Albert J. Churella chronicles the history of the Pennsylvania Railroad within the context of social, economic, and technological changes of nineteenth- and twentieth-century America. The story of the PRR illuminates broad themes in U.S. history, including labor relations, the relationship between business and government, and technological advances.
2012 | 968 pages | Cloth $79.95
American History | Business | Technology and Engineering
View main book page
Table of Contents
List of Abbreviations
Chapter 1. The Way West, 1682-1826
Chapter 2. Commonwealth, 1826-1846
Chapter 3. Community, 1846
Chapter 4. Enterprise, 1846-1852
Chapter 5. Executive, 1852-1857
Chapter 6. Coordination, 1857-1860
Chapter 7. Expansion, 1850-1868
Chapter 8. Conflict, 1860-1868
Chapter 9. Empire, 1868-1876
Chapter 10. Connections, 1865-1873
Chapter 11. Limits, 1874-1877
Chapter 12. Order, 1877-1899
Chapter 13. System, 1889-1929
Chapter 14. Regulation, 1899-1910
Chapter 15. Terminus, 1917
My earliest memories are of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, the PRR interrupted more than one family dinner, as my parents helped me to walk unsteadily outside to see a train lurch even more unsteadily down the little-used branch line to Mount Vernon, abandoned just a few years later. I am a product of the last year of the baby boom, born as the Standard Railroad of the World was dying. The Pennsylvania Railroad merged itself out of existence, becoming the Penn Central Transportation Company in 1968, shortly before I rode my first train. On more than one occasion, my parents would bring me to Union Station in Columbus, then less than a decade away from demolition. I could stand by the concourse windows and look down—an uncommon perspective for a small child—on the slowly spinning cooling fans on the Penn Central diesels that idled below. But on one particular day, the station was more crowded than it had been in years, as the United Aircraft TurboTrain was open for public viewing. It was Tuesday, May 25, 1971. I am certain of the date, because I still have the yellowed newspaper clipping, tucked in a box, forgotten through several moves, and serendipitously rediscovered less than a year before I finished writing this volume. An announcement that the train was offering a free one-way trip to Pittsburgh later that evening induced my father, in a world still innocent of automatic teller machines, to take every cent my mother had in her purse, leaving her behind to explain to an understanding teacher why I would not be in school the next day.
The Pan Handle route to Pittsburgh was now part of the Penn Central, but for all intents and purposes it still looked like the PRR, with the equipment, buildings, and people unchanged since the merger. The track was sound enough that my father could escort me to the glass partition aft of the upper-level engineman's compartment, watching as the speedometer briefly touched a hundred miles an hour. At Pittsburgh, we transferred to a local train, operated by the newly formed National Railroad Passenger Corporation, better known as Amtrak. The train was still purely Penn Central, and probably consisted of a tired old E-8 locomotive pulling a few equally worn out coaches. We traveled through the night to Altoona, where it was too dark to see the Horseshoe Curve, arriving in the small hours of the morning, too late for a hotel, too early for rental cars to be available, just right for a restless nap on a hard wooden bench in the waiting room. Come morning, my father rented a car and we drove past the half-deserted buildings of what had once been the greatest railroad shops in the world. Climbing through hills that the Pennsylvania Railroad had drained of coal, we went to visit relatives in Ebensburg and Patton, a town named for a family that was closely connected with the PRR.
The Pennsylvania Railroad had once provided passenger service to Ebensburg, Patton, and countless other small towns, but those links to the wider world had long since disappeared, and even the freights called at increasingly infrequent intervals. My father's brother was born, grew up, still lived, and later died in Patton, amid first- and second-generation Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks. For many decades, most people in Patton dug coal from the surrounding hills and loaded it into PRR hopper cars. Just after the dawn of the twentieth century, they were digging underneath Patton, at the same moment as their countrymen, along with Irish, Italians, and African-Americans, were burrowing through the muck and mire underneath the Hudson River, pushing the PRR one last mile into Manhattan, at almost the same moment that my uncle came into the world, in 1909.
