Jervis Langdon: the man behind the railroad

The Baltimore Sun

Why is it that most biographies of railroad presidents and business tycoons fall flatter than a Michael Phelps diner pancake?

What should or could make for interesting reading is often lost in a blizzard of corporate minutiae, endless financial statistics, strategies and boardroom maneuverings.

More than 20 years ago, I reviewed a book on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad that was written by an acknowledged industrial and rail historian. By the last page, the book had me screaming. It proved no more fascinating or illuminating than reading the Anne Arundel County telephone book.

What the author had missed were the motivations of the grand and often conflicting and complicated characters that built and served at the helm of the B&O; from 1827 until it disappeared completely into the corporate maws of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway in the early 1960s.

All historic business institutions owe a great deal to the strength and quirkiness of the personalities that shaped and guided them through good times and bad, and the resultant indelible stamp they eventually leave upon the public imagination and psyche.

H. Roger Grant's Visionary Railroader: Jervis Langdon Jr. and the Transportation Revolution, recently published by Indiana University Press, is an exception to all of my aforementioned whinings.

It succeeds handsomely in telling the story of an important railroad personage.

Grant, the Kathryn and Calhoun Lemon professor of history at Clemson University, is a highly respected railroad historian who has written 24 books on the subject.

So, he was eminently qualified when it came time to write a biography of Langdon, who died at age 99 in 2004.

Langdon, who had gained a reputation during his lifetime as both an innovator and "doctor of sick railroads," was unquestionably one of the most important and visionary railroaders of the 20th century.

He served as president of the B&O; in its final year as an independent road.

Grant's narrative is greatly enriched by having had access to the fact-filled files and recollections of a cadre of retired veteran railroaders - some who were dubbed "Jerv's boys" when they worked together on the B&O; - who later went on to executive positions on other of the nation's railroads. Some of them worked alongside their old boss once again after he left the B&O; in 1964 to become president of the Rock Island Railroad, and in later railroad assignments as well.

In 1970, he was appointed trustee of the bankrupt Penn Central and later served as that road's president until stepping down in 1976, after it became a major component of Conrail, which was assembled from it and six other bankrupt Eastern railroads.

In addition, Langdon was a member of Amtrak's board and later served for a term as chairman.

A native of Elmira, N.Y., Langdon, who was the great-nephew of Mark Twain, was born into a railroad family.

His father had been an executive of the Lackawanna Railroad's Lackawanna Coal Co., and his uncle, Edward E. Loomis, had been president of the Lehigh Valley Railroad.

Langdon began his career in 1931 with the Lehigh Valley in New York City and later was general counsel for the New York Central Railroad until 1941, when he joined the Chesapeake and Ohio as assistant vice president.

His B&O; career began in 1956 when he moved to Baltimore as the road's general counsel.

In 1961, he succeeded Howard E. Simpson as president.

Langdon had arrived at his first railroad presidency during a chaotic period in American railroading. The industry was suffering from heavy passenger train losses to the interstate highways and air carriers. Freight traffic was ebbing away to barge and motor carriers.

Langdon's accomplishment's on the B&O; were numerous, original and resulted in much-needed operating efficiencies. He conducted market research on customers' needs and then sought to tailor services to those needs. He fought for innovative rate-making and increased piggyback service. He created unit trains to haul coal and introduced the use of computers.

Langdon, writes Grant, shook up the status quo and recruited young, ambitious railroaders. Eventually, the affiliation with the C&O;, which gained full control of the B&O; in 1963, took its toll on Langdon, who felt stymied by the dominant railroad's management style. Still, in this atmosphere of change, Langdon succeeded in turning a $31 million loss in 1961 to a $1.5 million profit a year later.

But in the end he had to go, and for the rest of his life, he retained a "deep affection" for the B&O; and Baltimore, Grant writes.

"A theme of this Langdon biography is that personal skills can contribute greatly to success as a railroad leader," Grant writes. "Jervis possessed qualities that revealed modesty, honesty, generosity and a deep concern for others. And he loved trains, an affection that began in childhood."

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