Who Shot the Iron Horse?

Once the symbol of American technological achievement and of fortunes mightily made, the transportation wonder of the nineteenth century has been victimized by the present century’s faster pace. Whether this will prove ultimately to be a boon to conservationists and culturemongers is a matter of some concern to Mr. Kronenberger. ATLANTICcritic.


THE railroad, assuredly one of the supreme achievements of the nineteenth century, has become, in America at least, one of the most blasted burdens of the twentieth. At best today it resembles a fabled ruin, a vast fallen empire. More commonly it suggests a stodgy and even dirtier-looking subway; a sprawling anachronism that conveys not ruin but mess, not age but senility, not something speeding across continents but stalled between stations. To the air-minded, it is a beastly by-product of fog; to car-driving millions, it is a curio about to share the fate of the corset, the icebox, the Welsbach lamp, the napkin ring, and the livery stable.

Yet in 1966 shareholders of railroad stock were paid $502 million in cash dividends, “more than in any other year in the industry’s history.” So we are informed very early in Peter Lyon’s To Hell in a Day Coach (Lippincott, $5.95), a work which bears the subtitle “An Exasperated Look at American Railroads.” Mr. Lyon is one of those people, themselves verging on anachronism, who enjoy traveling on trains, yet can enjoy very few of the trains they travel on. But Mr. Lyon offers no plaintive lament, no elegy written in a country waiting room; his scrutiny is as dry-eyed as it seems lynx-eyed; his splutterings run not to swearwords but statistics; his treatment, from the bad old days of plunder to the recent cries of pain, is bluntly financial. His book is brisk and a little breezy in manner, but his bibliography seems solid, and his citations are specific, nor does he offer — or need to offer — sensationalism in place of truth. Our nineteenth-century railroad history is an obstreperous drama of rapacity and romance, with an all-star cast of scoundrels, compared with whom mere train robbers, the James brothers or the Daltons, play bit parts. It is an epic of swindling, of neo-Viking pillaging, of neanderthalish power grabs, whose methods turned legislatures into lackeys, whose transactions turned watered stock into wine. It is a flag-draped dossier of chicanery at the hilly end of Pennsylvania Avenue and of timidity at the other. The Iron Horse as an industry, like the horse itself, was forever belching smoke and banging into whatever got in its way. However gifted its rivals in our most florid age of robber barons, railroading was the Abou Ben Adhem of industrial villainy.

This is true not least because, from the very outset, our premier villain was looked upon as a public servant, as a national benefactor; hence was deserving of public funds, hence was entitled to grants of land, hence was the plump heiress of Eminent Domain. Public grants became the darling of private greed; hence the heiress was wooed wherever possible, or was jilted wherever expedient. Before even 10,000 miles of U.S. track had been laid down, railroad policy, says Mr. Lyon, had already crystallized as ignoring, dismissing, and sweeping under the roadbed the public interest. Already during the 1840s there were anguished public outcries about “discriminatory freight rates, poor passenger service, filthy accommodations,” and the like. There were squawks and cries that the state should own the railroads, something not easily consummated since the railroads owned the statehouse. Thus, Erasmus Corning, the earliest of the great public servants and a power in Albany, sensibly became a state senator himself, while his colleague from Buffalo. Dean Richmond, became Democratic state chairman. Making trained seals of other politicos, the two men linked arms and railroads, and lo, the New York Central was born.

WITH that the grease-palmed prologue ends, and the curtain goes up on the brass-knucked first act. With that, we are in the presence of famous names and on the eve of infamous events, with scoundrelism rampant and scandals rife. Just a few years more and the four great Eastern trunk lines — the New York Central, the Pennsylvania, the Erie, and the B & O — will combine, in the way of rates and the like, against the public, while colliding among themselves. The first generation of railroad magnificoes—Commodore Vanderbilt, Daniel Drew, Jay Gould. Jim Fisk, Russell Sage — will trample on everything, even one another. Thus the Commodore, having captured the Central, laid siege to the Erie, precipitating that “public spectacle of greed” which “stands alone in our history” — the Erie War, wherein Vanderbilt was licked by his juniors, Gould and Fisk, one of whose very first acts was to put on their board of directors William Marcy Tweed. Licking his wounds, the aquatic Commodore watered the Central’s stock, while Gould and Fisk permitted the Erie’s stockholders “ten million dollars of debt.” In the course of events, Drew used fishy securities and fled to New Jersey with $6 million in cash “wrung” from the Commodore, who conspired to have him kidnapped back to New York. During all this, New York’s legislature was openly bribed, and its Supreme Court corrupted.

