- “Follow the Flag”: A History of the Wabash Railroad Company
"Follow the Flag" reaffirms Roger Grant's status as one of the preeminent historians of transportation in the United States. The book reflects the predilection of many railroad historians to focus on a specific firm, rather than address larger thematic issues. Far more than being "just another railroad," however, the Wabash reflected changes in its political, economic, and social milieu, while also playing a leading role in shaping the very environment that surrounded it.
The Wabash rose from the ashes of an 1830s Illinois internal improvement scheme that envisioned more than 1,300 miles of railroads. The Northern Cross Railroad was one of the few to survive the Panic of 1837. Even then, the state legislature voted to subsidize that railroad's construction with the proceeds from canal bond sales—an early example of transportation cross-subsidization. State control "mercifully came to an end" in 1847 (p. 11). [End Page 544]
Railroad promoters in Missouri adopted a different approach, selling loaned county government bonds while accepting stock subscriptions from local governments and private investors. One of the most significant early American rail mergers created the Toledo, Wabash & Western Railway in 1865; linking Lake Erie with the Mississippi River at Quincy, Illinois, it then added Missouri lines to the system. The Wabash soon stretched west to Omaha and Kansas City and east to Buffalo, the only carrier to traverse the gateway city of St. Louis, rather than terminating there.
During the era of system building in the late 1800s, strategically placed lines such as the Wabash frequently became pawns in the struggle to guarantee friendly connections and prevent "excess" competition. After Jay Gould gained control of the Wabash in 1879, he attempted to redeem his sinister reputation by launching a massive betterment program. Unfortunately, that expense led to bankruptcy in 1884. George Gould's expansive vision was more harmful than his father's, causing the Wabash to construct a barely used extension to Pittsburgh during the first few years of the new century and inducing a second bankruptcy in 1911.
As federal control over the railroad industry came to an end in 1920, the Ripley Plan suggested that the Wabash be dismembered. While the railroad did not suffer that fate, it nonetheless soon became embroiled in the weak road–strong road debate that constituted the abortive and short-lived attempt at transportation planning in the United States. Stimulated by the efforts of the Van Sweringen brothers to create a fourth major rail system in the Northeast, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) attempted to develop a fifth system, linking the Wabash with the Lehigh Valley and other marginal carriers, investing heavily in those two railroads. While maintaining the Wabash as an independent carrier, the PRR did use its subsidiary as a training ground for top-tier managers, including future PRR president Walter Franklin. During the prolonged postwar merger negotiations between the PRR and the New York Central, the former road agreed to divest its holdings in the Wabash and the Norfolk & Western (N&W). The N&W merged with the Wabash and the Nickel Plate Road in 1964, and much of the former Wabash track continues in operation as part of the Norfolk Southern Railway.
Grant explores, albeit too briefly, lesser-known aspects of the railroad's history. The Wabash acquired a reputation for quality passenger service, transporting long-distance travelers, commuters, collegiate football boosters, and visitors to fairs, expositions, and scenic attractions. The railroad was featured prominently in popular culture, even though the Wabash Cannonball never ranked among its premier trains. Anxious to increase revenues from agricultural [End Page 545] commodities, the company offered advice to local farmers. Company hospitals, railroad YMCAs, and the Wabash Club reduced the threat of labor militancy, yet the section titled "Happy Workers" may be a bit too much of a paean to welfare capitalism.
The Wabash pioneered many elements of railroad finance, law, labor relations, and technology. The railroad's first bankruptcy...