The Life & Legend of E.H. Harriman

By Maury Klein | Go to book overview

4
Sources of Education

But his knowledge—that was what built the rungs of his golden ladder…. With his craving for knowledge, his amazing memory, his genius for detail and a downright blindness for non-essentials, he was not long in acquiring a reputation for solid ability and solid knowledge. An intimate friend says that Harriman literally burned the midnight oil mastering details.

—Edwin Lefevre, “Harriman”

No photograph ever captured the true Wall Street of the nineteenth century because it could not record the sheer energy of a spectacle in constant motion. Wall Street was a still life only under the mantle of darkness or in those few fleeting moments of morning gloom when Trinity Church loomed like a nagging conscience above its empty streets.

Through these narrow, crooked streets Harriman wound his way most days, still the financier looking to expand his horizons, released at last from the prod of failure and driven now by mounting ambition to climb beyond his firm into broader realms of business. Fish had opened a door through which he had scurried eagerly without yet knowing what it would bring beyond mutual profit.

Harriman's connection with his firm and with Wall Street has long been misunderstood. Those who view it as a prelude to later greatness forget that in a real sense he never left the street. He remained a financier all his life. What he left was the active management of his firm and a career as a trader. Even then he simply moved to dealing in more specific operations with rail securities, at which he became a master. At the height of his power he delegated more of this work but did not abandon it entirely; instead he piled other activities on top of financial ones.

Legend has it that Harriman crossed the Rubicon of his career by retiring from his brokerage in 1885. In fact, he did no such thing. What happened that year was rather that William McClure left the firm and Willie Harriman replaced him as the partner in charge of the office. In June 1887 Henry took in Stuyvesant Fish's eldest brother, Nicholas, as a partner and changed his own status to special partner. Nick Fish had been in the diplomatic service before trying his hand at banking. His presence tightened the bond between the Fishes and the Harrimans; it also gave Henry another partner to mind the house's business. 1

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