A Classification of American Wealth
History and genealogy of the wealthy families of America - Sponsors


 Part 1 : Colonial and Mercantile America  Part 2 : America in the Gilded Age
 Part 3 : America in the Twentieth Century  Encyclopedia of American Wealth

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  Part II : The Gilded Age  >   Introduction and Index :  Previous  1 2 - 3 - 45 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9  Next

Railroads were the field were many of the greatest Gilded Age fortunes were built. With the opening of the West, railroad construction reached record proportions just after Civil War and during the 1870's and 1880's. Railroad mileage rose from 35'000 miles in 1865 to over 163'000 in 1890, almost a fivefold increase. Railroads became the knit which held together the growing nation, creating by their very existence opportunities for entrepreneurs in other fields.

In 1865, railroads had been around for a generation and the Eastern trunk lines, which would soon make the fortune of the first great railroad tycoons, were already in existence. Started with municipal and state aid by local merchants, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad had crossed the Appalachians and become a profitable business, already firmly in the hands of Johns Hopkins and John Work Garrett. Hopkins was a self-made liquor merchant and Garrett the son of an established merchant banker. Both men became multi-millionaires from their investment into the B&O. Further North, the Pennsylvania Railroad was started in a similar way and also had found its leaders, in the persons of John Edgar Thomson and his able vice-president Thomas Alexander Scott.

In 1853, a loose group of scattered railroads were merged to form the New York Central, the first significant railroad consolidation in America. The promoters of this scheme, men like Erastus Corning and Dean Richmond, became wealthy capitalists, although not major tycoons. Their railroad would become the nucleus of a system belonging to the richest railroad tycoon ever, a man who hade already made a fortune in the steamship business.

After the outbreak of Civil War, Cornelius Vanderbilt left the steamship business, sold most of his ships to the Union Navy and started his career of a railroad tycoon. In a number of short campaigns, he acquired the New York & Haarlem, the Hudson River and the New York Central railroads and consolidated them into a through system, running from New York to Buffalo. He later acquired the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern and completed his system through to Chicago. In the process he built himself a fortune of 105'000'000 $ and became the richest man in the world.

Through their Credit Mobilier construction company, the builders of the Union Pacific Railroad, including Thomas Clark Durant and the Ames brothers of Boston, made a fortune of some $ 16 million. By holding to their shares for a longer time and monopolizing the traffic in California, the Pacific Quartet (Stanford, Hopkins, Huntington and Crocker) made many times more from the shorter Central Pacific railroad, the first to cross the Sierra Nevada.

Other railroad tycoons made equally large fortunes in all regions of the United States, building other transcontinental roads, speculating on their stocks and bonds to eventually consolidate them in ever larger systems, spanning whole regions and driving towards a monopoly, which they never seemed to reach. Men like Jay Gould, Jim Fisk and Russell Sage became known as the archetypes of the robber barons, preying on their fellow citizens to extort their money in devious Wall Street speculations or corporate coups.

Many more could be cited here and will be sketched in detail in these pages : John Insley Blair, who at one time owned more railroad mileage than any other American; James Jerome Hill who quietly built the Manitoba into the Great Northern Railroad or Edward Henry Harriman, who reorganized the reputedly bankrupt Union Pacific in 1895 and from there built the largest railroad system in the West, thwarting even the great John Pierpont Morgan.
 

The Gilded Age  >   Introduction and Index :  Previous  1 2 - 3 - 45 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9  Next

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