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New biography of legendary railroader John Work Garrett

He was longest-serving B&O president of the 19th century

By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

6:48 PM EDT, September 27, 2012

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The optimistic incorporators and builders of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the nation's first common carrier railroad, which was founded in Baltimore in 1827 and began building westward the next year, envisioned it would take 10 years and $10 million to reach the Ohio River at Wheeling.

Instead, it took 25 years and $50 million, and when the first B&O train steamed into Wheeling on New Year's Day 1853, travel time from Baltimore had been reduced from days over rugged, primitive roads to just 16 hours.

And there the railroad stalled, with 514 miles of track connecting Tidewater Maryland with what was then the western boundary of Virginia and its books laden with a staggering debt.

Things began to change after the election of John Work Garrett, whose family had substantial financial interest in the B&O, as its president in 1858.

Garrett is the subject of a recently published biography, "Baltimore's 'Great Railroad King': John W. Garrett of the B&O," written by Peter Maynard, former editor and publisher of the Brunswick Citizen newspaper in Western Maryland.

During the era of 19th-century railroad barons such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould and Amasa Leland Stanford, Garrett could hold his own with the toughest adversary.

The Baltimore press at the time called Garrett the "Railroad King," a name he lived up to, and he became the longest-serving B&O president of the 19th century.

"Did John Garrett understand, at the time he moved into the railroad president's office, how demanding the job would be, and how thoroughly it would come to define his business and his private life?" writes Maynard.

In an 1858 letter to the president of the Erie Railroad, Garrett seemed to sum up the financial crisis that was gripping the B&O, which would soon be challenged further by the Civil War.

"My acceptance of the presidency of the B & O RR is a subject of condolence not congratulations," he wrote.

Garrett also realized that to succeed, he needed to get tough and acquire political power in Maryland.

And "to the day of his death, the word of the President of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was law to governors and all state officials," writes Elizabeth Fee in her book, "Evergreen House and the Garrett Family: A Railroad Fortune."

Within three years of taking over as president, Garrett had turned around the fortunes of the B&O with "a swelling traffic volume augmented by gross receipts; and as the management cut down working expenses, net earnings piled high in the treasury," Maynard observes.

"The effect was to keep the directors and other stock holders happy … and to keep the trains rolling," he wrote.

As the Civil War first swept across Maryland and the B&O, Garrett made it quite clear that it was a Southern railroad and that he was a Southern sympathizer.

In the early days of the war, Garrett had to face the reality that portions of his railroad were under siege by Confederate forces at Harpers Ferry, where there was vast destruction.

By the end of 1861, he had abandoned his sympathies for the South and became a confidant of Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who realized the strategic value the B&O would play in the war.

It was the post-Civil War years that showed Garrett's genius, as the B&O expanded from 514 miles in 1860 to 2,250 by the time of his death in 1884.

It had reached Chicago by 1874, and revenues rose from $4.5 million to $20 million by 1884.

The great stain on Garrett's record was the Railroad Strike of 1877 that began with the B&O and spread nationwide. More than 100 people died before it ended.

"He eagerly declared dividends, being one of the large stockholders, and asked the workmen to pay the price," wrote James D. Dilts, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and railroad historian.

"Garrett's wage cutting on the B&O precipitated the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the closest thing to a general strike the country has ever seen," he wrote.

Dilts described Garrett as "autocratic, rapacious, cold, calculating, and a highly effective railroad administrator — except when he wasn't. … A great railroad president? Yes, but …"

Garrett died Sept. 26, 1884, at his cottage at Deer Park, the B&O resort hotel he built in Western Maryland. He was 64.

Maynard concludes that it was Garrett's great dream that the B&O remain in local hands and that it "not falter," saying he had built it to "benefit Baltimore."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com