The Empires of Cleveland's Van Sweringen Brothers
Publication Year: 2003
Invisible Giants is the Horatio Alger-esque tale of a pair of reclusive
Cleveland brothers, Oris Paxton and Mantis James Van Sweringen, who rose from
poverty to become two of the most powerful men in America. They controlled the
country's largest railroad system -- a network of track reaching from the Atlantic
to Salt Lake City and from Ontario to the Gulf of Mexico. On the eve of the Great
Depression they were close to controlling the country's first coast-to-coast rail
system -- a goal that still eludes us. They created the model upper-class suburb of
Shaker Heights, Ohio, with its unique rapid transit access. They built Cleveland's
landmark Terminal Tower and its innovative "city within a city" complex.
Indisputably, they created modern Cleveland.
Yet beyond a small, closely knit circle, the bachelor Van Sweringen brothers were enigmas. Their actions were aggressive, creative, and bold, but their manner was modest, mild, and retiring. Dismissed by many as mere shoestring financial manipulators, they created enduring works, which remain strong today. The Van Sweringen story begins in early-20th-century Cleveland suburban real estate and reaches its zenith in the heady late 1920s, amid the turmoil of national transportation power politics and unprecedented empire-building. As the Great Depression destroyed many of their fellow financiers, the "Vans" survived through imaginative stubbornness -- until tragedy ended their careers almost simultaneously. Invisible Giants is the first comprehensive biography of these two remarkable if mysterious men.
Published by: Indiana University Press
Title and Copyright Pages
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It was the most important single event in the city’s history. Actually, it was only a dedication ceremony for a railroad passenger terminal, the sort of celebration cities constantly stage to baptize some new edifice or other civic achievement. ...
1. Oasis in a Gritty City
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Cleveland, Ohio, at the turn of the twentieth century was a booming, wealthy city but not a particularly pretty one. Being pretty was not its business. True, it advertised itself as the Forest City, but that went back to the bucolic mid-nineteenth century—shortly before the invention of the Bessemer steel...
2. The Ideal Suburb
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As with almost everything they got into, the brothers began slowly in Shaker Heights, with little evidence of what might come. They made their first move in the spring of 1905, when they arranged a meeting with Harry Gratwick in Buffalo through O. C. Ringle, Gratwick’s...
3. Mr. Smith Sells a Farm
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It was almost a chance meeting.
By early 1913, the Van Sweringens were beginning to make tangible progress. They had just moved across the Public Square from the Williamson Building to larger offices on the top floor of the newly completed Marshall Building, directly...
4. Mr. Smith Sells a Railroad
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The Vans’ 1913 deal with A. H. Smith promised to finance their rapid transit route as far west as East 34th Street, and work began the next year. They were still uncertain about how to cover the remaining mile and a half of railway to their planned Public Square terminal, but at 34th Street they were...
5. Shaping Solid Forms
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Ownership of the Nickel Plate immediately brought the Vans and Bernet financial, physical, and commercial challenges. In order to make the financing of the leveraged holding company work, the railroad had to produce at least enough dividends to cover the interest payments...
6. A Difficult Birth at the Public Square
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When Smith made his suggestion in early 1918, he was speaking as the chief operating officer for the United States Railroad Administration’s eastern region; as such, he was ostensibly concerned with coordinating railroad facilities in the most...
7. The Beginnings of an Empire
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The Van Sweringens had entered the railroad business in 1916. Unknown to them or anyone else, that year also marked a milestone which would lead them into a world wider than they could ever have imagined at the time. ...
8. To the South, East, and North
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Back in late 1920, when Professor Ripley began his intimidating consolidation-planning job, his first logical (and diplomatic) move was to canvass various railroad executives for their ideas. their ideas. O. P. was on his list, and Ripley wrote him on November 10th suggesting a conference as soon as possible. ...
9. Taking Stock: 1924
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By 1924, the brothers O. P. and M. J. Van Sweringen were generally regarded as a dazzling, albeit baffling, national business phenomenon. They had materialized out of a netherworld of local suburban real estate, picked up one obscure 523-mile railroad, and within a breathtaking...
