amount of gross business and profits for the year. No such thing as a balance sheet or  p102 detailed financial statement saw the light of day — practically everything was taken by the stockholders on faith. And great was their faith. When, therefore, Garrett announced large increases in profits in years when most railroads were standing still or were incurring losses, he was implicitly believed.

Under Garrett's management a new era of expansion almost immediately began; work was started on the long delayed branch to Pittsburgh and plans were laid for establishing a line of steamships from Baltimore to the leading European ports. But the Civil War, which bore heavily on the Baltimore and Ohio, interfered with these ambitious schemes. Early in 1861 the Confederates took possession of a large part of the line east of Cumberland; in the next four years important sections of the road were repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt, as they passed into the hands of the Federal or Confederate troops. The company, however, managed to get through without default in its securities, and, when peace was restored in 1865, the Baltimore and Ohio resumed its policy of aggressive expansion.

Before very long the road, with its connections constructed or purchased, reached the cities of  p103 Pittsburgh, Sandusky, and Chicago, and further strengthened its connections with Cincinnati and St. Louis. It acquired steamboats, grain elevators, and docks; it constructed hotels as mountain summer resorts; it built dry docks in Baltimore; and finally it proceeded to organize and operate an express company, a telegraph company, and a sleeping-car company. To carry out these ambitious plans the capital stock and debt were of course increased again and again, and in the course of these operations a large part of the new securities issued was sold to English investors. Notwithstanding these great increases in liabilities, the company continued to report large surpluses and to pay large dividends, — generally ten per cent annually. In fact, this liberal rate was, with brief exceptions, paid right through the Civil War period, in spite of the fact that large parts of the line were frequently destroyed and traffic was often at a standstill. With such prosperity under such conditions Garrett's reputation as a railroad manager naturally suffered no eclipse.

In the course of the Civil War, as already noted, through traffic routes from New York to Chicago had been established, and in the succeeding years the consolidations of the great competing systems  p104 into trunk lines had taken place. The struggle of the Baltimore and Ohio for its share of Western business led to fierce rivalry with the Pennsylvania. This competition became so severe and intense that, in 1874, the Pennsylvania road refused to carry the Baltimore and Ohio cars over its line to New York on any terms whatever. Since this was the only way in which the Baltimore and Ohio could reach New York, the situation was a serious one. Garrett retaliated by making destructive reductions in passenger rates from Washington and Baltimore to Western points. The cuts were soon made on other roads and affected both freight and passengers. All the lines became involved. Passenger fares from Chicago to Baltimore and Washington were reduced from nineteen dollars to nine dollars, and those to New York and Boston from twenty-two to fifteen dollars. Still the fight continued, and before the end of 1875 it was possible to travel from Chicago to New York first class for twelve dollars and to ship grain to New York for as low a rate as twelve cents.º

Despite the fact that competition had cut earnings almost to the point of extinction, the Baltimore and Ohio continued to report surprisingly good profits. The company borrowed additional  p105 funds from time to time but continued to pay the liberal ten per cent dividend until 1877, when it somewhat reduced the rate. These dividend payments indicated, however, a prosperity that was only apparent, and they did not greatly deceive the bankers, for the credit of the Baltimore and Ohio weakened from day at once day. The fact is that the reports of operations inspired little public confidence; to the farseeing, there were danger signals ahead. Nevertheless the ten per cent dividends were resumed in 1879 and continued at this rate without interruption until 1886.

