9/17/12 - the largest company in the world

In today's excerpt - at the dawn of the twentieth century, the largest and most influential company in the world was the Pennsylvania Railroad -- its locomotives gulping bituminous coal, its temples in Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, New York and elsewhere streaming with passengers, and its 180,000 employees peopled with immigrants from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Ireland and beyond. In his magnificent new book, The Pennsylvania Railroad, Albert Churella documents the epic and astonishing history of the company:

"Railroading has always been, and remains, a brutally dangerous occupation, one that wears down men and women with the same steady predictability as it erodes rail, ties, locomotives, and cars. Many people gave their lives while serving the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), scalded in boiler explosions, crushed between cars, victims of momentary careless­ness or simple bad luck. Others lost fingers, hands, arms, legs, or eyesight. The trauma was hardly con­fined to the ranks of labor, and even top executives succumbed to the strain of managing the world's larg­est transportation corporation. 'Railroad service has become like that of the army and navy -- in effect, ser­vice of the public, and . . . the work is more arduous than in civil life,' one PRR executive noted in 1912. Variants of the phrase 'retired owing to ill health' ap­peared with deplorable frequency in PRR personnel records and managerial biographies. The incessant de­mands associated with running a railroad caused some executives to collapse under the strain, to request a transfer to less arduous duties, to suffer a complete nervous breakdown. Or worse. Of the first eight presi­dents of the Pennsylvania Railroad, four died in office, and two others lived less than a year into their retire­ment. Many other executives died at their desks, felled by a heart attack or a stroke. In 1882, a writer for the trade journal Railroad Gazette portrayed the burden of management in starkly accurate terms. 'The re­sponsibilities and duties of this officer [the president] are almost too great to be borne by any one man who desires faithfully to fulfil them and not die an early death.'

"Employment at all levels of the company was de­manding and dangerous in large measure because the PRR stood at the apex of industrial America. By 1875, it operated more miles of track, carried more tons of freight, reflected a larger concentration of investment capital, and generated more revenues than any other railroad in the United States. For two decades, begin­ning in 1881, the Pennsylvania Railroad was the largest privately owned business corporation in the world. At its height, the Pennsylvania Railroad controlled nearly 13 percent of all the capital invested in the American railroad network, and operated a tenth of the locomo­tives and a seventh of the freight cars in service in the United States. Nearly half of the electrified mainline track in the country belonged to the Pennsylvania Railroad. Its trains rumbled and roared across a four-track main line that stretched from New York to Pitts­burgh, and over thirty thousand miles of track on eleven thousand miles of route, scattered across thir­teen states and the District of Columbia. The Penn­sylvania Railroad operated more miles of railroad than any other country in the world, with the exception of Britain and France. It manufactured far more steam locomotives than any other railroad. And, it built some of the most monumental civil engineering works and some of the grandest railway terminals in the country.

" 'The Company' (internal corporate documents routinely used the upper case, as if there were no other) employed more people than any other railroad in the United States. At peak employment levels, in 1919, more than 180,000 people worked for the PRR. That was more than twice the number of soldiers who were enlisted in the United States Army at the beginning of World War I. The company's senior executives enjoyed access to the highest levels of political and economic power, and they helped to shape the political economy of the nation. For many years the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad served as an industrial states­man, speaking on behalf of the railway industry and the values of capitalism. In the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the phrase 'the President' could just as easily mean the occupant of the PRR's executive suite in Philadelphia as the individual who lived in the White House. 'Do not think of the Pennsylvania Railroad as a business enterprise,' Forbes magazine informed its readers in May 1936. 'Think of it as a nation.'

"Like the works of any nation, the legacy of the Pennsylvania Railroad endures. The size and the scope of the company's operations have left an indelible im­print on the physical and human geography of the United States. From the brutally truncated remains of Penn Station in New York, through the tunnels under the Hudson River, south to the grander edifices at Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, and west across the Rockville Bridge and the Horseshoe Curve, the PRR's engineering works -- many of them more than a century old -- endure."


Albert J. Churella


The Pennsylvania Railroad: Volume I


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright 2013 University of Pennsylvania Press


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