Retro Baltimore

New biography tracks the life of B&O Railroad president John W. Garrett

John Work Garrett, the legendary and visionary president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad whose tenure from 1858 to 1884 coincided with American expansion or what was commonly called in those days “manifest destiny,” and included such tumultuous events as the Panic of 1873, the Civil War, and the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, is the subject of Baltimore writer Kathleen Waters Sander’s long overdue and recently published biography, “John W. Garrett and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.”

Garrett’s rise to the presidency of the B&O at 38 came at a time when the panic of 1857 “continued to cast a long shadow” and questions of whether or not the B&O could make it into its fourth decade persisted, Sander writes.


Garrett had served on the company’s board for three years and “he already knew the strengths and weaknesses of the company. … Garrett would prove to be resolute and relentless — important traits in the all-or-nothing railroad business — wielding ‘near absolute power with a skill that bordered on recklessness,’ an observer noted,” she wrote.

“My acceptance of the presidency of the B&O R.R. is a subject of condolence, not congratulations,” Garrett wrote.


He believed in the westward expansion of the railroad and generating traffic through natural resources and agricultural products. Within three years, Garrett had righted the financial situation that had faced the line, and proved to the bankers and investors that he was a strong and decisive leader.

As the winds of the coming Civil War began to sweep across the nation, Garrett, a slaveholding Southern Democrat, faced a personal dilemma: He had declared that the B&O was a “Southern line” in a Southern-sympathizing state, but he began to gravitate more toward Abraham Lincoln and the Union, and would eventually become a strong ally of both.

“Garrett was a businessman, not a politician, and B&O business, not politics, influenced his decisions,” Sander wrote.

With the outbreak of war, the Confederates cut the B&O 143 times but could not put “Mr. Lincoln’s Road,” as Southerners called it, out of business, in what was the first railroad war, where a railroad played a strategic role in its prosecution by moving troops, materiel and the wounded.

In the postwar years, the B&O grew to more than 2,000 route miles, reached Chicago in 1874, and could boast of revenues of $20 million by 1884, the year of Garrett’s death.

Sander’s biography is a sweeping and grand narrative of one of the nation’s seminal and transformative railroad presidents whose enterprise is still hard at work today.