The East’s Big Four in railroads being now in good hands, the West responded with its Big Four in men. Nonrailroaders, but otherwise unimpeachably qualified, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, and Collis P. Huntington became transportation-minded, and in due course, at Promontory Point, Utah, the Golden Spike was driven in. Around one of the most restful words in the language, pacific — whether Union, Central, Southern, Northern, or Western, plus the Great Northern for kicks—were to develop, with the arrival of Harriman and Hill, with the intrusion of Morgan and Wall Street, some exceedingly superior crises and some of the most valiant blows for freebooting ever struck.

Doing for a turn-of-the-century generation what the Erie War had done after the Civil War, the titanic Northern Pacific-Great Northern hostilities set Hill, Pierpont Morgan, and George F. Baker, with the Vanderbilts and U.S. Steel “looming in the background,” against Harriman, Jacob H. Schiff of Kuhn, Loeb, and James Stillman of the National City Bank, with, looming in the background, William Rockefeller and H. H. Rogers of Standard Oil. After many coups and much carnage, but no decisive conquest, Morgan devised an “entente” that led TR, as President, to take action against it, and the Supreme Court to decree its dissolution. Harriman, whom Mr. Lyon calls the most brilliant railroad executive in American history, came off best, getting back securities costing him $80 million that he could sell for twice as much.

Mr. Lyon distributes other awards and honorary degrees. Of the early great, Russell Sage was the “most pernicious . . . miserly, devious, an habitual liar, a perjurer and a betrayer of his associates ; a convicted usurer, a corrupter of governors and legislatures at a cost of two million and a profit of well over twenty. Collis P. Huntington Mr. Lyon salutes as the biggest of the Four: “ruthless, grim, cold, crafty,” whom someone neatly described as “scrupulously dishonest,” though I personally prefer a remark, which Mr. Lyon fails to quote, attributed to Huntington himself: “Whatever is not nailed down is mine. Whatever I can pry loose is not nailed down.” We all know how the Central’s W. H. Vanderbilt spoke of the public; the elder Morgan, for whom all Roads led to Wall Street, said less profanely: “I owe the public nothing.” A president-maker of railroads, Morgan one day phoned a certain Charles S. Mellen. Their conversation, as recalled at a public hearing by Mellen:

MORGAN: IS that you, Mr. Mellen?


MORGAN: Anybody hear what you say?


MORGAN: Will you take over the Northern Pacific?


MORGAN: Will you leave it all to me?


MORGAN: Goodbye.

Morgan also, in 1903, made Mellen president of the New Haven, and Mr. Lyon makes Morgan progenitor of all the New Haven’s woes.

As the century turned, the wheel of fortune held steady; by 1905 no other industry equaled the railroads in revenue or power: their capital was estimated at ten times that of the country’s banks and trust companies. Sixty years later a single “rival" corporation, General Motors, could boast greater revenues than the entire railroad industry, it is easy to account for much of the decline with the single word technology — cars, buses, planes, and trucks have competed and increasingly conquered. Add motels to cars, and you have 100 percent doorto-door living. Subtract planes from business, and you don’t merely put back the clock, you all but restore the hourglass. Yet, granting such competition, what of tactics and countermoves? Are there no longer any great railroad strategists?

Well, it seems that for a long while the railroads sneered at such upstarts as trucks, which, under 400,000 in 1921, numbered more than 3 million by 1933. Even earlier, railroads showed no great affection for their big breadwinner, freight. So far as they were concerned with our country’s welfare, World War I could have been World War lost: in 1917, the United States was short 158,000 freight cars, while nearly 200,000 of them “stood idle on the tracks of the Eastern roads.” The government finally took over the railroads, from January 1, 1918, to March 1, 1920, pouring money into repairs and improvements, while the railroads, in due course, filed claims for damages. The New York Central, for example, claimed $11 million, and finally paid the government $23. The Pennsylvania sought nothing for itself, knowing that the United States had spent $218 million on it; after much hollering, it was let off with paying $90 million.

