Fighting the Tide
E. H. Harriman … was a small, brown, taciturn man who never seemed to play. He gave the impression that what he did and made others do was never just “for fun,” was always practical…. There was little of the pomp and none of the splurge of great wealth about him. What he wanted was power; quietly, deliberately, thoroughly, he worked to get it.
—Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Crowded Hours
Harriman sat atop the largest transportation empire in the world and presided over so many systems and companies that his associates had trouble remembering which one he served at any given time. Fish once asked him to read a letter and treat it “as written to you as Director of the Illinois Central R.R. Co., rather than any other capacity, as it would not do for me to go about telling tales concerning the alleged shortcomings of Officers of other Railroad Companies.” This conceit of partitioning the self among corporate roles was typical of the era, but few titans had as many different personas as Harriman. 1
A list published in 1905 revealed that Chauncey M. Depew, the longtime servant of the Vanderbilt roads, senator, and popular after-dinner speaker, served as director for seventy-four companies. Behind him came William K. Vanderbilt with fifty-six seats, Stillman with fifty-five, George Gould with fifty-two, and Harriman with forty-nine. Most of the boards on which Vanderbilt and Depew sat belonged to their own system; Stillman, Gould, and Harriman were far more diverse. Harriman's seats broke down into about thirty railroads, four or five traction companies, half a dozen steamship lines, some banks, trust companies, insurance, and telegraph companies along with the smaller concerns in which he had some personal interest. 2
Critics brooded over the power wielded by fifty-seven men who together held a total of 1,460 seats on the boards of major corporations. The sheer size and scale of Harriman's empire, which to the public seemed to have mushroomed overnight, singled him out as a prime target for those alarmed by the growing influence of giant enterprises on society. A prudent man could see that controversy loomed on the horizon, but Harriman had never been prudent in the political sense. He could not easily change his style to suit a shift in the public