On the death of John W. Garrett in 1884, his son Robert, who succeeded him as president, continued the same policy of competition and aggression. With the object of gaining an entrance into Philadelphia and through that gateway of reaching New York, he started work on a branch from Baltimore to Philadelphia to meet, at the northern boundary of Maryland, the Baltimore and Philadelphia Railroad — a line which independent interests were then building through Delaware with the intention of obtaining an entrance into Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania interests strongly opposed Garrett's new project and many years before had gone so far, in their determination to block the Baltimore  p106 and Ohio from acquiring control of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, as to purchase that road themselves. Despite this opposition the Baltimore and Ohio went forward with their plans and secured an entry into Philadelphia by acquiring control of the Schuylkill East Side Railway, which was a short terminal road of great strategic value. North of Philadelphia the company arranged a traffic contract with the Philadelphia and Reading, whose lines extended to Bound Brook, New Jersey, and also with the Central Railroad of New Jersey beyond Bound Brook to Jersey City. Afterward, by purchasing the Staten Island Rapid Transit Company the Baltimore and Ohio acquired extensive terminals at tidewater on Staten Island and constructed a connection in New Jersey with the New Jersey Central. Thus, after many years of struggle and at heavy cost, the Baltimore and Ohio finally secured an entry into the New York district independently of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Both freight and passenger charges, however, were still maintained at an unprofitable rate, and after the death of John W. Garrett, the credit of the Baltimore and Ohio continued to decline. Dividends were gradually reduced and by 1888 were  p107 omitted entirely. As is usually the case, the cessation of dividends awakened the sleeping stockholders. They began an investigation to ascertain the whereabouts of that remarkable surplus which had been reported from year to year and which, according to official report, had shown a constant growth.

This investigation disclosed a startling state of affairs. Instead of a surplus, the company had been piling up deficits year after year, had been borrowing money right and left on onerous terms, had been charging up millions of dollars of expenses to capital accounts — and as a matter of fact, instead of making money, it had for the most part been losing it. Now the company urgently needed cash, and the only way it could obtain that essential commodity was by selling its express, telegraph, and sleeping-car business.

During the entire administration of John W. Garrett, extending over more than two decades, current expenditures of enormous amounts which should have been deducted from the income had been credited to the surplus; many millions which would never be returned had been advanced to subsidiary lines, or had been spent, and therefore should have been put down in the books as losses. When these facts became public, the capital stock  p108 of the Baltimore and Ohio, which for generations had been looked upon as one of the most secure of railroad investments, dropped to almost nothing, and the most strenuous financial efforts were required to keep the company out of bankruptcy.

These disclosures, towards the end of 1887, ended the first period of active Garrett management in the Baltimore and Ohio. The directors then turned to New York bankers for the cash that was needed to put the affairs of the company on a sound basis. Samuel Spencer, who afterward became a partner in the banking house of J. P. Morgan and Company, was elected president and active manager. He introduced radical reforms, entirely revolutionized the organization, and adopted modern methods. He wrote off the books a large amount of the much vaunted "surplus" and he took important steps toward the general improvement of the property.

Had the new interests been allowed to continue their efforts unmolested, the history of the Baltimore and Ohio in the next decade might have been very different. But the original controlling interests, the Garrett family, still held the balance of power. As the bad bookkeeping and other irregularities of the past naturally reflected on the  p109 Garretts, it was their interest to suppress further investigation as far as possible; and their antagonistic attitude toward the policy adopted by the new Spencer management was seen in the annual election of directors in November, 1888. Only five of the members of the board were reëlected, President Spencer was ousted, and Charles J. Mayer was elected in his place.

This second change in management sidetracked the plans for radical reform, and little improvement resulted either in earning power or in financial condition. The company had fallen upon evil days. The net profits did not increase, and eight years after 1888 they were smaller than in that year, while the debt and interest charges constantly grew. Despite these ominous facts, dividends were paid regularly on the preferred stock and in 1891 they were resumed on the common stock. In the latter year a twenty per cent dividend was declared "to compensate shareholders for expenditures in betterments and improvements in the physical condition of the property," while at the same time the directors decided to raise five million dollars of new capital for expenditures which would be necessary to handle the increased traffic created by the World's Fair at Chicago.

 p110  The traffic problem continued to be a thorn in the flesh and until 1893 freight rates were constantly being cut. The opening of the Baltimore and Ohio connection to New York had brought keener competition from the Pennsylvania Railroad and had made deep inroads into the Baltimore and Ohio revenues. Such conditions made even the Garrett interests feel that something should be done, and in 1890 a "community of interest" scheme was proposed. To control the stock of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Edward R. Bacon in New York, acting harmoniously with the Garrett family, formed a syndicate of capitalists representing the Richmond Terminal system, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, the Northern Pacific Railroad, and other properties. The ultimate plan, which proved too visionary, was to consolidate under one control a vast network of lines extending all over the continent.