The Pennsylvania has been the G.O.M. of railroads, often a key to their mergers, gobbles, and grabs, and its recent marriage to the New York Central suggests that of a sort of iron duke to a highborn dowager with a limp, and less for love than to cut down on the housekeeping. Of course the Chinese-boxes form of ownership that is now fashionable in all industries has been axiomatic for generations with the biggest railroads. Thus, they once for five months disputed who should own the Lackawanna before the Lackawanna’s president even heard what was going on. In the 1920s, with railroad profits exceeding a billion a year, empire-snatching went right along with bullmarket gymnastics. After 1929, everything in railways tottered and tumbled, till by 1932 profits had sagged to $325 million; five years more, and over $3 billion worth of railroad bonds were in default of interest. World War II put the industry back on its feet, but the railroads mistook their present for their future, while the trucks were all the time taking the future over. As railroad freight business went down, railroad rates went up, and business went down further, from 67 percent of the freight traffic in 1945 to 46 percent in 1958; and by 1959 the railroads were hauling, for one example, less than 8 percent of new cars. Since then, owing partly to outsiders’ bright ideas, have come much brighter days. Piggybacks and auto racks, hopper cars and unit trains have, to antiphonal screams from truckers and bargemen, brought freight back to its ancestral home. By 1966 railroads were hauling nearly 50 percent of new cars, hopper cars had become great granaries on wheels, and the old faithful, freight, was riding to glory.

There remains Mr. Lyon’s day coach, en route elsewhere. Mr. Lyon is exasperated indeed about current passenger service; he cites many horrendous examples of how brutal, how abominable, how indefensible it is — or, worse, how nonexistent. To be sure, the first economic truth that my generation mastered — it was an open secret in the fourth grade — was that freight trains made money and that passenger trains lost it. Hence for railroad bigwigs the passenger has not just been any old worm, but a costly tapeworm. Mr. Lyon thinks this attitude started more than a century ago when passenger fares had been legally restricted to two cents a mile, in retaliation for which the industry today would presumably restrict passenger service to two trains a month.

I FULLY agree with all Mr. Lyon’s accusations and indictments of the past, but, thanks to a friend whose splendidly independent thinking has impressed me since boyhood, I must wonder whether Mr. Lyon’s thoughts on the present may not, from his great love of trains, be emotionally blinkered. As my friend, who wishes his name withheld, puts it, could what Mr. Lyon considers a cold-blooded railroad ploy to wipe out human freight be in reality something quite different and highly commendable — namely, a fine, manly condemnation of certain discreditable traits in America’s business life? In other words, might not the railroads’ current approach to passenger service constitute a deliberate rejection of America’s dog-cat-dog competitiveness, of its craze for new technological gadgets, of its gaudy drum-beating promotion, of its glossy unmeaningful packaging, of its indecent pandering to that walletfingering hero who is Always Right, the Customer? Frankly, asks my friend, isn’t the railroads’ relaxed policy a blessed relief in the face of Avis tailgating Hertz, or of this airline offering caviar for breakfast, or that one free manicures and hairdos? In what Mr. Lyon sees as calculated passenger hardships, may not others find a sort of industrial idyll, a shift on the part of business from the commercial to the cultural? Let me jot down a few points.

1. In striking contrast to their once greedy policy of clamoring for government money for passenger service, railroads today have been spectacularly refusing it. They have actually beseeched the government TO be let off carrying the mail — with the impressive result that, as against 10,000 mailcarrying-for-money passenger trains in 1935, there were in 1967 only 876.

2. At a time when the shocking business of demolishing historic landmarks all over America is being everywhere protested as a cultural crime, the New Haven Railroad — to give just one example — is carefully preserving 129 grade crossings and 179 bridges which cannot but delight the connoisseur of relics, being all of them from fifty to seventy-five years old.