My uncle's first memory was of an early day in school, lessons interrupted by a continuous wailing whistle, the teacher leaving briefly, then returning, telling the children to go to their homes, the school emptying as men ran uphill to the entrance of the mine. Explosions, fires, and cave-ins (he could not remember which one happened that day) were common enough during the early years of the twentieth century, but that incident soured him on a career in the mines. Years later, a stint at the Patton Clay Manufacturing Company, home of the renowned "Patton Pavers," so filled his mouth and nostrils with red dust that he worked for one day, went home, and never returned. For more than half a century, he ran a store and meat market, the last link in a chain of distribution in which the PRR brought the necessities and luxuries of life to yet another small town. The railroad yards were once filled with the PRR's cars, bringing in those supplies, and ready to carry away the coal and the bricks that made the town prosper. On later trips to Patton, I wandered through those yards, virtually deserted, and past the closed mines and the abandoned brickworks, full of the ghosts of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
The years passed and the spirits faded, but never fully disappeared. I spent four years at Haverford College, the alma mater of David Bevan, chief financial officer and perhaps the most despised executive, and unfairly so, on the Pennsylvania Railroad. The surrounding suburb had once been home to one of the PRR's most respected executives, Alexander J. Cassatt, an individual with whom I share a monogram, if not necessarily the same wealth or managerial predilections. Haverford was an affluent bedroom community on the Main Line, one of the nation's first railroad suburbs, made possible and indeed planned by the Pennsylvania Railroad. At the small station nearly a century old, it was still possible to see the Broadway Limited, at that time operated by Amtrak, but now extinct, go flashing past. And the opposite perspective, glimpsing the Haverford station from a sleeping car window on the Broadway, the only proper way, I thought, to travel by from central Ohio to Philadelphia. The National Limited route from St. Louis had long since disappeared, and I was not about to rely on a car, bus, or airplane to reach my parent's home in Columbus. My post-Christmas trip back to college thus began on a frigid January night on the deserted platform at Crestline, Ohio, waiting for a train that offered transportation, warmth, companionship, the scenery of a nation transected. Minutes after flashing through Haverford, the train arrived at a far grander edifice than the one that I had left the night before. A magnificent structure, 30th Street Station had somehow escaped the sad fate of so many grand train stations, and it uplifted the soul of many a weary long-distance traveler. The nearby and contemporaneous Suburban Station seemed conversely design to crush the spirits of the commuters who daily trudged through its rabbit warren of underground passageways. And on numerous occasions, I traveled to both Philadelphia stations on the SEPTA Silverliner cars that had only recently replaced the last of the red rattletrap PRR MP-54 commuter equipment.
My connection to the Pennsylvania Railroad, perhaps tenuous, is hardly unique. It has become a routine experience, on telling someone that I am writing a book "about trains," to hear in response a story of an ancestor who worked for a railroad, or even worked for the railroad. The ancestral recollections, and particularly the reminiscences of those who earned a PRR paycheck, now nearly a lifetime ago, rarely paint a rosy picture of their employer. Railroading has always been, and remains, a brutally dangerous occupation, one that wears down men and women with the same steady predictability as it erodes rail, ties, locomotives, and cars. Many people gave their lives while serving the Pennsylvania Railroad, scalded in boiler explosions, crushed between cars, victims of momentary carelessness or simple bad luck. Others lost fingers, hands, arms, legs, or eyesight. The trauma was hardly confined to the ranks of labor, and even top executives succumbed to the strain of managing the world's largest transportation corporation. "Railroad service has become like that of the army and navy—in effect, service of the public, and . . . the work is more arduous than in civil life," one PRR executive noted in 1912. Variants of the phrase "retired owing to ill health" appeared with deplorable frequency in PRR personnel records and executive biographies. The incessant demands associated with running a railroad caused some executives to collapse under the strain, to request a transfer to less arduous duties, to suffer a complete nervous breakdown. Or worse. Of the first eight presidents of the Pennsylvania Railroad, four died in office, and two others lived less than a year into their retirement. Many other executives died at their desks, felled by a heart attack or a stroke. In 1882, a writer for the trade journal Railroad Gazette portrayed the burden of management in starkly accurate terms. "The responsibilities and duties of this officer [the president] are almost too great to be borne by any one man who desires faithfully to fulfil them and not die an early death."
