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“A Set of Mere Money-Getters”?
Were the great business tycoons of the nineteenth century only that? A distinguished historian says no—most emphatically
June 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 4
Perhaps a greater genius burned in E. H. Harriman; if he exhibited less organizing ability than Rockefeller and less acumen than Carnegie, he had a Napoleonic fire which they lacked. Everyone who has studied the tremendous work he so swiftly accomplished in reorganizing the Illinois Central, the Union Pacific, and other railroads agrees that he brought to his problem an intellectual flash that was unique. He saw all the ramifications of a complex situation in a glance. Californians will not forget how he saved the Imperial Valley when the Colorado River, changing its course and pouring into the Salton basin, threatened its destruction; nor the fact that after the San Francisco earthquake and fire he hauled 224,000 refugees out of the city and brought in 1,600 carloads of supplies without charging a penny.
A man of low instincts, uninteresting and unattractive? The great dream of his later years was an aroundthe-world transportation system, and to that end he tried to achieve partial control of the South Manchuria Railway, and adumbrated a scheme for a 1,200-mile railroad crossing the Gobi Desert by the old caravan route. C. Hart Merriam, then Chief of the United States Biological Survey, tells us that nobody was a more enlightening conversationalist, for his talk “covered an amazing range of subjects, while his active mind showed a philosophic grasp of many of the problems that disturb our political and industrial worlds.” But it is fitting that the warmest praise of Harriman’s constructive energies should have come from a citizen of the state he benefited most, California—from old “John of the Mountains,” the naturalist John Muir. In a little booklet published after Harriman’s death, John Muir, an idealist if one ever lived, wrote that he was a builder .
He fairly reveled in heavy dynamical work and went about it naturally and unweariedly like glaciers making landscapes—cutting canyons through ridges, carrying off hills, laying rails and bridges over lakes and rivers, mountains and plains, making the nation’s ways straight and smooth and safe. He seemed to regard the whole continent as his farm and all the people as partners, stirring millions of workers into useful action, plowing, sowing, irrigating, mining, building cities and factories, farms and homes.…
Ah, yes! defenders of Charles Francis Adams’ muchquoted passage will say; this is all very true of Carnegie and Rockefeller, Morgan and Harriman. They were leaders of consummate talents and strength, moving in the largest sphere of action, stimulated by the most dynamic forces of national life. Naturally they took on bigness. But Adams was thinking of businessmen of secondary and tertiary rank; the Jay Goulds who wrecked railroads, the Collis P. Huntingtons who manipulated legislatures, the William A. Clarks who bought their way into the Senate, the Henry Clay Fricks who ground the face of labor into the dust. Surely all would agree that they were vulgar moneygrubbers, uncultivated, uninteresting, and uninspiring. And in part we must agree. But for every business leader whose career supports Charles Francis Adams’ indictment, it is easy to identify ten of his time who do not.
It is plain that in his own special group of transportation executives, Charles Francis Adams did not know, or at least know well, Daniel Willard of the Baltimore & Ohio. Adams was head of the Union Pacific for six years; Willard was head of his road nearly thirty-two years. He began his career as a laborer on the Vermont Central, and worked his way up. In the First World War he was chairman of the War Industries Board. Near the close of the war, Pershing chose him to reorganize the French railway system. His influence with Congress, unapproached by that of any other railroad president, was largely responsible for the passage of the Transportation Act of 1920. In Baltimore he became chairman of the board of trustees of Johns Hopkins University, and a member of the board of the Municipal Art Society. He was one of the Board of Visitors of the Naval Academy. He relaxed with books and music; and, writes President R. W. Brown of the Reading Company, “he always looked more like a college professor than a railroad man. All of us remember the neatness and perfection of his dress—the well-known derby hat and umbrella, and always: books .”
One railroad builder and industrialist of his own era that Adams must have known well was Henry Villard. While he does not mention the man in his memoirs, it was impossible for him not to know Villard. It is not enough to say that Villard completed the Northern Pacific Railroad, anticipated James J. Hill in a massive campaign to stimulate immigration to the Northwest—he established 831 local immigration agents in Great Britain, and 124 on the Continent- and that he later helped organize the Edison General Electric Company. This son-in-law of William Lloyd Garrison became owner of the New York Evening Post and the Nation , giving the editors complete freedom; he paid the debts of the struggling University of Oregon when it was about to go under in 1883, and supported it for two ensuing years of legislative default. He wrote one of the best books of Civil War memoirs; he made important gifts to Harvard and Columbia. Villard, too, was assailed for certain transactions; but it would be preposterous to call this fine champion of many causes in political and social progress narrow, low, unrefined, or uninteresting.