Sources of Opportunity
The seven-year period from 1889 to 1896 may be passed over briefly. Mr. Harriman played no prominent part in it…. In fact, by 1894 even his part in the Illinois Central had been largely forgotten, except by the closest students of events. He was doing what he had so well trained himself to do—lying back and waiting for his time…. Through the long night that came upon the business world in the early nineties he rested, making himself strong for the day that was to follow.
—C. M. Keys, “Harriman: The Man in the Making”
The black hole of Harriman's career lies in the years between the crisis of 1890 and 1898, when he emerged as a factor in the newly reorganized Union Pacific Railroad. It is, like his boyhood, a time about which he never spoke in later years, as if he had willed it out of existence. His biographers and critics touch these years only in passing because they can find little in them to unlock the most vexing riddle of all: how did the financial wizard and failed vicepresident of the Illinois Central Railroad emerge from obscurity to become the most dominant and spectacular figure in the transportation industry?
Part of the answer lies in a classic formula for success: Harriman was the right man in the right place at the right time. Such accidental forces exert a larger influence on destiny than self-made men or biographers care to admit. Harriman in 1897 was no butterfly sprung from the chrysalis of the Harriman of 1890. During these years he continued to grow and to spread his wings into new ventures, gleaning what he could from every activity, keeping an eye cocked for new opportunities and preparing himself to take advantage of them.
The hurt from his confrontation with Fish he buried deep within himself as he did all pain until it became invisible to others and possibly to himself as well. The most revealing key to Harriman's personality is his refusal to admit weakness or frailty. Whereas most people liked to advertise their suffering, Harriman boasted of his ability to ignore it. Nor was there during these years any long night of the soul in which he wrestled with the dark torments of his life and emerged triumphant over old demons. Harriman was not a reflective man. He was too busy living his life to spend much time philosophizing on it, and he still clung fervently to most of the values imbued in him as a child.