Employment at all levels of the company was demanding and dangerous in large measure because the PRR stood at the apex of industrial America. By 1875, it operated more miles of track, carried more tons of freight, reflected a larger concentration of investment capital, and generated more revenues than any other railroad in the United States. For two decades, beginning in 1881, the Pennsylvania Railroad was the largest privately owned business corporation in the world. At its height, the Pennsylvania Railroad controlled nearly 13 percent of all the capital invested in the American railroad network, and operated a tenth of the locomotives and a seventh of the freight cars in service in the United States. Nearly half of the electrified mainline track in the country belonged to the Pennsylvania Railroad. Its trains rumbled and roared across a four-track main line that stretched from New York to Pittsburgh, and over thirty thousand miles of track on eleven thousand miles of route, scattered across thirteen states and the District of Columbia. The Pennsylvania Railroad operated more miles of railroad than any other country in the world, with the exception of Britain and France. It manufactured far more steam locomotives than any other railroad. And, it built some of the most monumental civil engineering works and some of the grandest railway terminals in the country.
"The Company" (internal corporate documents routinely used the upper case, as if there were no other) employed more people than any other railroad in the United States. At peak employment levels, in 1919, more than 280,000 people worked for the PRR. That was more than twice the number of soldiers who were enlisted in the United States Army at the beginning of World War I. The company's senior executives enjoyed access to the highest levels of political and economic power, and they helped to shape the political economy of the nation. For many years the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad served as an industrial statesman, speaking on behalf of the railway industry and the values of capitalism. In the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the phrase "the President" could just as easily mean the occupant of the PRR's executive suite in Philadelphia as the individual who lived in the White House. "Do not think of the Pennsylvania Railroad as a business enterprise," Forbes magazine informed its readers in May 1936. "Think of it as a nation."
Like the works of any nation, the legacy of the Pennsylvania Railroad endures. The size and the scope of the company's operations have left an indelible imprint on the physical and human geography of the United States. From the brutally truncated remains of Penn Station in New York, through the tunnels under the Hudson River, south to the grander edifices at Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, and west across the Rockville Bridge and the Horseshoe Curve, the PRR's engineering works—many of them more than a century old—endure.
The Pennsylvania Railroad was, and still is, intertwined with the lives of a great many people. The company shaped the lives of millions of Americans, from the train crews that moved millions of passengers and countless tons of freight, to the shop forces that labored at Altoona and other facilities, to the Irish, Italian, African American, and Hispanic track workers for whom the Pennsylvania Railroad represented both an income and an opportunity for social mobility. In 1914, an anonymous writer for the trade journal Railway Age Gazette, the successor to the Railroad Gazette, emphasized that a job with the PRR represented more than a paycheck. "To be a Pennsylvania employee," he observed, "is to have a fixed position, the assurance of fair treatment, and a certain respect and prestige in the social and business life of the community."
The Pennsylvania Railroad had many critics, which included many of its employees, passengers, and shippers—to say nothing of legislators, presidents, and an often-hostile press. Some of that criticism was justified, to be sure, but much was also the result of the PRR's status as the largest railroad—and the biggest target—in the world. For all of the criticism, however, most Americans respected the Pennsylvania Railroad and its beneficent influence on the maturing American industrial economy. In an era of weak national governance, the PRR was a highly developed bureaucracy. In an era of relatively modest federal budgets, the Pennsylvania Railroad had a budget larger than any other company in the United States, second only to that of the national government itself. In an era of sharply limited social welfare programs, the PRR provided benefits to its employees and to the communities that it served. "There was a time," the 1914 author continued, "when the farmers and storekeepers along the lines of the Pennsylvania Railroad preferred to take Pennsylvania pay checks in payment of bills rather than United States greenbacks."
