Midwestern Railroad Leader:
Marvin Hughitt of the Chicago & North Western
by H. ROGER GRANT
Volume VIII, Number 1
The commonly-held image of American railroad leaders of the Gilded Age and after still seems curiously tarnished. This is despite the fact that a number of first-rate scholarly studies cogently argue that these business executives acted as "industrial statesmen" rather than sinister "robber barons." Thomas C. Cochran, for one, in his monumental work, Railroad Leaders, 1845-1890: The Business Mind in Action, published in 1953, showed that collectively they possessed high personal moral standards, preferred honesty in their business transactions, and felt content if their properties produced modest profits. Even the era's worst rogue, Jay Gould, "the most hated man in America," has been portrayed recently by Maury Klein as one committed to building - not bleeding -his extensive railroad system.1
The problem with setting the record straight, though, apparently stems from the enormous impact of The Robber Barons, a clever book written by Matthew Josephson in the early 1930s. He offered the simple concept of evil-men-in-power that immediately sank deep roots in the depressed soil of the times. The effect was to create the popular and even scholarly notion that Gilded Age railroad titans saw their companies as sordid money-making machines. The "New Left" historians of the 1960's, most notably Gabriel Kolko, added to the Josephson story by asserting that railroad leaders energetically backed passage of national railroad regulation. These mighty men, Kolko maintained, adroitly seized control of the reformist impulse of progressivism to enrich themselves further.2
When the unusually long career of mid-western railroad executive Marvin Hughitt of the Chicago & North Western Railway (C&NW) is examined, not only is the Cochran perspective supported, but evidence suggests that Kolko, too, may be correct, but for the wrong reasons. Indeed, Hughitt can be classified as a genuine business reformer and community builder.
As did scores of fellow railroad officials, Marvin Hughitt worked his way up the corporate ladder, rung after rung after rung. Yet, the young Hughitt, born on August 9, 1837, on a Cayuga County New York farm, did not begin his career in railroading. Rather, at the tender age of fifteen, with only modest public-school training, he hired out with the New York, Albany & Buffalo Telegraph Company in its Albany office. Soon Hughitt mastered the mysteries of the cryptic Morse code. Two years later he moved to bustling Chicago where he honed his considerable telegraphic skills with his new employer, the Illinois & Missouri Telegraph Company. In 1857, Hughitt entered railroad service as a trainmaster and superintendent of telegraph in Bloomington, Illinois, for the St. Louis, Alton & Chicago Railway (later the Chicago & Alton).
In 1862, he moved to the Illinois Central Railroad as superintendent of its Southern Division, and there during the Civil War years he faced a hectic, unpredictable workload. On at least two occasions he labored for unusually long stints (more than thirty-six hours at a time) at his telegraph key in the road's Centralia office to keep Union Army troop and supply trains on the move. Although promoted to the general superintendency of the Illinois Central in 1864, Hughitt left in 1870 to become Assistant General Manager of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad. Then, in 1871, he assumed the responsibilities of the general managership of the Chicago-based Pullman Palace Car Company. But Hughitt resigned on March 1, 1872, to take a similar position with the Chicago & North Western.3
Advancing steadily, Hughitt became the sixth president of the Chicago & North Western on June 2, 1887. He remained in that office until October 20, 1910. Afterward, Hughitt continued to serve the road in an active capacity as Chairman of the Board of Directors until June 30, 1925, never officially severing his ties until his death on January 6, 1928. Even as board chair Hughitt remained a powerful force. Recalled a C&NW vice president in the 1940s: "At the time  it was predicted that the change of title would mean little in the way of shelving of responsibility and active management by Mr. Hughitt, and so it turned out to be. The new president [William A. Gardner] was obliged to continue to defer to Mr. Hughitt on questions of policy and details of management." No wonder C&NW employees called their long-time head "King Marvin."4
The remarkable reign of Marvin Hughitt made him into an institution of sorts. "Tall, straight of figure, broad of shoulder, firm of face and alert of step, Mr. Hughitt is the very personification of success and power. He is the North-Western Railway." Unmistakabledly, Hughitt was to Chicago & North Western what James J. Hill was to the Great Northern, Collis P. Huntington to the Southern Pacific, and Henry Flagler to the Florida East Coast. Like these men, Hughitt's exceptional tenure allowed him to shape a railroad much to his liking.5
Fortunately for both the Chicago & North Western - shareholders and employees alike - and its service territory, Hughitt possessed considerable vision. He correctly sensed that the company needed to become an aggressive regional carrier if it were to prosper. When he arrived in 1872, mileage totalled 1,383. When he stepped down from the presidency thirty-eight years later, it had increased to an impressive 9, 761, making the C&NW one of the nation's largest railroads. During this time of "system building," which Alfred D. Chandler has described rightfully as the genius of certain railroad leaders, the company absorbed a host of independent roads, including the Milwaukee, Lake Shore & Western; the Sioux City & Pacific; and the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley. It also acquired stock control over the "Omaha Road," the strategic 1,700-mile Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railway. By the dawn of the twentieth century, the C&NW and affiliated properties bound nine Midwestern and Great Plains states with speedways linking Chicago with Omaha (the eastern segment of the famed "Overland Route"), Milwaukee, and the Twin Cities.6
