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Epitaph For The Steel Master
Who dies rich, dies disgraced, said Andrew Carnegie. An economist re-examines his brash career in the light of that noble philosophy
August 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 5
Yet he was certain, as he wrote home at sixteen, that “anyone could get along in this Country,” and the rags-to-riches saga shortly began. The telegraph had just come to Pittsburgh, and one evening over a game of checkers, the manager of the local office informed Andrew’s uncle that he was looking for a messenger. Andy got the job and, in true Alger fashion, set out to excel in it. Within a few weeks he had carefully memorized the names and the locations, not only of the main streets in Pittsburgh, but of the main firms, so that he was the quickest of all the messenger boys.
He came early and stayed late, watched the telegraphers at work, and at home at night learned the Morse code. As a result he was soon the head of the growing messenger service, and a skilled telegrapher himself. One day he dazzled the office by taking a message “by ear” instead of by the commonly used tape printer, and since he was then only the third operator in the country able to turn the trick, citizens used to drop into the office to watch Andy take down the words “hot from the wire.”
One such citizen who was especially impressed with young Carnegie’s determination was Thomas A. Scott, in time to become one of the colorful railway magnates of the West, but then the local superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Soon thereafter Carnegie became “Scott’s Andy”—telegrapher, secretary, and general factotum—at thirty-five dollars a month. In his Autobiography Carnegie recalls an instance which enabled him to begin the next stage of his career. One morning I reached the office and found that a serious accident on the Eastern Division had delayed the express passenger train westward, and that the passenger train eastward was proceeding with a flagman in advance at every curve. The freight trains in both directions were standing on the sidings. Mr. Scott was not to be found. Finally I could not resist the temptation to plunge in, take the responsibility, give “train orders” and set matters going. “Death or Westminster Abbey” flashed across my mind. I knew it was dismissal, disgrace, perhaps criminal punishment for me if I erred. On the other hand, I could bring in the wearied freight train men who had lain out all night. I knew I could. I knew just what to do, and so I began.
Signing Scott’s name to the orders, Carnegie flashed out the necessary instructions to bring order out of the tangle. The trains moved; there were no mishaps. When Scott reached the office Carnegie told him what he had done. Scott said not a word but looked carefully over all that had taken place. After a little he moved away from Carnegie’s desk to his own, and that was the end of it. “But 1 noticed,” Carnegie concluded good-humoredly, “that he came in very regularly and in good time for some mornings after that.”
It is hardly to be wondered at that Carnegie became Scott’s favorite, his “white-haired Scotch devil.” Impetuous but not rash, full of enthusiasm and good-natured charm, the small lad with his blunt, open features and his slight Scottish burr was every executive’s dream of an assistant. S(xm Scott repaid Andy for his services by introducing him to a new and very different kind of opportunity. He gave Carnegie the chance to subscribe to five hundred dollars’ worth of Adams Express stock, a company which Scott assured Andy would prosper mightily.
Carnegie had not fifty dollars saved, much less five hundred, but it was a chance he could ill afford to miss. He reported the offer to his mother, and that pillar of the family unhesitatingly mortgaged their home to raise the necessary money. When the first dividend check came in, with its ornate Spencerian flourishes, Carnegie had something like a revelation. “I shall remember that check as long as I live,” he subsequently wrote, “it gave me the first penny of revenue from capital—something that I had not worked for with the sweat of my brow. ‘Eureka!’ I cried, ‘Here’s the goose that lays the golden eggs.’ ” He was right; within a few years his investment in the Adams Express Company was paying annual dividends of $1,400.
It was not long thereafter that an even more propitious chance presented itself. Carnegie was riding on the Pennsylvania line one day when he was approached by a “farmer-looking” man carrying a small green bag in his hand. The other introduced himself as T. T. Woodruff and quite frankly said that he wanted a chance to talk with someone connected with the railroad. Whereupon he opened his bag and took out a small model of the first sleeping car.
Carnegie was immediately impressed with its possibilities, and he quickly arranged for Woodruff to meet Scott. When the latter agreed to give the cars a trial, Woodruff in appreciation offered Carnegie a chance to subscribe to a one-eighth interest in the new company. A local banker agreed to lend Andy the few hundred dollars needed for the initial payment—the rest being financed from dividends. Once again Andy had made a shrewd investment: within two years the
Woodruff Palace Car Company was paying him a return of more than $5,000 a year.