The sheer size of the Pennsylvania Railroad ensured that the research, writing, and above all the organization of its corporate history would be a daunting task. Simply listing the name of every employee who worked for the PRR in 1919 would generate a document nearly the length of this book. What was originally envisioned as a one-volume work has, with the kind indulgence of the publisher, growth to two rather lengthy volumes. The division between the two is set around 1917, at a time when the completion of the link to Manhattan, a changing regulatory environment, American entry into World War I, and looming highway competition significantly altered the PRR's course. Still, to keep this project within somewhat manageable limits, I had to downplay, or even discard, some elements of the PRR's history and emphasize others. To some degree, the choices are obvious. After all, how could one not discuss the building of Penn Station, the development of what was once the most sophisticated organizational bureaucracy in the world, or the application of extraordinarily sophisticated technological systems? In other areas, I have pursued more esoteric topics that I have found of interest, or that foreshadowed significant future developments. Even though several key issues, most notably locomotive development, passenger service, and labor policies, were of considerable importance in the nineteenth century, I have nonetheless elected to postpone a discussion of those topics, largely omitting them from Volume 1. Instead, I will include them in their entirety in the second volume, covering the period since 1917. Those issues transcend the division between the two halves of the PRR's history, and it seems appropriate to discuss the long sweep of such topics in a single integrated chapter.
This volume covers the antecedents of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the company's formation, and its rapid growth during the last third of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth. The first two chapters offer an overview of transportation patterns in Pennsylvania prior to the 1846 incorporation of the PRR. Some readers might be tempted to skip forward to Chapter 3, but the railroad's history really began well before 1846. Commercial rivalries between the great port cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore shaped the political and economic circumstances that created massive public investments in the transportation infrastructure—most notably Pennsylvania's Main Line of Public Works. That state-owned transportation system was largely a failure, but it established at least a portion of the route that the Pennsylvania Railroad would later follow. The next four chapters describe the contentious and politically constructed chartering of the PRR, as well as equally divisive debates over the company's finances and management. The turmoil led to the presidency of J. Edgar Thomson, one of the first professional managers in the history of American business, and someone who was capable of wresting governing power away from the individuals who owned the company. Thomson and his fellow managers reshaped the PRR's corporate structure while confronting the realities of competition within an industry that was far more capital-intensive than any that had previously existed.
As described in Chapter 7, during the 1850s Thomson moved aggressively to establish friendly connections in the Midwest, while keeping the PRR's financial exposure in that process to a minimum. The midwestern connections became far more important, as the Civil War greatly accelerated the scope and complexity of the PRR's operations—as shown in Chapter 8. The following chapter details the intense postwar rivalry between the trunk lines amid a period of rapid expansion in the railway industry. During the eight years that followed 1865, Thomson and other executives developed the PRR's route structure along the Atlantic seaboard and in the Midwest, solidifying the company's status as a major east-west trunk line, and creating the most powerful railroad corporation in the United States. Thomson and his protégé, Thomas A. Scott, simultaneously endeavored to extend the PRR's reach even farther afield, deep into the South, and as far west as the Pacific Ocean. Those efforts, described in Chapter 10, fell victim to the diseconomies of scale associated with the creation of vast railway systems, as well as to the severe economic depression that followed the Panic of 1873. The depression of the 1870s imposed severe limits on PRR executives, detailed in Chapter 11, as they confronted adversaries ranging from oil magnate John D. Rockefeller to protests emanating from their own labor force. During the 1880s, as Chapter 12 suggests, railway executives attempted to impose order on their industry, at first through largely unsuccessful efforts to control competition, and ultimately by building large, integrated systems. That decade also featured the ascendency of federal railroad regulation, as a long history of state control over transportation policy yielded to the inescapable reality that the PRR and its competitors were engaged in interstate commerce.
As shown in Chapter 13, PRR officials also attempted to impose order on the railroad industry through the creation of an efficient technological system. The company's engineer-managers engaged in a desperate race to make the railroad's operations more efficient and to stay ahead of the continually increasing demand for transportation services. That chapter is probably the least conventional of any of those in Volume 1. It begins early in the PRR's corporate existence and continues into the 1920s, and even beyond, well after the ostensible chronological limits of the first volume of this work. The topical rather than chronological treatment seems appropriate, however. The functional specialists who addressed complex technical problems never operated in isolation from the rest of the company, but they did follow an agenda that was largely separate from the day-to-day procedures associated with running a railroad. They, like the chapter, pursued technical dilemmas wherever they might lead, and over a considerable span of time.
