February 25

This Day in History

Old West

Feb 25, 1848:

Railroad baron Edward Harriman is born

Edward Harriman, the controversial savior of the transcontinental Union Pacific Railroad, is born in Hempstead, New York.

The son of an Episcopal minister, Harriman disliked school and dropped out to become a broker's boy when he was 14. To the amazement of the stockbrokers on Wall Street, the young Harriman demonstrated an uncanny ability to pick winning stocks, and he had his own seat on the stock exchange by the age of 21.

Harriman's involvement with railroads began when he attempted to rehabilitate some tired old lines owned by his wife's relatives. He soon developed a passion for every aspect of railroads, from steam technology to traffic flow problems, and he particularly enjoyed reviving once great lines that had fallen on hard times.

In 1897, Harriman took on his most ambitious railroad project ever: the salvation of the bankrupt Union Pacific Railroad. The first transcontinental line to link East and West, the Union Pacific had once been the queen of railroads but had become an outdated and inefficient money pit. Over 10 years, Harriman restored the Union Pacific to its glory days, transforming it into one of the best-built and -managed lines in the nation.

In pursuit of efficiency and predictable profits, Harriman gradually gained control over many of the central western and southwestern lines in the United States. Alarmed by this concentration of control over a technology that was essential to the American economy, President Theodore Roosevelt sued Harriman for violation of federal antitrust regulations. In 1904, the Supreme Court directed that much of Harriman's system be dissolved.

As a result of the antitrust litigation, Harriman became a favorite target for turn-of-the-century resentment of big business, and he was often accused of having built his railroad monopolies simply to increase his own profits. The truth was more complicated. Harriman certainly sought good profits, but his brilliant transformation of the Union Pacific and other decrepit lines was motivated as much by a desire to maximize efficiency as profits. Frank to the point of bluntness, Harriman rarely deigned to explain and defend his complex ideas about railroads to the public, guaranteeing that he would be largely remembered as little more than a greedy robber baron.

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