The Life & Legend of E.H. Harriman

By Maury Klein | Go to book overview

25
Fighting a Formidable Friend

[Harriman] was a dominant factor in the inner circles of the greatest banking institutions. The vast resources of the New York life insurance companies were at his disposition. Ramifications of his political power, Federal and State, extended to every quarter of the land. State and even national conventions took his orders. Members of Congress did his bidding. Laws were enacted at his will. Only two men ever dared to block his path. The late J. P. Morgan stood between him and the possession of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1901; and Theodore Roosevelt thwarted his purpose to become an absolute dictator of the transportation affairs of the United States.

—William Z. Ripley, “Federal Financial Railway Regulation”

On a wall in Harriman's office hung a picture taken during an inspection trip through Mexico. The party had paused to examine a small railroad servicing a copper mine, and the photographer captured a dozen men, including Stillman, William Rockefeller, and Epes Randolph. By far the most inconspicuous figure in the group was Harriman, who was ignoring the camera in favor of a Mexican policeman with whom he was shaking hands. The policeman towering above the slight man in the baggy clothes and battered felt hat looked far more important and impressive. 1

Anonymity had served Harriman well for many years, but now it was gone just when he needed it most. He had become a public target at a time when he needed to husband his fading strength for the work at hand but instead had to spend it fending off attacks. The economy had turned sluggish and many financiers thought hard times lay ahead. Harriman's properties required close attention to remain at the high standard of performance he had established. He was approaching the age when many leaders think of retirement or begin grooming a successor. Harriman did neither. Time had not slaked his ambition nor attacks dented his determination. He knew only one way to fight, and that was to stand his ground until the right prevailed. “I would give up the whole business,” he told Alex Millar, “if I could be sure my plans would be carried out.” 2

But Harriman knew there was no one able to carry out his plans. Far from looking to get out, he was looking to get deeper in. The problem was that his way

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