The final two chapters of Volume 1 return to a more conventional organization, covering implications of the rapid growth in bituminous coal production, the creation of a "community of interest" that brought together the PRR and some of its competitors, the evolution of government regulation at the turn of the century, and finally the enormous improvement projects that occurred after 1899, when Alexander Cassatt assumed the presidency. The volume culminates with what many people regard as the greatest achievement of the Pennsylvania Railroad and its new president—the construction of the New York Improvements, including Penn Station.
Volume 2 officially begins in 1917, but it harkens back a decade earlier to 1907, the last good year for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Although the PRR remained a strong company for decades to come, a combination of diminishing productivity gains, increased regulatory oversight, intensified labor-management confrontations, dissipated executive talent, and motor-vehicle competition all conspired to erode the company's fortunes. The first chapter describes changes within the PRR organizational structure, set amid the traffic crisis of World War I and the period of federal government control over the railroads. The next chapter details labor relations, focusing largely on the interwar period but reaching back to the late nineteenth century antecedents of conflicts between workers and managers. That interwar period was largely one of stagnation, as railroad executives and government regulators attempted to resolve the "railroad problem," only to discover that there was no easy—or politically expedient—solution. During the 1920s PRR executives also pursued major engineering works, including the beginnings of a new terminal complex at Philadelphia, a worthy rival to the facilities in New York. Yet, the Philadelphia Improvements also marked the end of large-scale construction projects and, with them, the closing of one of the most promising routes for upward mobility within the ranks of senior management.
Two further chapters in Volume 2 deviate once again from the generally chronological focus of the book, with one describing motive power and the other, passenger service. Each chapter reaches back into territory covered in the first volume. As with the development of any technological system, however, an analysis of the creation and application of motive-power technology and the movement of people demands the long view. Another chapter revisits labor-management relations during World War II and the years that followed, with particular emphasis on the growing schism between executives and their most highly skilled employees. The next chapter details the ongoing and often frustrating efforts by PRR managers, throughout much of the twentieth century, to mix railways with other modes of transport, on highways, over water, and even in the air. In addition to serving as a precursor to modern intermodal operations, the PRR's innovations offered a possible—although ultimately illusory—solution to the long, slow decline in demand for rail transport. Illusions appear in a subsequent chapter, as well, with a discussion of the changing ways in which PRR executives have promoted their railroad, as well as the manner in which the public has viewed the Pennsylvania Railroad, and its place in American culture. The final chapter details the steady postwar decline of the PRR and efforts by its managers to find salvation in a merger with its longtime rival, the New York Central. While the corporate existence of the Pennsylvania Railroad came to an end in 1968, an epilogue carries the story through the dismal years of the Penn Central and the brighter prospects associated with Conrail.
The unhappy fate of the Penn Central has forever colored analyses of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Failure has been an all-too-common occurrence in the history of American railroading, but not for the railroad. The PRR never suffered a significant financial embarrassment in its entire 122-year history, and the company paid dividends in good times and bad. Yet, its merger into the Penn Central helped trigger what was at that time the largest bankruptcy in American history. It was a financial disaster of cataclysmic proportions, one than sent shock waves through corporate boardrooms and union halls, through Washington and Wall Street. The crisis not only fundamentally reshaped the American railroad network, but also helped bring about a redefinition of the role of government in the economy and the role of labor in industry.
This book stands at the threshold of bankruptcy day, June 21, 1970, looking backward in an attempt to determine what went wrong. That is admittedly a dangerously presentist approach, inasmuch as we know what happened, but not even the most prescient observer could have sensed the impending crisis until it was far too late to alter the course of events. Likewise, it strains the bounds of credulity to imagine that an employee, executive, shipper, passenger, regulator, or politician ever rose from bed in the morning determined to bring the Pennsylvania Railroad to its knees. Yet, the cumulative actions of a great many talented and dedicated individuals produced precisely that effect. It would be tempting to succumb to the sort of journalistic finger-pointing that occurred in the aftermath of the bankruptcy, singling out one cause for the Penn Central debacle. Some have blamed the Penn Central's management team, consisting of chief financial officer David Bevan, chairman of the board Stuart Saunders, and president Alfred Perlman. Others condemned unionized labor and arcane rules that protected jobs but nearly destroyed an industry. Still others found fault with the actions of the Interstate Commerce Committee and with the regulatory state in general. More dispassionate observers suggested that the steady postwar decline of the industrial Northeast, particularly the coal and steel industries, contributed to the long descent of the Pennsylvania Railroad. So too did the development of competing modes of transportation during the 1920s and 1930s.
