Daily Archives: 13 May 2022

Railroad Boom and Panic, 1870s

From From the River to the Sea: The Untold Story of the Railroad War That Made the West, by John Sedgwick (Avid Reader / Simon & Schuster, 2021), Kindle pp. 66-68:

The western trains didn’t just build America out. They built it up, raising America into the industrial colossus that was well on its way to succeeding the British empire as the mightiest in the world. By 1873, the railroads had succeeded farms to become the nation’s largest employer, the repository of most of its capital investment, the near-total basis of the stock market, and the creators of the most spectacular private fortunes the world had ever seen. The nation’s preeminent railroad man, Cornelius Vanderbilt of the New York Central and other railroad holdings, was well on his way to accumulating a fortune of $100 million, requiring a new word, tycoon, to describe someone so unimaginably rich. Many more tycoons would follow.

The speed of the transformation was simply staggering. The Northern money that had previously been bankrolling the Civil War shifted to building trains. By 1873, the total railroad investment had tripled after the close of the war to $3.7 billion, taking the total number of train companies operating in the US to an astounding 364. They pulled the entire economy along with them, raising the number of businesses in America by 50 percent in one year, 1870, alone.

No one demonstrated this shift—and its hazards—more than the financier Jay Cooke. He had been a major player in financing the war effort, dispatching thousands of salesmen into the northern countryside to sell $1 billion in war bonds to villagers who wanted to do their bit. Now that the war was over, Cooke switched to selling Northern Pacific railroad bonds on a similar basis, creating a bank in Philadelphia as his repository. The Northern Pacific had been created by Congress as a second Union Pacific—a private corporation relying on federal funding—but it suffered from the same flaw, much magnified. If there had been little immediate market for the lands of the Union Pacific, there was even less for the lands of the Northern Pacific that ran farther up along the chilly outback of the north. Tracklaying went so slowly, and the returns were so meager, that the company was still a thousand miles short of completion when the Crédit Mobilier scandal broke in 1873, exposing the Northern Pacific’s massive vulnerabilities.

Alarmed, the partner who ran Cooke’s New York City branch frantically shifted his holdings to his wife’s name to preserve his fortune, then shuttered the bank to keep other Northern Pacific investors from retrieving their funds. Cooke then closed the main Philadelphia branch, causing the big bag of air that was the Northern Pacific to suddenly burst. “If I had been struck on the head with a hammer, I could have not been more stunned,” said one Northern Pacific executive. The Cooke bank’s collapse sparked a run on banks throughout the East, driving forty of them into bankruptcy, and shaking financial institutions everywhere. The president of the Bank of California killed himself when his bank collapsed. Five thousand businesses went under, taking $250 million in debts with them, dragging down lenders and driving up national unemployment to fourteen percent. A “mad terror” so convulsed the stock market, it had to close for ten days. Western Union stock dropped by half, railroads as a class by a third. A quarter of them, eighty-nine in all, went out of business.

In the past, there had been regular economic “panics”—the word for financial disruption—but they had been relatively brief. This one, the Panic of 1873, extended all the way through 1879. For its length, severity and sweep, it would rival the Great Depression as the greatest financial catastrophe in American history. This was the downside of the spectacular railroad boom: while both the railroads and the country grew together, they shrank together, too. Duluth, Wisconsin, had largely been created by the Northern Pacific, and when the railroad went into bankruptcy, Duluth became a ghost town, its population plunging from five thousand to thirteen hundred as refugees left to hunt for work elsewhere. The ruin stoked fury all along the railroad routes, culminating in the biggest job action in American history, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, when eighty thousand railroad employees went out across the country, and a half million other workers followed in sympathy. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Railroad strikers set fire to the roundhouse, igniting the train station and starting a conflagration that burned down three square miles of the city.

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