From its birth in the 1830s through the Civil War, the Reading Railroad had been merely one link in a chain of many small rail and barge lines delivering anthracite coal from Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill Valley to Philadelphia. But a shrewd and tenacious operator named Franklin B. Gowen thought he had a better idea.
Gowen was the son of middle-class Irish Episcopalian immigrants to Philadelphia. He attended private schools there and grew into a handsome youth, wiry and strong, with what his contemporaries described as an almost hypnotic charm. His father had made money speculating in anthracite coal, and in 1856, when he was twenty, Gowen spent a year managing his father’s mine in Shamokin, Pennsylvania. Then he moved to nearby Schuylkill County, where he and a partner bought a small mine. That partnership went bankrupt after two years, but Gowen eventually paid off the company’s debts, gave up coal, and turned instead to the practice of law. In November of 1861, at age twenty-five, he was elected district attorney of Schuylkill County. While still in office he began representing the Reading Railroad on the side—a conflict of interest that would be frowned on today but was then accepted as a good way to supplement a public official’s meager salary. When his two-year term was over, Gowen became the Reading Railroad’s general counsel and then, in 1869, its president.
Confronted with competition from other railroads and with the Reading’s dependence on business from unreliable coal mines along its routes, Gowen sought to convert the Reading Railroad into a road that, in his words, “owns its own traffic, is not dependent upon the public and is absolutely free from the danger of the competition of other lines. ” In practice