All of the arguments pertaining to the PRR's demise have merit. Yet, to fully understand the birth, life, and death of the greatest railroad in the United States, it is necessary to examine four broad issues that overarch the company's existence. Throughout both volumes, those four grand themes—organization, labor, technology, and government—frame much of the history of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The first concerns the development of one of the most innovative and sophisticated organizational systems in the history of American business. Railroads were large, sprawling, and capital-intensive enterprises, and the managerial strategies that were appropriate for a turnpike or a textile mill simply would not work for them. As the biggest of the railroads, the PRR was of necessity a leader in the development of management practice. The creation of statistical controls, the implementation of a line-and-staff operating system, the cultivation of adept managers, and corporate centralization and decentralization all appeared on the Pennsylvania Railroad, in many cases establishing a model for other businesses to follow. The truly remarkable aspect of the company's organization, moreover, was its flexibility and the willingness of executives to repeatedly alter the corporate structure in order to suit the unique talents of the individuals who were indispensible to the PRR's operations. At heart, the PRR was a collection of people who shaped a bureaucracy rather than allowing a bureaucracy to shape them.
Managers, however, constituted a distinct minority of the hundreds of thousands of individuals who built, maintained, and operated the Pennsylvania Railroad. The labor force was the company's greatest strength, yet ultimately became one of its greatest concerns. PRR managers were never able to develop a satisfactory solution to the labor "problem" that became apparent in the aftermath of the 1877 strikes. Skilled operating employees ultimately had recourse to pension and insurance funds, a savings society, company-sponsored medical care, and the other trappings of welfare capitalism. They were also secure in the knowledge that their sons could follow in their footsteps and be guaranteed a job that was difficult and often dangerous, but that nonetheless carried with it high pay and considerable prestige. Other workers, particularly shop forces, were far less able to enjoy security and autonomy. During the 1920s, managerial efforts to dampen down their militancy produced disastrous consequences. By then, as the railway industry began its long period of contraction, even operating employees were beginning to wonder whether their careers would continue into the next generation, as whatever solidarity labor might have forged with management had long since vanished.
If managers were frustrated at their inability to control and routinize the output of labor, they were likewise increasingly concerned at their diminishing ability to employ technology in order to ensure efficient and profitable operations. Railroads were the great engineering works of their age, and the Pennsylvania Railroad was greater than most. The company depended on a dedicated cadre of professional engineers who established the PRR's reputation, first as the Standard Railroad of America, then as the Standard Railroad of the World. The two monikers, the first enticingly flamboyant, the second even more so, were in the end little more than testaments to the Pennsylvania Railroad's flair for public relations. As students of the transportation industry soon discover, the PRR was idiosyncratic in technology, tradition, and managerial style. In the words of noted railway author David P. Morgan, "The Standard Railroad of the World did many nonstandard things."
Few railroads, few companies, few bureaucratic entities of any kind imitated the Pennsylvania Railroad to any degree, and none ever surpassed it. The PRR was the Standard Railroad of the World, not because its personnel established a pattern for others to follow, but because they set a standard that no other railroad in the world could match. Within a few years after the company was established, engineers dominated the executive ranks of the Pennsylvania Railroad and retained that authority for the next century. As managers, they proved superbly equipped to develop machinery and to create technological systems. Yet, by the early twentieth century, those engineer-managers could not escape a growing frustration that—despite their skills and the technology that their expertise had created—they were becoming less and less successful at the core business of moving freight and passengers in a timely and efficient manner. They confronted the law of diminishing returns, and could no longer achieve the rapid productivity gains and the equally impressive rate reductions that had become commonplace during the final third of the nineteenth century. In addition to affecting corporate profitability, that situation brought into starker relief the discriminatory practices that had always been a part of railway economics. By the early twentieth century, shippers and passengers felt deprived of a better—or at least a cheaper—transportation future, and they increasingly sought redress through the political process.
