Titan of the Railroads: The Story of E.H. Harriman

E.H. Harriman rode tall over the nation’s railroads (and the lower Valley)


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“[Harriman] was full of fight, full of energy... full of confidence”

Those in the vicinity of the eponymous town or park may know the name Harriman. So, too, might those who lived through the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, when the name was at the center of state, national, and international politics. The rest, though, most likely first heard the name proudly proclaimed in doomed defiance of Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Woodcock (played by George Furth), of course, crawled from the wreckage, only to go through the same near-death experience later in the movie.

Who was this Mr. E.H. Harriman, this man who inspired such loyalty? Woodcock, for one, would not have been surprised to learn how he came to have a town, a park, and much more named after his family. After all, at that time — the turn of the 20th century — E.H. Harriman was as well known as J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and other captains of American industry during its most prosperous, albeit gilded, age. He is less iconic today among the general public; according to his biographer, Maury Klein, that may be because, “he was a fairly colorless individual in terms of personality, and he died fairly young of stomach cancer. But in his period, he was the undisputed titan of the railroads.”

EH Harriman butch cassidy and the sundance kid

Captains of industry: At the turn of the 20th century, E.H. Harriman (left) was as well known as J.P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid even referred to Harriman in one memorable scene

“Do as I say, and do it damn quick”

Railroads, banking, oil, and steel were the major paths to great wealth from the end of the Civil War to the Great Depression, and Edward Henry Harriman had his hands in two of them. He was born February 20, 1848, in Hempstead, New York, the son of an Episcopal deacon. He had business in his blood, though; his great-grandfather, William Harriman, emigrated from England in 1795 and became successful in commercial trading.

E.H. quit school at age 14 to work as a Wall Street message boy. He soon became a managing clerk and, by age 21, he owned a seat as a stockbroker on the New York Stock Exchange. He saw the promise of railroads and invested his own money. He also saw the promise of merging railroads with banking, both professionally and personally; in 1879, he married Mary Williamson Averell, daughter of William J. Averell, a banker in Ogdensburg, NY who was also president of the Ogdensburg and Lake Champlain Railroad Company. They eventually had seven children.

Harriman was a “small, sort of bantam rooster type,” says Klein, author of The Life and Legend of E.H. Harriman and professor emeritus of history at the University of Rhode Island. “He was full of fight, full of energy, full of confidence, pretty curt. He was also utterly and completely devoted to his family, but he was one tough guy who did not suffer fools and did not like his time wasted.” Indeed, one quote attributed to him is, “Cooperation means ‘Do as I say, and do it damn quick.’”

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All aboard! E.H. Harriman had his hands in two of America’s major paths to wealth: banking and railroads

In 1881, he bought a small, bankrupt, 34-mile railroad company called the Lake Ontario Southern, reorganized management, renamed it the Sodus Bay & Southern, and sold it to the larger Pennsylvania Railroad — making a hefty profit. This, he realized, might be the start of something big.

And it was. Though still a banker by trade, he was invited to become a director on the Illinois Central at age 35, and by 39 was its vice president. “He got quite involved in its operations and management, and he began to think of that as something he would like to do,” says Klein. He helped pull the line through a severe recession, the Panic of 1893, and his insightful management skills brought him wealth and acclaim. Both would grow exponentially, though, when he purchased control of the bankrupt Union Pacific (UP) in 1897. “He was asked to come in to manage the UP,” Klein says. “He was not the lead man at all, but it became clear that, of all the financiers involved, he had the most time and interest in overseeing the railroad.”

Harriman toured the entire western region that the UP ran through. “He talked to people everywhere, and came home convinced that times were brightening, and that the railroad would do well,” Klein says. “If someone took over and upgraded it, he thought it would be a very, very good investment. Most people thought he was crazy, but he did it, and, in the process of reorganizing virtually every aspect of the company, he created the model for a new era of railroad history.” In 1901, he merged the UP with his new purchase, the Southern Pacific Railroad, to create the largest railroad company in the nation, a source of jobs for men like Woodcock, and ill-gained cash for men like Butch and Sundance.

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At times, Harriman was viewed as a crazy man, but that didn’t stop him from creating a new model for a new era of railroad history

Parks and Recreation

As with other titans of the era, Harriman needed a colossal estate. He had begun buying land near Tuxedo in 1885, and by 1900 had acquired some 20,000 plus acres. In 1905, he decided that the top of a 1,300-foot ridge that overlooks the Ramapo River was just the place, and by the summer of 1909, the house, which he called Arden, was finished. Sadly, nearly so was he. On September 9, 1909, he died unexpectedly at Arden House. He is buried at the St. John’s Episcopal Church cemetery in Arden. At the time of his death, he controlled not only the Union Pacific, the Southern Pacific, and the Illinois Central, he also owned the Saint Joseph and Grand Island, the Central of Georgia, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, and the Wells Fargo Express Company.

His fortune went to his wife and their children, notably W. Averell, who worked in his father’s railroad business until 1940, when he became the political force that we know about today.

The family legacy has never diminished from the area. “Once E.H. moved to the Hudson Valley, he became a leading benefactor of the era,” Klein says. When the State wanted to build Sing Sing prison on his stretch of the river, he “persuaded” them not to by building a park instead. His family also gave to many local charities, especially those helping underprivileged children, for whom he had a soft spot in his heart. And in 1910, his widow donated 10,000 acres to the state of New York for Harriman State Park.

“The Hudson Valley owes a lot to him and his family,” Klein says.

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