"King Marvin" sought more than route miles; he wanted lines to be in the best possible condition. The principal ones became double, even triple-tracked; received heavy steel rails, hardwood ties, and rock ballast; and sported state-of-the-art electric-block signals. A first-class physical plant accommodated more traffic, more rapidly and more efficiently. Like James J. Hill, Hughitt also knew that if operating costs fell so would rates, and business would be brisk.7
Having what Hughitt called an "advanced property" offered a wonderful bonus - generally contented customers. After all, the C&NW had felt the sting of users' wrath during the early 1870s when "Grangers" (a coalition of merchants, commercial groups, and farmers) demanded rate relief, especially an end to long-and-short-haul discrimination. In fact, the heartland of greatest Granger agitation was the C&NW's own backyard - the four states of the Upper Mississippi River Valley - Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. But by the time Hughitt took the C&NW's throttle, Grangerism had mostly run its course. Still, the shrill reform cries of populists in the 1890s and progressives a decade later involved rate matters. While Hughitt understandably opposed the radicals' solution - public ownership, he was not unalterably against government intervention. As the result of his experiences with the famed "Iowa Pool" (1870-1884), the prototype of the Gilded Age's craze for "gentlemen's agreements," and subsequent rating associations, he came to put little faith in railroad officials' voluntary efforts to maintain tariff structures. Thoughtful public intervention, Hughitt believed, might bring about an orderly and responsible enterprise. While Hughitt did not agitate for enactment of the Hepburn Act of 1906, which created for the first time a powerful Interstate Commerce Commission, he accepted its passage. In a letter to Edwin Wheeling Winter, a former colleague and then president of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, Hughitt hoped that fellow railroad leaders "would have the good sense to observe the law, charge everybody the same price, and attend strictly to the business of carrying freight and passengers for a reasonable compensation." As he concluded, "This, I regard as the mission of a railway corporation."8
Still, the best solution to rate disputes rested with improving the property itself. Namely, "the lowest and hence the best charges," to Hughitt's way of thinking, "can be made through furnishing transportation at the lowest possible price." Long-term prosperity surely would come to those companies who performed best at the cheapest cost. No wonder, then, Hughitt readily backed a heavy capital-spending program. Less efficient competitors, however, commonly wanted guaranteed revenues from either pools or government-fixed tariffs.9
Marvin Hughitt knew that customer unrest dealt with much more than battles over freight and passenger rates. The public had long worried and complained about the dangers of train travel. Although accidents had been part of the country's early railroad operations, slow speeds and light traffic accounted for a reasonably good record of safety. By the time of the Civil War, faster and more frequent train movements reduced the margin of safety considerably. While major technological improvements - steel rails, air-brakes, automatic couplers, block signals, steam heating, and electric lighting - gradually made rail travel speedier, more comfortable, and theoretically safer, the number and severity of accidents actually increased markedly. Even with the latest equipment, mechanical problems remained. There were accidents caused by defective boilers, and bridges, rails, brakes, and signals. Nor could human error be overcome; this factor proved to be a major cause of fatalities. Excessive speed, too, contributed to the slaughter.10
The Chicago & North Western, like all railroads, had its share of wrecks and carnage. A calamity that shocked Hughitt and the nation occurred on July 11, 1896, when a fast freight rammed a fifteen-car excursion train on a section of single-tracked mainline near Logan, Iowa. Thirty-one people died. Hughitt immediately swung into action. More than a company-sponsored investigation took place; the C&NW president directed officials to hasten completion of the double-tracking program of the "Overland Route" across western Iowa. And in a brilliant move, Hughitt encouraged an underling, R. C. Richards, to launch what proved to be the strikingly successful "Safety-First" campaign. The road conducted the earliest organized safety work on any American carrier and these efforts eventually led to the saving of "hundreds of lives and countless hundreds of limbs."11
Hughitt's dedication to safety paid rich dividends. Not only did the road experience fewer accidents, but the public correctly perceived it as truly caring about the general good of all. When a mishap occurred on the C&NW, press coverage lacked the intense bitterness disasters elsewhere frequently generated. Following the derailment of an Omaha Road passenger train because of a broken rail in southwestern Minnesota in February 1914, the Sioux City Journal editorialized:
The C. and N. W. stands out conspicuous among American railroads for efficiency in all those things which relate to public safety. It has been in fact a
pioneer therein. On its part there has been no halting or grudging compliance with all legal requirements in safety appliances. On the contrary it has on
its own motion gone far beyond the requirements of the law. In addition it has for many years had in force a system of special training, in hearty
cooperation with its employees, for safe-guarding travelers . . . a system which is a model to other progressive carriers.12
