The Pennsylvania Railroad

The Pennsylvania Railroad

The Pennsylvania Railroad

The Pennsylvania Railroad

Synopsis

"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." At the end of the nineteenth century, the Pennsylvania Railroad was the largest privately owned business corporation in the world. In 1914, the PRR employed more than two hundred thousand people--more than double the number of soldiers in the United States Army. As the self-proclaimed "Standard Railroad of the World," this colossal corporate body underwrote American industrial expansion and shaped the economic, political, and social environment of the United States. In turn, the PRR was fundamentally shaped by the American landscape, adapting to geography as well as shifts in competitive economics and public policy. Albert J. Churella's masterful account, certain to become the authoritative history of the Pennsylvania Railroad, illuminates broad themes in American history, from the development of managerial practices and labor relations to the relationship between business and government to advances in technology and transportation.

Churella situates exhaustive archival research on the Pennsylvania Railroad within the social, economic, and technological changes of nineteenth- and twentieth-century America, chronicling the epic history of the PRR intertwined with that of a developing nation. This first volume opens with the development of the Main Line of Public Works, devised by Pennsylvanians in the 1820s to compete with the Erie Canal. Though a public rather than a private enterprise, the Main Line foreshadowed the establishment of the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1846. Over the next decades, as the nation weathered the Civil War, industrial expansion, and labor unrest, the PRR expanded despite competition with rival railroads and disputes with such figures as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. The dawn of the twentieth century brought a measure of stability to the railroad industry, enabling the creation of such architectural monuments as Pennsylvania Station in New York City. The volume closes at the threshold of American involvement in World War I, as the strategies that PRR executives had perfected in previous decades proved less effective at guiding the company through increasingly tumultuous economic and political waters.

Excerpt

My earliest memories are of the Pennsylvania Railroad. As I grew 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 oneway 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 brief y 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 . . .

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