- Historic Sites
The American Heritage
A ranking of the forty wealthiest Americans of all time (Surprise: Only three of them are alive today)
October 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 6
A famously imposing man, he showed his mettle at twenty-one, when he enraged his employers by buying a shipload of coffee without their authorization and then turned out to have sold the entire cargo at a healthy profit before it had even arrived at the dock. He was born rich, but he made his own fortune along with a reputation as the most powerful, dependable, and forthright man on Wall Street, underwriting the creation of such corporations as General Electric, International Harvester, and U.S. Steel. He was actually powerful far out of proportion to his wealth; during the Panic of 1907 he averted national disaster by raising twenty-five million dollars in fifteen minutes and single-handedly keeping the Stock Exchange from closing early. Within twelve hours of his death, while vacationing in Rome, his family received 3,698 telegrams of condolence.
EDWARD HENRY HARRIMAN
Never one to waste time, he left school at fourteen to begin his career and by twentyone had purchased a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Using the money he made on Wall Street, he worked his way into railroads, which were his passion. By 1898 he was chairman of the executive committee of the Union Pacific and he ruled without dissent. But he speculated heavily with Union Pacific holdings, and his attempt to monopolize the Chicago rail market led to the Panic of 1901. He dreamed of building an around-the-world railroad that would cross the Bering Strait as his legacy.
HENRY HUDDLESTON ROGERS
He started out as a paperboy in Massachusetts and later was a railroad baggageman. As soon as he had saved six hundred dollars, he headed for the newly discovered oil fields of Pennsylvania. His success in investing there led the oilman Charles Pratt to invite him to join his Brooklyn firm. There he invented a machine that could separate the solvent naphtha from crude oil. Standard Oil took over Pratt’s company in 1874, and its officers eventually made Rogers vice president. He was a brilliant inventor, a ruthless businessman, a philanthropist, and, in an odd twist, Mark Twain’s business manager.
OLIVER HAZARD PAYNE
The son of a successful industrialist and politician, he studied at Yale before enlisting in the Union Army in 1861. After the war he invested in the iron industry and then in the new field of oil refining, and his company was the first to be acquired by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. When the Standard Oil trust was formed, he was made one of its nine trustees and served as its Washington lobbyist. He was charged with bribing the Ohio legislature to get his father a Senate seat and with paying off the Democratic party to have his brother-in-law named Secretary of the Navy; the charges were later dropped. He went on to help in the formation of U.S. Steel.
HENRY CLAY FRICK
As chairman of Carnegie Brothers he would rise at six in the morning, walk two miles to work, and stay at his desk until six in the evening. That work ethic paid off early. At twenty-one, while serving as a bookkeeper in his grandfather’s distillery, he and some friends pooled their limited resources and built coke ovens in the surrounding Pennsylvania coal country. By age forty-one he had sold his majority share of the resulting empire to Andrew Carnegie and was chairman of Carnegie’s steel company. He survived being both shot and stabbed by an anarchist during a strike at Carnegie’s Homestead, Pennsylvania, plant—he insisted on telegraphing Andrew Carnegie in Scotland on the status of the strike before seeking medical treatment.
COLLIS POTTER HUNTINGTON
Once described as “a hard & cheery man, with no more soul than a shark,” he worked his way up from poverty as a Sacramento merchant before the engineer Theodore Judah came to him proposing the impossible: a transcontinental railroad. Quick to spot an opportunity, he joined with Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, and Charles Crocker—they became known as the “Big Four”—to incorporate in June 1861 the Central Pacific Railroad. It built east from California until meeting up with Union Pacific, which built west from Omaha. Of the Big Four, notorious for their dubious business practices (they scammed an estimated thirtysix million dollars on the project), he was perhaps the most audacious: He hired geologists to prove that the Sierra Nevada began twenty-two miles before the first foothills.
PETER A. WIDENER
A groundbreaker of nineteenth-century consolidation, he knotted together all the street railways in Philadelphia and then helped assemble American Tobacco, U.S. Steel, and the International Mercantile Marine Company. He held his first job in a meat shop, won a contract to supply mutton to all the Civil War troops within ten miles of Philadelphia, and invested his fifty-thousanddollar profit, plus money he earned holding local political offices, in street railways and Philadelphia traction companies. Under his eye, Philadelphia streetcar technology advanced from horse to cable to electric, and his money and expertise helped build lines in New York and Chicago as well.