- 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
It was only natural that the Garretts, interested alike in the western trade and in profitable investments, should buy stock in the B&O during the Forties as it pushed westward across the Appalachians, and enlarge their holdings in the Fifties when completion to the Ohio swelled the value of B&O securities. It was also natural that a stockholder of John Garrett’s background and ability should be elected to a seat on the B&O board of directors in 1855. He made his presence felt almost immediately, throwing himself into committee work and acquiring a thorough knowledge of the road’s facilities, traffic, and financial condition. He led the private stockholders in a battle against the directors representing the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland, secured the declaration of a thirty per cent stock dividend long opposed by the city and state interests, and so impressed his fellow directors that they elected him president of the road in 1858. Before the outbreak of the Civil War the Garretts had gained effective control of the B&O. For nearly a quarter of a century that control was exercised in vigorous fashion by John Work Garrett.
It became apparent, right from the start, that Garrett, this large, imposing, banker’s son, with his firm humorous mouth and massive forehead and penetrating eyes, intended to run his railroad. Courteous, friendly, urbane, generous, altogether charming, and every inch an autocrat, Garrett won the devotion of some, the enmity of others, and the respect of all. He poked and fussed about the railroad like a dyspeptic general on a new post.
Little things did not escape him. He inquired about a loading chute being installed by the company to facilitate the transfer of cattle from barges in the Ohio River and remarked acidly that “the delay has been extraordinary in erecting so simple a structure.” He demanded close monthly statements from all departments as to expenditures, material on hand, repairs, and so on, with an eye to correcting slipshod methods of keeping accounts. He required daily reports to his office on the performance of each engine on the line, kept a minute check on rates charged and traffic carried, noted discrepancies and demanded explanations for them, and personally investigated many reports of discourtesy to passengers or inconvenience to shippers.
“The statements you present,” he informed one of his department heads bluntly, “are not only inaccurate and unjust, but palpably disingenuous.” “In my judgment,” he wrote another, “you are entirely wrong.” The recipients of these little missives probably shook their heads and swore, but most of them continued for years on John Garrett’s payroll, and the sharp attention to detail began to show results in the form of more efficient operation and decreased expenses.
And Baltimore was showing the effects of its superior connection to the West. The wooded Alleghenies echoed day and night to the wails and labored exhaust of B&O coal trains pounding eastward, a black tide roaring down to tidewater for transshipment throughout the smoky industrial northeast. From elevators that broke the flat midwestern skyline came the wheat, tons of it, more each year, filling every boxcar the road could send, until Baltimore with her lower freight rates far surpassed Philadelphia and Boston and challenged the leadership of New York in the export of grain. And still the trains rolled eastward-- with corn, with cattle and hogs, with flour and whiskey and tobacco, with oil from the refineries in Pittsburgh and Marietta, with hams from the Chicago stockyards. New industries sprouted along sidings in the Baltimore area, while Rio coffee and West India sugar continued to swell the warehouses on Locust Point and fill freight cars for the long trip to western kitchens. Iron and steel rails stacked up along the docks as vessels from Britain emptied their holds to make room for the constant yellow flood of grain. Baltimore and her western railroad had assuredly kept pace with their rivals in the new age of coal and iron and steam.
Garrett spoke of these things, briefly, from the rear platform of his private car. When he had finished and the applause had died away, the crowd pressed forward to shake his hand for over half an hour. Eventually the people began to thin out, and Garrett and his family walked through the station and entered carriages for the drive to his estate, Montebello.
Baltimore’s prosperity, of course, was far more than the work of one man. But the giant commercial and industrial center that is Baltimore today and the thriving railroad that continues to wheel its long freight trains into the yards alongside the piers on Locust Point yet bear the imprint of the big man who guided the B&O so vigorously through the boisterous Gilded Age.