Seeking an Advantage
In comparison with [Harriman], the Vanderbilts, the Goulds, the Garretts, the Huntingtons, represent the parochial period in our railroad history. They consolidated small railroad principalities into kingdoms; Harriman is federating their kingdoms into an empire.
—Burton J. Hendrick, “The Most Powerful Man in America”
The business giants of the Victorian era were notorious for their slavish devotion to work. It was said of Harriman's good friend H. H. Rogers of Standard Oil that the only vacation he needed was “a shave and a trip up the Sound.” One railroad president told a friend wearily, “I have been working for fourteen years without a break. I think I deserve a vacation and I am going to take one, a real long one. I am going right away now.” A couple of days later the friend stopped by the office on business and was surprised to find the president hard at work. “I thought you were going away on a long vacation,” he asked in surprise.
“Oh,” nodded the president, “I went away yesterday.” 1
As the Alaska trip revealed, Harriman kept his grueling regimen only by taking frequent and sometimes lengthy breaks. He rarely came downtown on Saturdays and often stayed away on Mondays as well to have a long weekend at Arden or Paul Smith's or with Dr. Trudeau at Saranac. Sometimes he took the family to Newport during the summer or south in winter. Play was important to Harriman even if the rigorous forms he favored seemed more like work to those around him. 2
The breaks were necessary to recharge the energy he spent with such reckless abandon. On the job he was all business, a curt, unsmiling dynamo who resented a wasted minute or dollar. He once boasted that he got through his morning bath, shave, and breakfast in only twenty-five minutes. Sometimes he couldn't wait even that long. One morning the senior partner of a brokerage firm, summoned to Harriman's house on business, found him in the tub, telephone in hand. “Hurry up!” became one of his favorite phrases, leading Alex Millar to call him privately “Harriman, Hurryman.” 3
On drab winter days he could be seen scurrying briskly down Broadway, hands jammed into coat pockets and collar pulled tight against the cold, his