The syndicate had made little progress toward rehabilitation when the panic of 1893 occurred. In this year and the next the earnings of the Baltimore and Ohio fell off rapidly and the dividend was reduced. Nevertheless, as late as January, 1895, the directors insisted that financially the company was in better condition than for several  p111 years and that on the whole it was in a stronger position than at any time since 1880. But in this same year it became necessary to stop all dividend payments; the company began to have difficulties in securing ready money; and before the close of the year the situation seemed hopeless. Early in 1896 Mayer tendered his resignation, and John K. Cowan succeeded him. The new president did his utmost to obtain money to meet the current needs, but he was unsuccessful. A receiver­ship and reorganization seemed absolutely necessary, and in February, 1896, the receiver­ship was announced.

With the property now in the hands of the courts, the opportunity at last came to make real the reforms which had been proposed and begun nearly a decade earlier under the wise but quickly terminated administration of Samuel Spencer. A thorough housecleaning was now carried through without interference or interruption. A reorganization committee was formed, with whom were deposited the Garrett shares as well as those of the Morgan and New York and Philadelphia interests. A full investigation of past management disclosed that the records for the interim extending from the brief Morgan control under Spencer to the  p112 receiver­ship contained the same kind of irregularities and errors of policy that had prevailed under the earlier Garrett management. Statements of profits had been swelled by arbitrary entries in the books and nearly six million dollars which had not been earned had been paid out in dividends. Furthermore the company had endorsed the notes of certain subsidiary roads to the extent of over five million dollars, and had made no record whatever of this action for the stockholders.

As in the case of numerous other railroads, the financial breakdown of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was primarily due to a bad or reckless financial policy, for there was nothing inherently insecure in the railroad property itself. During all the years of the Garrett régime, the company had shared in the general growth and expansion of industry, wealth, and population within its territory. It had been progressive in matters of expansion and had built up its system to meet the needs of modern times. Its trackage and equipment compared favorably with similar systems, and most of its extensions and branches had been wisely planned and had proved profitable. The operating management of the railroad was generally good and it usually secured its proportion of  p113 what business was to be obtained. But the steady increase in its debts over a number of years, its extravagance in dividend payments, and its painful efforts to keep down its operating expenses had so weakened the property that, when the hard times of 1893 to 1896 arrived, it was in no position to weather the storm. The only wonder is that the management succeeded in keeping the system intact and apparently solvent so long as it did.

The receiver­ship at once adopted a vigorous policy of improvement. The rolling stock had run down until it could not handle even ordinary business. While the company had been depleting its credit and paying out all its cash in dividends, the equipment had been going into the scrap heap. For two years the receivers made large expenditures on equipment and roadbed, borrowing money for this purpose; the result was that when, in 1898, the courts surrendered the property, it was in splendid condition to take advantage of the tide of commercial and industrial prosperity which was just then beginning to flow throughout the United States.

While the reorganization of the Baltimore and Ohio was not so drastic as that of many other systems which went through the courts during this period, it was thorough enough to meet the  p114 situation. The fixed charges were cut down radically and the stockholders were assessed in large amounts. In all, more than thirty-six million dollars was raised by assessments and the sale of new securities; the liabilities of the Company were greatly reduced; and its credit was promptly restored. Formerly the Baltimore and Ohio had been struggling under a burden of floating indebtedness, with so little money in its treasury that it could not even put a new coat of paint on the passenger cars and had to continue to use oil lamps to light some of its best trains. But now the floating debt was replaced by a large available cash capital, and as a result of the liberal policy followed by the receivers, the equipment and roadbed were brought fully up to the standards required for handling the traffic of the road both economically and effectively.

With the reorganization of 1898 finished, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad entered a new period in its history. The strong, progressive interests which now took control concentrated their energies on developing traffic, increasing earnings, and rounding out the general system. They adopted careful measures for unifying the system by adding other lines and connections of value; they paid  p115 much attention to the improvement and development of terminals; and they spent many millions in acquiring and expanding the terminal properties of the company at Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.

The financial history of the Baltimore and Ohio since the close of the nineteenth century is interesting chiefly in connection with changes in the control of the property. After the reorganization a group of prominent financiers, including Marshall Field, Philip D. Armour, Norman B. Ream, and James J. Hill jointly purchased a large interest in the stock. But this purchase, while perhaps representing a dominating interest, did not involve actual control. Soon afterward, interests identified with the Pennsylvania Railroad began to appear in the Baltimore and Ohio, and before long the Pennsylvania had a strong representation on the board. As a consequence, the Baltimore and Ohio almost lost its individuality and for a time was popularly regarded practically as a subsidiary of its old rival line.

