The name of Mr. Harriman first appeared in an official notice in January, 1898…. No one but Mr. Schiff knew exactly what sort of man Mr. Harriman was. He had worked quietly with the syndicate, yet his was the master mind that had conceived and guided its gigantic project…. At this juncture Mr. Harriman stepped from the ranks. One day he was simply one of the directors of the Union Pacific; the next he was chairman of the executive committee.
—C. M. Keys, “A ‘Corner’ in Pacific Railroads”
Most of what has been written about Harriman bears a tone of inevitability, as if he was destined to have a spectacular career. This same tone carries over to his use of the Union Pacific as the vehicle for his leap to greatness, but there was nothing inevitable in either case. Nobody seems to have asked the obvious question of what first attracted Harriman's attention to the Union Pacific. Nor has anybody raised an even more basic question: what drew Harriman's attention to the West?
Given Harriman's later career, it is easy to forget that he had no experience with the West before 1896. He had always been an easterner to the core, finding his wilderness pleasure not in the West as Theodore Roosevelt did but in the forests of upstate New York. There is no record that he had even ventured beyond the Missouri River except in 1890, when he escorted his sister to Fort Worth. The move to the Union Pacific was a jump not only into a new company but a new arena. While Americans have always headed west to seek fame and fortune, something more personal drove Harriman. His father, the hapless Orlando, had gone west in search of a fresh start and come home an abject failure. Here were footsteps less to be followed than covered over, scars that still needed healing. Harriman had a score to settle with the West that no one else even suspected.
Although the evidence is sketchy, mines seem to be what first drew his attention to the West. In 1895 he looked into some copper mines in Idaho; four years later he turned up as owner of the Golden Reward mine in Deadwood, South Dakota. Exactly when his involvement began is not known, but in April 1896 Harriman took his family on what was apparently their first trip west. Their