3. All the same, the New Haven isn’t taking an irresponsibly aesthetic view of such bracing sights; isn’t for a moment setting beauty above bumps and bruises, or art above bandaged heads. In line with its policy of not risking human lives, it sometime back conscientiously reduced its passenger service; beyond that, it would much prefer that the public visit these historic spots by taxicab or car pool.

4. In yet another way, the railroads are putting culture above cash: for people who strongly favor rail travel, the railroads have worked out ingenious connections between one train and another, so as to offer passengers, en route, not only king-sized rest periods in commodious terminals, but the chance to tour many of our most picturesque cities, often for six or eight hours — time enough TO visit the leading parks and squares, the zoo, the art museum, the city hall, the new model reformatory, besides looking in on an old school friend or a cousin with money.

5. In paying homage to the past, and eschewing the parvenu brand-new, the railroads are in effect creating portable museums — what my friend terms Williamsurgs-on-wheels; are proffering prime examples of the proud craftsmanship and impeccable coachwork of more leisured days. In time, it is hoped, there will be identifying plaques and inscriptions accompanying this fine period equipment: Warren G. Harding Dozed Here; This Leather First Cracked Under the Weight of William Howard Taft.

Can such arguments be idly dismissed:’ Mr. Lyon, to be sure, riding his own theory, manages by juggling facts and figures to contribute a more sinister interpretation. A tireless burrower, he finds evidence that the Post Office Department canceled contracts with the railroads because, for example, they required thirty-eight to fifty-six hours to deliver mail at $438 to $516 a van, as against truck deliveries in twenty-six hours at $420 a bigger van. He also argues that the railroads deliberately tried to get rid of the mail as a way of getting rid of the trains. He asserts, again, that in “two states” and “several sizable cities" there is “no railway passenger service whatever.” He claims that Robert R. Young, a popularity seeker who reorganized the B & O and the New York Central, ran paid advertisements reading: “A Hog Can Cross the Country Without Changing Trains—But You Can’t.” Well, well. Just imagine a hog changing trains — why, the sight of it would be the action picture, the news story, of the week.

Mr. Lyon further charges the railroads with deliberately failing to list certain trains; with instructing ticket-office agents to deny that certain others exist; he even charges the Santa Fe with “advising people to fly.” He claims that certain information clerks are “evidently instructed to take the phone off the hook and forget to put it back, resulting in an all-day busy signal, until at 5 p.m. a recording suggests trying again at 9 a.m. the next day.” Mr. Lyon cites Governor Hughes of New Jersey, who kept getting a busy signal for forty-live minutes before a Pennsylvania R.R. information clerk answered the phone. Is that so odd:’ I’ve gotten a busy signal for fifty-five minutes just phoning my wife — and as for having the phone off the hook, i have it off the hook right now so as not to be disturbed while writing this, and I’ll wager Mr. Lyon had his off the hook while writing To Hell in a Day Coach. How else can anybody, including overburdened information clerks, ever gel their work done?

I certainly don’t want to seem pigheaded in all this: Mr. Lyon docs have a good deal of what I suppose might be called ammunition. Even concerning the general thesis that passenger trains have always provided an operating deficit, Mr. Lyon insists that this is a “phantom deficit,” a “statistical mirage,” and that “millions of dollars of maintenance and other overhead costs” are levied against passenger charges “which would still have to be paid if every passenger train disappeared tomorrow.” It has been well said that there are two sides to every story, and on purely sentimental grounds, I must confess I’m on Mr. Lyon’s side. For I look further back than he can, to an age of train travel when, if railroads were America’s most ruthless industry, for a growing boy they were its most romantic. The charcoal-broiled steaks — a rarity then—in the diner; the fried chicken, as the C & O stopped at stations in Virginia, sold from baskets through the train-car windows; the chance to ride in the locomotive cab, with permission to blow the whistle; the child’s nose pressed against the lower-berth window as die train raced through flickeringly lighted villages at midnight . . . Well, suppose Mr. Lyon is right. What can we do to bring his coldhearted, cashminded railroad executives to their knees? I can’t imagine that the classic device would help much — nothing would make these men happier than a boycott.