The purpose of the Pennsylvania in obtaining this ascendency over the Baltimore and Ohio was to regulate the soft coal traffic. Already it had acquired dominating interests in the Chesapeake and  p116 Ohio, the Norfolk and Western, and other soft coal properties. These purchases were merely manifestations of that "community of interest" policy which at this time led several large systems to acquire interests in competing lines. Several of the railroad leaders of that time, notably James J. Hill and Edward H. Harriman, believed that if these great systems actually owned large blocks of stock in each other's properties, this common association would ipso facto end the competition that, if continued, would ultimately ruin them all. The Supreme Court had decided that the "pooling" arrangements which had so long prevailed among great competing roads violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act; and the American public, which now was cultivating a new interest in railroad problems, believed that the "community of interest" plan was merely a scheme to defeat the Interstate Commerce Act and the Sherman Act and to maintain secretly all the old railroad abuses. These inter-railroad purchases therefore became so unpopular that the Pennsylvania sold its Baltimore and Ohio stock. At this time Edward H. Harriman of the Union Pacific, who had at his disposal vast funds of the latter property which he had obtained by the settlement of the Great Northern  p117 and Northern Pacific deal, decided to acquire control of a system of roads in the East in order to establish a complete transcontinental line in the interest of the Union Pacific. It was the theory that such a purchase by the Union Pacific would not defy the law or outrage the popular conscience because the Union Pacific, unlike the Pennsylvania, did not compete with the Baltimore and Ohio, but was only a western extension of that system. Harriman in August, 1906, therefore purchased nearly all the Pennsylvania holdings in the old Garrett property and thus obtained virtual control.

At this same time the Baltimore and Ohio had been developing a "community of interest" plan on its own account. In the year 1903, it acquired a substantial stock interest in the newly organized Reading Company, which controlled the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company. It did not obtain a majority interest but, with the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad of the New York Central system, it now controlled the Reading system. The Reading Company meanwhile had secured control of the Central Railroad of New Jersey, over the lines of which the Baltimore and Ohio reached New York City.

 p118  In the following years the Baltimore and Ohio property was still further rounded out by purchasing the Cincinnati, Hamilton and Dayton, a small system of doubtful value radiating through the State of Ohio and, by additional extensions, into the soft coal fields of West Virginia. New energy was put into the expansion and improvement of the southwestern lines to St. Louis, while the eastern terminal properties were still further improved.

The practical control of the Baltimore and Ohio remained in the hands of the Union Pacific interests until 1913. In that year, however, the Union Pacific liquidated its holdings by distributing them to its own individual stockholders in the shape of a special dividend. The Baltimore and Ohio thus became once more an independent property.

The story of the Baltimore and Ohio for the past decade has been mainly a record of a growing, well-managed, and efficient business. It is closely identified with the personality of its notable and efficient president, Daniel Willard, a conspicuous example of the modern type of railroad manager. In the earlier days of railroading, and especially in the long period which came to an end with the death of Harriman, the typical railroad  p119 president was usually a man of great wealth who had secured his position by owning a large financial interest in the property. The country was full of "Wall Street Railroad Generals." But in recent years the efficient railroad head has come more and more to be the practical railroad man who has risen from the ranks, who has no important personal financial interest in the property but who is paid an adequate salary to operate a system in a purely businesslike way. Notable examples of this modern type of railroad president are, besides Daniel Willard, Edward P. Ripley of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé, Benjamin F. Bush of the Missouri Pacific, and Fairfax Harrison of the Southern.

The efficient management of today is abundantly shown in the recent record of the Baltimore and Ohio. President Willard has been unmolested by financial interests and has been continuously backed up in his policies by the owners of the road. As a result the Baltimore and Ohio of the present decade has reached an enviable position as one of the great Eastern trunk lines, comparing well with other progressive properties like the Pennsylvania, the New York Central, the Southern, the Illinois Central, and the Louisville and Nashville. Millions  p120 have been poured into the property in the past fifteen years; its main lines have been largely rebuilt; its rolling stock is chiefly of the most modern types; and its terminals and structures are such as modern conditions demand.

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