An Accurate Account of the “Men Who Built America” Part 10

This is the tenth in my series of posts about the five businessmen the History Channel profiled in a terribly inaccurate and un-historical TV miniseries titled The Men Who Built America. I’m writing these posts in response to several comments and e-mails from TV viewers who have expressed interest in a more accurate version of the story. (Click here to see all Al’s columns on the program and its subjects.)

Post #10: Carnegie Builds a Railroad and a Portfolio

In Altoona, Carnegie’s position as Thomas Scott’s go-to guy continued to open up opportunities both inside and outside the railroad. In 1858 an inventor named Theodore Woodruff persuaded J. Edgar Thompson and Thomas Scott to order two of the sleeper cars he had developed (some accounts say it was four cars). It would be an important milestone in Andrew Carnegie’s career.

Woodruff was a typical American rags-to-riches success story. He left his parents’ farm at age sixteen to become a wagon maker’s apprentice, then worked in a foundry for a while before going back into the transportation business as a metalworker. He was in his twenties when the railroad first came to the US, and he went to work for one of the first companies building railroad cars.

Demonstrating the kind of vision that all the great nineteenth century entrepreneurs had, Woodruff foresaw almost immediately the need for a car whose seats could be converted to comfortable sleeping quarters on the long trips that Americans would someday be taking by rail. He spent twenty years designing and building conventional cars for his employer during the day, and tinkering with the sleeper car idea in his spare time. He patented his sleeper in 1856, by which time the long train trips he had envisioned were beginning to be a reality. He brought it to the Pennsylvania in 1858.

Carnegie, similarly blessed with foresight, bought a one-eighth interest in Woodruff’s company. He didn’t have sufficient cash to pay for the shares, so he agreed to pay Woodruff for the stock in monthly installments. Before long the Pennsylvania and many other railroads were buying Woodruff’s sleeper cars like hotcakes. Soon the dividends Carnegie was earning on his shares were more than enough to cover the monthly payments. By 1860 those sleeper car shares were earning Carnegie $5,000 per year, far more than his salary at the railroad.

In  1859 Scott was promoted to Vice President of the railroad. (In those days a company typically only had one vice president.) The promotion required him to move to the company’s head office in Philadelphia. Carnegie didn’t move to with him; he moved back to Pittsburgh to take over his mentor’s old job as superintendent of the western district. Scott was still his boss, but the two would no longer be working together on a day to day basis.

Andrew’s brother Tom, now sixteen years old, had already been trained as a telegraph operator by this time. He went to work as Andrew’s secretary in the Pittsburgh office.

Carnegie had always been a hard worker, and being entrusted with sole responsibility for a long section of the road drove him to even greater exertions. He would sometimes stay out on the road for several days and nights tending to wrecks and breakdowns, grabbing the occasional cat nap on the floor of a railroad car. He also drove his subordinates hard, expecting them to put out the same sort of effort they could see in him. In his autobiography, written in the early twentieth century, he would admit that during this time “I overworked the men and was not careful enough in considering the limits of human endurance.”

Despite the rigors of his job,Carnegie attended night classes whenever possible, to help supplement the four or five years of formal schooling he’d had in his childhood.

The responsibilities that drove twenty-four year old Carnegie were more than financial. In addition to making his part of the road run profitably, he  literally made decisions that could mean life or death for the company’s employees and passengers.

The trains of the 1850’s were no where near as safe or reliable as the ones we have today. Breakdowns and accidents were common. The rails themselves were made of brittle iron, rather than steel, and would often break under the weight of the locomotives, causing trains to derail and crash. Axles broke at high speeds, couplings failed, brakes were primitive; any number of factors could could cause a serious problem.

Train wrecks quite often involved fatalities or terrible injuries. In 1853 President-Elect Franklin Pierce lost his son when the train that was taking them to Washington DC crashed on the way. The nation mourned for the new President, but no one thought there was anything surprising about the way his son had died; fatal train wrecks were that common. In 1867 John D. Rockefeller narrowly escaped a similar fate. He was late to the station and just missed his train, which crashed so violently that several people were killed.

As I related in Part 4 of this series, Cornelius Vanderbilt was badly injured in a wreck the first time he ever took a trip on a train, but the experience didn’t dissuade him from riding again, or from going into the railroad business on a large scale within a few years.

Nineteenth century Americans booked passage on trains despite the well-known risks, because people needed to get from one place to another, and every mode of transportation available in those days was dangerous. The engines on steamboats exploded, killing and scalding passengers. Robbers lurked along the dirt roads. People died of exposure and illnesses from bad weather suffered during long trips on foot or horseback. Trains were incomparably faster than any other means of overland travel and, assuming the train didn’t crash, far more comfortable.

As a superintendent, young Carnegie spent a lot of his time reading and writing telegrams. Any mistake in organization or communication could send two trains crashing into each other, or allow a moving train to hit one disabled and stationary on the tracks.

Before 1869, stopping a train involved sending men up on the the roofs of the cars to hand-crank shafts that slowly applied mechanical brakes. A simple mechanical breakdown, if not reported promptly to the right people, could leave a disabled train in the path of a second train whose engineer and crew might  not be able to stop in time to avoid a crash, particularly at night. It would of course have been safer to run trains only during daylight hours, but there were too many passengers, too much freight, and not enough train tracks to carry them. The trains ran around the clock.

Railroad cars before 1888 were made almost entirely of wood, and if an accident happened in a remote spot where clearing the tracks was difficult Carnegie would give orders to have the train cars burned in place. His reasoning was that the time saved was worth more than the property destroyed. The idea raised eyebrows at first, but eventually it became standard operating procedure for the railroad. While the cars were burning he would often have a crew build a temporary railroad around the crash site, so traffic could keep flowing.

It’s easy to see why the best way to make a fortune in nineteenth century America was to make some important contribution to improving transportation or communications.

Next week’s post will cover Carnegie’s career during the Civil War years.

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