top of page
  • Writer's pictureJoyce Insurance

Can one build a fortune from others’ failing ventures?

Railroad tycoon Edward H. Harriman (E.H. Harriman) achieved what others could only dream of : Turning setbacks into opportunities and making them big.

Born in New York on February 20, 1848, Harriman nurtured his business aspirations at an early age. He dropped out of school when he was 14 and joined a brokerage firm as an office boy. From there, he became a messenger boy and carried securities between firms at the home of the stock exchange, Wall Street. Using loans from his uncles, he acquired a seat on the New York Stock Exchange at 22.

He acquired Lake Ontario Southern, a 34-mile broken-down line, and he transformed it into the profitable Sodus Bay & Southern that connected Sodus Point on Lake Ontario with Stanley, New York, and the south. He later sold it to the Pennsylvania Railroad, marking his career as a rebuilder of bankrupt railroads.

His prowess in revitalizing railroads led him to the Illinois Central (IC) line, where he took a seat on the board of directors in 1883. He later left his brokerage firm and became IC’s vice president. Under his watch, it expanded into the west and north, reaching Madison and Dodgeville, Wisconsin; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Omaha, Nebraska; and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He also guided it through the Panic of 1893 without falling into bankruptcy. 

His most ambitious endeavor was rescuing the failing Union Pacific (UP) Railroad. In 1897, at age 50, he joined the Union Pacific as director. He was named chairman of the executive committee a year later and assumed the became president in 1903. Under Harriman, UP became a transcontinental railroad, connecting Los Angeles to Ogden, Utah. UP's commitment to safety and convenience became his priority, pouring millions of dollars into upgrading the railroad's property.

In 1901, Harriman had quite an empire of railroads — the Union Pacific, the Southern Pacific and the Central Pacific. He also managed the Chicago & Alton and Erie Railroad.

The business tycoon also contributed to educational and scientific institutions. In 1899, Harriman embarked on a scientific expedition to Alaska to catalogue its flora and fauna. The expedition contributed valuable knowledge about glaciers and coastal environments in the US state.

Aside from that, his contributions to the development of the Palisades Parkway, Bear Mountain Park, and the building of the Bear Mountain Bridge are an inspiring example of visionary leadership and the power of public-private partnerships.

One of his notable achievements was the creation of the Palisades Interstate Park. In collaboration with the states of New York and New Jersey, Harriman spearheaded the acquisition of land along the Palisades cliffs, a stretch of unique and breathtaking rock formations overlooking the Hudson River. He purchased large tracts of land and donated them to the park, ensuring their protection.

Additionally, Harriman recognized the need for a bridge to connect the parkway on the west bank of the Hudson River with Bear Mountain Park on the east bank. This led to the construction of the Bear Mountain Bridge, which opened in 1924. The bridge not only provided a convenient route for motorists but also served as an iconic landmark that enhanced the natural beauty of the area.

Harriman passed away in September 1909 at 60, leaving behind an estate that included the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and Wells Fargo Express Company. For his contributions to the railroad sector, the UP named its largest dispatching center after him — the Harriman Dispatching Center — in Omaha, Nebraska.

EH. Harriman's legacy serves as an inspiration for future generations to appreciate and protect our natural environment. His vision and determination demonstrate the profound impact that individuals can have in shaping the world around them, leaving behind a lasting legacy for generations to come.  

At Joyce Insurance Agency, we can’t insure your train conglomerate, but we insure your home, auto and business.  



bottom of page