Creating a safer Chicago & North Western was only part of Marvin Hughitt's larger efforts to serve the public. After the turn of the century, a number of presidents, including Hughitt, spearheaded the second phase of building the nation's railroad system. The steadily growing volume of goods and people demanded action. One response involved replacement of inadequate urban passenger terminals with efficient and architecturally pleasing ones. The Chicago station, opened in 1911, attests to Hughitt's willingness to provide up-to-date facilities that fostered the civic pride and enterprising spirit of Chicagoans.13
Hughitt played a major role in shaping the new structure. This, though, was not his first experience with station design. In the late 1880s he worked closely with architect Charles S. Frost, a son-in-law, in planning the Victorian Gothic facility in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. What Hughitt wanted in Chicago was the "best, most efficient, most complete, and most comfortable station for passengers that is possible," and one too that "will be a credit to Chicago, our home." For instance, there would be spacious accommodations for the rapidly expanding mail and express business, a special concourse for suburban patrons, and even an immigrants' section consisting of "a lunch room, complete toilets and baths for men and women and wash rooms including dryers, whereby the immigrant women may do washing for their families and have it dried while they wait."14
Hughitt poured over the plans with architects and sons-in- law Charles Frost and Alfred Hoyt Granger. The project would ultimately cover some thirty acres between Kinzie and Madison Streets and Clinton and Canal Streets and cost $20,000,000. Hughitt missed nothing. Commented one newspaper: "President Hughitt had insisted that all subways . . . in the lower story of the station shall be bright, clean and cheerful; and the architect has given all of these lower parts of the building a treatment of cream-colored enameled tile and a brilliant lighting equipment." To please city fathers, he ordered the use of light pink Tennessee marble for the exterior columns and delicate green Greek Appollino marble for the interior ones. The terminal brought rave reviews. Wrote industry critic John A. Droege, "The new passenger station of the Chicago & North Western in Chicago is a splendid example of much that is best in passenger terminal design not only as regards beauty and convenience but also as regards the number and completeness of its facilities."15
While the Chicago terminal would serve future generations of travelers well, Hughitt fervently sought to boost the long-term economic base of the railroad's territory. What stands out most of all were his efforts to bolster farm income. Hughitt created one of the industry's first agricultural development departments, complete with several full-time experts. And he personally took up a pet project. While James J. Hill favored potatoes, Hughitt championed alfalfa. No crop interested him more. The C&NW head knew that Great Plains wheat growers had suffered terribly during the late nineteenth century and believed that a solution lay, in part, with their turning to ranching or perhaps dairying. Alfalfa then would play a leading role in their economic success, for this easily grown legume plant made an excellent and economical livestock feed while contributing to soil improvement.16
A man of direct action, Marvin Hughitt promoted alfalfa at every opportunity. The company printed thousands of special pamphlets, with Alfalfa: The Money Crop of the West and Northwest(1910) being the most widely distributed. It operated alfalfa demonstration trains and even financed alfalfa-related research at area agricultural colleges. Early in the century Hughitt personally asked Nebraska farmers to try the crop. Those who agreed were allowed to lease portions of the road's right-of-way and other lands for a token charge.17
As with safety promotion and station building, Hughitt won praise for his alfalfa campaign. A typical response came from the pen of a Neligh, Nebraska newspaper editor: "President Hughitt has revolutionized agriculture in Antelope County . . .The successful culture of alfalfa means good income for farmers and townspeople . . . and for the North Western as well."18
The Nebraska editor was correct. Hughitt knew that if agrarians prospered so, too, would the Chicago & North Western. Milk, livestock, and dairy products would move over his road. In 1900, raw agricultural goods amounted to only 19.58 percent of the company's overall gross-ton miles of traffic, and Hughitt believed that this "could be raised significantly . . . and profitably."19
While a proper portrait of Marvin Hughitt shows a concerned executive seeking to act in the public interest, he nevertheless had a combative (and some thought nasty) side. This became most evident when he dealt with so-called incursions of competitors into the Chicago & North Western's natural territory. Critics often mistook Hughitt's toughness on this matter for arrogance; they failed to recognize that this was still another illustration of his desire to provide. "The Best of Everything."20
During the 1880s, a decade that witnessed spectacular expansion of the country's rail network, railroad leaders seemed in a state of constant anxiety. Hughitt was no exception. The railroad map of the Midwest was far from complete. Although the C&NW had been the first to enter large sections of Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Dakota Territory, established roads pushed into its backyard. Upstarts - A. B. Stickney's Chicago Great Western (formerly Chicago, St. Paul & Kansas City) was a leading example - likewise appeared in the home territory. Hughitt, of course, knew that patrons wanted more than a single carrier, but he understood that excessive construction probably would depress earnings and result in higher rates and reduced service and safety.21
Hughitt, fully recognizing the threat that the building craze posed, responded the best that he could. On several occasions he purchased competitors. He believed this preferable to entangling and often ephemeral pooling arrangements, agreements that were also unpopular with the public. One coup was acquisition of the "Trans-Missouri River Lines," which included the Sioux City & Pacific and the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley. This sizable addition to the C&NW system in the late 1880s strengthened considerably its position in a competitive area.22
