Sources of Revelation
His consuming thirst for knowledge at first hand, his ceaseless study of the science of railroading, both the “practical” and the financial sides of it, his training in stockgambling and stock-market methods and procedure, all made him a valuable man, a daring man, but one whom the most conservative financier would not call a dangerous speculator—he knew too much and thought too logically, too dispassionately.
—Edwin Lefevre, “Harriman”
Harriman in Chicago was a fish out of water, a stranger in a strange land where he could not monitor Wall Street directly. Although the family traveled extensively, this was the first time they had lived for any time outside New York. Chicago struck their eastern eyes as a crude cowtown despite the progress it had made as a city. To make matters worse, tragedy struck only a few months after their arrival in Chicago. Little Harry, not yet five years old, contracted diphtheria and died in February 1888. 1
The sudden, wrenching loss of his only son devastated Harriman just as he was struggling to make the transition not only from Fifth Avenue to Michigan Avenue but also from broker to railroad official. Given his devotion to family and his passion for children, it was fortunate that the press of work left little time to grieve. That the loss lingered with him was obvious; on the first anniversary of Harry's death he made a gift of $6,000 for “aiding and encouraging the boys” who worked in the Illinois Central shops. 2
“My father always said that [Harry's death] was the thing that made him feel he should make railroading his career,” recalled Averell Harriman decades later.
“He felt his son had died because he was working on the railroad, and he wanted to justify the sacrifice of his son by dedicating himself to railroading.” 3
It is a poignant tale but only partially true. Averell was born three years after his brother's death and so never knew him. More likely, the loss of Harry reinforced a process already begun, the real catalyst for which was wrenching Harriman away from Wall Street. Why else would he have come to Chicago if not to immerse himself in the details of railroading? Harry's death spurred Harriman to accomplish what he had already decided to do. 4