- Historic Sites
How Rails Saved a Seaport
John W. Garrett turned the pioneer Baltimore & Ohio into a great instrument for tapping the treasure of the West
February 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 2
Competition was more than rate-cutting. It also involved expansion into new territory, another corollary to the ceaseless quest for traffic. This expansion was often dictated less by ambition than by the need to bring un-co-operative (and frequently bankrupt) feeder lines under control so that rate levels could be maintained. Each of the four trunk lines began the gradual acquisition of connecting roads, usually by operating agreements, loans, and bond guarantees which had a way of becoming leases or purchases of the smaller companies within a few years. Thus did the New York Central reach to Chicago and St. Louis by bringing the Lake Shore, the Michigan Central, and the Big Four into its orbit; the Erie moved westward by acquiring the Atlantic & Great Western; the Panhandle to St. Louis and the Fort Wayne road to Chicago fell to the Pennsylvania; and Garrett, after absorbing roads with outlets in Columbus, Cincinnati, and Sandusky, Ohio, constructed a direct line from northern Ohio to Chicago in 1874 and later gained access to St. Louis through control of the Ohio & Mississippi from Cincinnati.
The trunk lines engaged in this process of acquisition by a series of maneuvers that bore considerable resemblance to the territorial jockeying of feudal baronies in medieval times. Garrett succeeded in obtaining for the B&O a long-sought extension to Pittsburgh in 1871, a move that the Pennsylvania had blocked for years through its influence upon the stage legislature. As though to retaliate, Edgar Thomson challenged Garrett’s power in Maryland politics and built a line from Baltimore to Washington that paralleled the B&O’s profitable Washington Branch. The B&O and the Pennsylvania invested in various Virginia roads during the Sixties and Seventies, but the ambitious plans of both Garrett and Tom Scott for vast railway systems in the South fell through when hard times forced many southern lines into receivership; the Pennsylvania disgorged its southern holdings in the mid-Seventies, and by 1881 the B&O had disposed of all save a branch line in the Shenandoah Valley. The rivalry between the two systems continued elsewhere. Shortly before his death in 1884 Garrett was to begin construction of a costly line from Baltimore to Philadelphia when the existing road that connected those cities fell into the hands of the Pennsylvania.
With this brand of leadership the B&O held its own in the trunk line struggles and expanded in all directions, becoming one of the larger systems, but modernization as well as expansion was necessary in the campaign to bring more traffic to Baltimore and increased profits to the B&O. The Main Stem was double-tracked. Tunnels were arched, curves realigned, and great bridges erected across the Ohio at Benwood and Parkersburg to avoid the troublesome ferry connections with B&O lines in Ohio. The company built spacious, comfortable hotels to be operated in conjunction with its stations along the line.
The Baltimore & Ohio began building its own sleeping and dining cars and operating its own express company, put up a large rolling mill at Cumberland to make its own rails, controlled its own telegraph company, and built many of its own locomotives. From the great B&O shops at Mount Clare in downtown Baltimore came the graceful ten-wheelers of Thatcher Perkins and the weird-looking camels of Ross Winans —slow, powerful, unorthodox locomotives with cab mounted atop the boiler, long a hallmark of B&O motive power. Number 600, the giant Mogul built at Mount Clare by John C. Davis in 1875, was exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial as the world’s largest passenger locomotive, later spent years hauling B&O express trains over the steep Allegheny grades.
Above all, Garrett labored to improve the road’s facilities in Baltimore. The gigantic Locust Point terminal, with coal yards, huge grain elevators, a dry dock, coffee and tobacco warehouses, cattle pens, and ample water frontage adjacent to the tracks, was perhaps his greatest contribution to the city’s commercial expansion. Ships and freight cars could now exchange their products swiftly and cheaply, and European immigrants bound for the interior could board trains at dockside.
Recognizing the future of steam in ocean transport, Garrett bought three small steamers from the government after the Civil War and installed regular service to Liverpool. This venture was short-lived, the vessels being less than adequate for profitable operation, but the outgrowth was a joint investment by the B&O and the North German Lloyd Company in four new steamships to operate between Baltimore and Bremen. A few years later the Allan Line was sending steamers from Liverpool, and at the time of Garrett’s return in 1881 Baltimore also enjoyed steamer service of sorts to London, Newcastle, Rotterdam, and Bristol.
Garrett was well fitted by background and temperament for the strenuous duties required of a trunk line president. He had learned the importance of the interior trade as a junior partner in his father’s firm, selling western wheat and provisions on commission in the eastern market and filling orders from western customers for sugar, coffee, tea, and other items in demand beyond the mountains. In the Forties and Fifties, under the energetic guidance of John and his brother, the firm of Robert Garrett & Sons began to engage in banking operations that soon overshadowed the grocery business. The intricacies of dealing in domestic and foreign exchange, discounting commercial paper, buying and selling securities for investors, and negotiating bond issues for various railroad companies provided valuable experience for the complex financial side of railroading.