While Hughitt disliked pooling, he willingly negotiated with regional railroad executives. In fact, much of his surviving correspondence reveals his gambits on the chessboard of railroad strategy. As early as 1880 Hughitt pressured the presidents of the Burlington and the Rock Island, who jointly controlled the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern, not to build a line from Holland, Iowa to Iowa Falls, Iowa. "The extension if made will further complicate the relations of all of the parties interested in middle Iowa." No amount of reasoning or pressure, though, worked; the line was built. A few years later Hughitt joined forces with James J. Hill to wreck plans of the Duluth, Huron & Denver Railway to build from Sauk Centre, Minnesota (Great Northern territory) into south-central Dakota (C&NW territory). Later, however, Hughitt was incensed when Hill entered the state with lines from Benston, Minnesota, to Yankton. Hughitt did convince Hill not to extend the Huron line southwestward into the "West River Country," an area that the C&NW, although challenged there by the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul, tried to dominate. As Hughitt rightly charged, this was a place that could not sustain additional rail service.23
Just as Hughitt sparred with fellow railroad leaders, he occasionally revealed a combative side towards his own employees. While he lacked the intense, even vicious anti-union feelings of several of his contemporaries, most notably Charles E. Perkins of the Burlington, he displayed a mixture of consideration and firmness. Hughitt believed strongly that workers should earn a living wage and that compensation should not depend upon any law of supply and demand. That is why the company paid its trainmen, for example, on a mileage basis rather than by the unpopular "classification system" that meant lower pay for branch-line runs. As a result, labor-management relations were usually good. But when some workers succumbed to the gravitational tug of Eugene V. Deb's American Railway Union (ARU) in 1894, Hughitt joined fellow railroad officials to squelch this venture into industrial unionism. He gladly employed a blacklist of former ARU members, although he never sought to prevent employees from belonging to functioning craft unions.24
Hughitt believed in treating employees paternalistically, and this tendency extended into other activities. Typical of the day, he either personally, or through the company, donated to a plethora of civic-betterment programs. Money went to colleges, libraries, and parks, almost exclusively in communities along C&NW lines. A devout Presbyterian, he also contributed to several churches in greater Chicago and to such denominational schools as Highland Park College in Des Moines, Iowa, and Huron College in Huron, South Dakota. The latter philanthropy appealed to him greatly, for he "regretted not being a college man," and he sought to compensate by giving freely to higher education and by reading widely in the fields of history, biography, and the natural sciences.25
Since Marvin Hughitt dedicated most of his adult life to the Chicago & North Western Railway, the history of this midwestern carrier for a half century largely reflects his thoughts and actions. Hughitt's career reveals a shrewd business leader who unquestionably believed that what was good for the C&NW was also beneficial for the country it served and vice versa. Hughitt had the good sense to see early on that the future of his road intertwined with the overall economic health of its service territory. He labored mightily for that end. Unmistakably, Hughitt sported the characteristics that Thomas Cochran described in other contemporary railroaders. Hughitt also demonstrated distinct reformist qualities, but Gabriel Kolko would have found it difficult to use his career to support the thesis that progressivism was a fraud. When Hughitt turned to government for controls, for example, he did so as one who sought to bring about stable and equitable transportation. Actually, Hughitt fit the mold of the progressive reformer described by Robert H. Wiebe. According to this historian's interpretation, the most meaningful uplift of the early twentieth century involved attempts by a new breed of citizen determined to remedy the disruptions produced by the rapidly emerging urban-industrial society. The solutions advanced by these modernizers regularly involved "bureaucratization." They believed, for example, that independent regulatory commissions, staffed by well-trained civil servants, could solve the problems posed by industrial disorder most efficiently.26
Yet, Hughitt wanted more than selected governmental intervention. He wholeheartedly embraced the notion of self-help. The C&NW head knew fully that efficient and modern facilities would not only allow the company to prosper but would likewise produce lower rates and a safer environment. If it did not, "a withering of service will occur" (precisely what happened in the later history of the C&NW).27
Part of self-help involved Marvin Hughitt's dedication to protect the fruits of his labor. "I deeply believe that if the North-Western Lines are to provide what the public demands, then we cannot be attacked by other railroads and have our traffic taken away from us." While he may not have always succeeded, he left a reasonably healthy property for others to manage. Writing at the time of Hughitt's death, a Chicago journalist rightly saw him as "a progressive railroader who presided over fundamental changes on the property in his care, and who did much to make the Chicago & Northwestern [sic] a company that gained and retained the respect of shipper and traveler."28
1Thomas C. Cochran, Railroad Leaders, 1845-1890: The Business Mind in Action (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953); Maury Klein, The Life and Legend of Jay Gould (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1986).