There is thus a fourth overarching theme, concerning the relationship between the PRR and federal, state, and local governments, and ultimately involving the broader issue of the interaction of the private and public sectors of the economy. To many, the history of the PRR still symbolizes the contrast between virtuous private enterprise and stifling governmental bureaucracy. In the past, and today, the PRR's defenders have drawn a stark contrast between the presumed ineptitude of publicly financed internal improvements and the efficiency of a private corporation operating in a free market, encumbered only by ill-conceived governmental regulations.
The PRR's reputation as a bastion of free enterprise bears little relation to reality. From its birth in 1846 until its death in 1968, the Pennsylvania Railroad was fundamentally a creature of public policy. Indeed, the PRR owed its very existence to political decisions made in Washington, in state legislatures, and in city halls. The publicly owned Main Line of Public Works dictated much of the path that the Pennsylvania Railroad was to follow and provided critical early links in the PRR's route between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The Pennsylvania legislature provided the Pennsylvania Railroad with its corporate charter and protected the company that they had brought into being from incursions by the Baltimore & Ohio and other rivals. The PRR received more than half of its initial financing from local governments in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Legislation and the threat of additional, unwelcome regulation shaped the PRR's use of technology, in applications as diverse as automatic signals, air brakes, electrification, and the erection of huge termini in such cities as New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. PRR executives embraced regulation in an effort to control competition, speaking out against it only when rival modes of transportation threatened the very premise of the regulatory state.
Just as public policy shaped the formation and growth of the Pennsylvania Railroad, so, too, was it a factor in the company's long downward slide. While historians have long debated whether or not the railroads were able to "capture" the Interstate Commerce Commission, it appears that the regulatory apparatus, particularly the ICC and the United States Railroad Administration, actually captured the railroad, altering the ways in which PRR executives framed their decisions, changing even the language they used. In myriad ways, ICC officials set the boundaries of the American railroad industry, circumscribing the realm of what PRR executives could achieve. As the structure of the privately owned railroad network threatened to disintegrate, and when the PRR itself failed, the company's executives again called on the government, this time to assist in picking up the pieces of an empire that had come crashing down around them. Government was always and forever a part of the PRR's existence. In the words of historian Colleen A. Dunlavy, it was a "structuring presence" that delineated the contours of the world in which the Pennsylvania Railroad operated.
Whatever grand themes or theories many be present in this book, this is first and foremost a biography of a company and of the individuals who shaped its existence. There is a tendency, in all biographies, for the biographer to glorify his or her subject. I have endeavored to avoid that failing, even when it has seemed necessary to refute earlier, and largely unjustified, criticisms of the PRR's personnel and their conduct. Readers may judge for themselves the degree to which I have succeeded in my efforts to maintain objectivity. In the interests of full disclosure, however, I acknowledge that I have spent countless hours over many years doing my best to learn about virtually every aspect of the PRR's operations, warts and all. I have explored business practices, organizational culture, technology, labor relations, public policy, urban history, finance, competition, and war. After all of those years, after all of the research, and after all of the writing, I remain in awe of what the men and women associated with the Pennsylvania Railroad were able to accomplish.
Today, long after the bankruptcy of the Penn Central, and longer still after the chartering of the Pennsylvania Railroad, hundreds of freight and passenger trains travel each day along the routes that the PRR's engineer-executives established, rounding the Horseshoe Curve, crossing the Susquehanna River on the Rockville Bridge, pausing underneath the majestic 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, delivering commuters to Bryn Mawr, Paoli, and other destinations on the Philadelphia Main Line, and traveling through the tunnels under the Hudson River and into Manhattan. The Pennsylvania Railroad is still interwoven into the very fabric of American society, just as it is inextricably connected with the events, great and small, of American history. It is the past, but it is also the present, and the future. Even as those who created it have gone, the Standard Railroad of the World endures.