10. Some Shadows Fleet By
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Saturday, March 8, 1924, was a normal half-day in the New York Central’s new headquarters office building at 466 Lexington Avenue in New York. At about one o’clock, President Alfred Smith ended a meeting with one of his executives, George Harwood, put on his hat and coat, ...
11. Building, Rebuilding ,and Juggling
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“When wearied by overconcentration on railroads,” it was noted earlier, “O. P. would shift his attention to another activity. . . . These shifts of attention from one enterprise to another refreshed and relaxed him.” ...
12. Consolidation Anarchy I: The Maverick and the General
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While the brothers were enduring their ICC ordeal, the larger railroad world was beginning to churn on its own. By 1925, the Commission’s lack of assertiveness and general foot-dragging on the consolidation program had encouraged everyone...
13. Consolidation Anarchy II: The Street-Fighter
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Frank E. Taplin, the rugged, sandy-haired son of a Rockefeller lieutenant, grew up in Cleveland and first served time as an office boy for Standard Oil. At age 21, he moved over to the coal business and eventually owned coal properties in Ohio, ...
14. The Summit I:An Appalachian Peak in the Rockies
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Alleghany, Virginia is just barely on the road maps, a classic off-the-beaten-path spot nestled high in a mountain notch across the ridge from the West Virginia border. In 1929, it was less a town than a small collection of gray railroad buildings, sidings, and signals. ...
15. The Summit II: Filling out the Railroad Map
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O. P. and M. J. may have been walled off from the world, but there was constant motion within those walls. Alleghany and the Missouri Pacific were merely the major ventures of 1929; there were plenty of “elsewheres” and “in-the-meantimes” to manage and maneuver through at the same time. ...
16. The Summit III: Consummation in Cleveland—and a Jolt
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While their railroad empire was sluggishly but surely coming together in 1929, the brothers’ physical creations in Cleveland were simultaneously taking mature form—albeit also with a few irritating bits of untidiness to clean up. ...
17. Completions and Complications: 1930
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The year 1930 opened optimistically. Thus far the national economy had refused to pick up, but the stock market had. Between January and March 1930, stock prices recouped almost half the losses of the previous October and November. ...
18. Taking Stock: 1930
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The “irregular and conflicting movements of business” during the first half of 1930 were beginning to cause some concern in the new Terminal Tower offices. Perversely, however, it was the year in which the Van Sweringens could take the most...
19. Sudden Darkness
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History is often perverse. At almost the same moment of the Van Sweringens’ apotheosis at the Cleveland Union Terminal opening, their juggernaut began to lurch and shudder. As guests at the June 1930 dedication ceremony were admiring...
20. The Rails Roll Downgrade
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Critical as the Van Sweringen Corporation’s woes were, they were really just an unpleasant and expensive sideshow in the view of the New York bankers, who now had a lien on the brothers and their empires. ...
21. A New World
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The only joy that 1932 offered the brothers was that there were no new life-or-death crises. It was not much solace. Resourceful as they were—and they were amazingly so—all they could do was buy time with the hope that business would pick up before the time ran out. ...
22. The Cruelest Year
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Concurrent with Pecora’s persecutions in mid-1933, two of the brothers’ less savory emergency maneuvers literally backfired. With the Missouri Pacific’s bankruptcy, the $20 million Terminal Shares purchase contract came quickly to light, and...
23. The Last Train
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M. J. was not at the auction. His chronic high blood pressure had steadily worsened over the past several years, and by September he was thoroughly exhausted. That spring he had been forced to drop his office duties and rest at Daisy Hill,...
24. Epilogue I: New Empires from Old
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It was the final irony and the most bizarre: The entire Van Sweringen empire—so carefully wrought, so tightly guarded, so tenaciously preserved, and so highly personal—had fallen by accident to two virtual strangers who wanted no part of it. ...
25. Epilogue II: The Ghosts
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The Van Sweringens had been gone only fifteen years, but somehow it seemed much longer. Even at this date, O. P. and M. J. Van Sweringen were oddly disembodied beings—names without people attached. They had no face or form. ...
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Sources and Acknowledgments
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Page Count: 360
Illustrations: 72 b&w photos, 15 maps
Publication Year: 2003