2Matthew Josephson, The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalist, 1861-1901 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1934); Gabriel Kolko, Railroads and Regulation, 1877-1916(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965).
3T. A. Busbey, comp., The Biographical Dictionary of the Railway Officials of America (New York: The Railway Age and Northwestern Railroader, 1893), 185-86; W. H. Stennet, comp., Yesterday and To-day: A History of the Chicago & North Western Railway System (Chicago: Rand McNally & Co., 1910), 93-94; Sixty-Eighth Annual Report of the Chicago and North Western Railway Company (Chicago: Chicago & North Western Railway, 1928), 1-2; New York Times, January 7, 1928.
4Robert J. Casey and W. A. S. Douglas, Pioneer Railroad: The Story of the Chicago and North Western System (New York: Whittlesay House, 1948), 138; interview with Francis V. Koval, St. Charles, Illinois, September 6, 1986.
6H. Roger Grant, "Three Components of the Chicago & North Western: The Omaha Road, the Louie, and the Great Weedy," Railroad History, 154 (Spring 1986); 12-23. See also Chapter 5, "System-Building, 1880s-1900s," in Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), 145-87.
The 9,761 miles of the Chicago & North Western, including its proprietary lines, placed it in size of trackage behind only the Atchison,
Topeka & Santa Fe (9.792), New York Central (12, 450) and Pennsylvania (11,234) systems. "Safety File", Office of Corporate
Communications, Chicago & North Western Transportation Company, Chicago, Illinois, n.d.
While statistical information on accidents by individual railroad for the early 20th century is incomplete, the C&NW compared favorably
with rival carriers. In 1916, for example, it had 18 per cent fewer employees killed than did the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul, 24 per cent
less than the Chicago, Bulington & Quicny, and 29 per cent less than the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific. "Safety File", Chicago & North
Western Transportation Company.
14Carroll L. V. Meeks, The Railroad Station: An Architectural History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), 105, 131; The Care and Protection Afforded the Immigrant in the new Passenger Terminal, Chicago, Ill. (Chicago: Chicago & North Western Railway, 1912); John A. Droege, Passenger Terminals and Trains (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1916), 135.
17Alfalfa: The Money Crop of the West and Northwest (Chicago: Chicago & North Western Railway, 1910); Roy V. Scott, Railroad Development Programs in the Twentieth Century (Ames; Iowa The Iowa State University Press, 1985), 48.
21H. Roger Grant, The Corn Belt Route: A History of the Chicago Great Western Railroad Company (DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 1984), 22-27; Marvin Hughitt to James J. Hill, February 17, 1887, James G. Hill Papers, James Jerome Hill Reference Library, St. Paul, Minnesota, hereafter cited as Hill Papers.
23Marvin Hughitt to Charles E. Perkins, April 24, 1880, Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Papers, Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois; Marvin
Hughitt to James J. Hill, April 2, 1886, Hill Papers; James H. Hill to Marvin Hughitt, April 3, 1886, Hill Papers; James J. Hill to Marvin Hughitt,
March 8, [?], Hill Papers.
24Donald L. McMurry, The Great Burlington Strike of 1888: A Case History in Labor Relations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), 56; Richard C. Overton, Perkins /Budd: Railway Statesmen of the Burlington (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982), 5-6.