The Life & Legend of E.H. Harriman

By Maury Klein | Go to book overview
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At this end of the twentieth century the name of E. H. Harriman may be less familiar than that of his son W. Averell Harriman, who followed an already impressive career in business with long and distinguished service in diplomacy and politics. To any American living in the first years of this century, however, the name and face of E. H. Harriman were as familiar as those of his fellow titans J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie. Like them, he had become to the public the very essence of what he did. Morgan stood for banking, Rockefeller for oil, Carnegie for iron and steel, and Harriman for railroads. But where the first three men had achieved their lofty reputations through a lifetime of steady achievement in their fields, Harriman burst onto the railroad scene like a comet at the age of fifty and worked his magic on the industry in a single decade.

Harriman differed from the others in personality as well. Morgan was aloof and aristocratic, Rockefeller secretive and reclusive, and Carnegie voluble and hungry for the limelight. Harriman was intense and combative—the forerunner of an age when speed and efficiency would replace grace and charm. On duty he was a human computer, his mind racing so quickly over data to conclusions that others could hardly follow him. Coming late to railroads, the oldest and most hidebound of major industries, he looked at its hoary traditions with fresh eyes and with startling speed literally reinvented the business. In one decade his innovations shoved an industry made moribund and dispirited by the depression of 1893–97 into the twentieth century. The railroads under his control became models for others to emulate. He modernized not only their physical plant but their organizations, business practices, financing, and safety records.

He began in 1898 with the Union Pacific Railroad, the once-proud transcontinental line then emerging in pieces from nearly five years of bankruptcy. In only a few years Harriman rebuilt the line, reorganized its management, reacquired its lost subsidiaries, and turned it into one of the most profitable properties in the nation. In 1901 he acquired the Southern Pacific, then the largest transportation system in the world, and worked the same formula on it. To the newly integrated Union Pacific–Southern Pacific system he brought a bold management structure that shocked traditional railroad men because it seemed to violate all the known principles of how such things were done. The Harriman touch was extended to other roads and with it the formula that became the mantra for


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