William Carlos Brown: A 19th Century Railroading Success Story

My great-great-uncle, William Carlos (or W.C.) Brown, was a senior executive of the New York Central Railroad when Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal was built in the early 20th century at 42nd Street and Park Avenue. He was one of its Vice Presidents, 1902-1906; Senior Vice President, 1906-1909; and President, 1909-1913.[1]

As we will see in this post, W.C. rose to these important positions with the New York Central from very modest beginnings. He was a 19th century railroading success story.

On July 29, 1853, W.C. and his twin brother, George Lyon, were born in Norway, New York. His father was my maternal great-great-grandfather, Rev. Charles Edwin Brown, who was recuperating in his native upstate New York from “inflammatory rheumatism” he had caught while working as a Baptist missionary in the Iowa Territory (and State after 1846). W.C.’s mother (and my maternal great-great-grandmother) was Frances Lyon Brown.[2]

Four years later (July 1857) Rev. Brown returned to Iowa to continue his missionary work in the northeastern part of that State.[3] Going with him were his wife and their four sons: Charles Perry, 17 years old; James DeGrush (my maternal great-grandfather), 11 years old;[4] and the four-year old twins, William and George.

William in 1869, at the age of 16, after being educated at home and in schools in small towns, started working as a “section hand and wooder” in Illinois for the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Louis Railroad [“the Milwaukee Road”]. During the day W.C. loaded, unloaded and piled wood that powered the seam-engines of the locomotives. At night he learned telegraphy skills from the station agent.

This was the start of Brown’s 33-year journey in the railroad industry to become a senior executive of the New York Central Railroad in New York City.

By the spring of 1870 he was a telegraph operator for the Milwaukee Road in Iowa, and the next year (1871) he was promoted to night-operator at the Road’s train dispatcher’s office in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

In 1872 W.C. left the Milwaukee Road to join the Illinois Central Railroad as train dispatcher in Iowa. Three years later, in 1875, he was hired in the same position at another Iowa town by the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad.

The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad (“the Burlington Road”) was the next stop on W.C.’s advancement in railroading for the next 18 years. From 1876 to 1880 he was a train dispatcher in Iowa, and during a blizzard he volunteered to help rescue cattle from 400 stalled cattle-cars. This demonstration of ability to act in an emergency and his other skills brought him successive promotions to chief dispatcher, trainmaster, assistant superintendent and then superintendent for the Burlington Road from 1880 to 1890.

In the 1880’s while on duty in St. Louis, W.C. pulled a switch to let a train proceed in the middle of striking switchmen holding rifles. He instantly was anointed with the nickname: “Little Man Unafraid.” This moniker was used again when in 1888 he took over as engineer to take a train out of Ottumwa, Iowa during an engineer’s strike and safely piloted the train to Chicago. Perhaps for the working men on the railroads, he was known as “the Strikebreaker.”

From 1890 to 1896, W.C. was general manager for several railroads with operations in Missouri (Hannibal & St. Joseph; Kansas City, St. Joseph & Council Bluffs; and Chicago, Burlington & Kansas City). In 1893 after learning that a band of robbers were planning to hold up a passenger train, Brown quietly replaced the passengers on that train with armed policemen in the baggage car. When the bandits stopped the train and forced the engineer and fireman to open up the baggage car, the bandits were surprised to be looking into the barrels of police rifles. The robbery was foiled, and a St. Louis newspaper said, “the lives of some innocent passengers, were undoubtedly saved. Mr. Brown thus adds another circlet to the palm and laurel which he already wears.”

In 1896 W.C. returned to the Burlington Road as general manager. This prompted an Ottumwa newspaper to say, “There are a few especial reasons for Brown’s success. He took whatever duties that were assigned to him and gave them his best effort. His methods were always clean and honest and his treatment of his subordinates and of the public has been based on the same candor and courtesy accorded his superiors in rank. The story of his life reads like a romance and in this story is the greatest incentive to youth, for hard work, intelligent effort, and clean methods, in whatever is undertaken.”

Brown remained with the Burlington until 1901 when at age 48 he joined the New York Central system as Vice President and General Manager of its Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad, which ran from Buffalo along the southern shore of Lake Erie through Cleveland, Toledo, and South Bend to Chicago, and of its Lake Erie & Western Railroad, which ran from Fremont Ohio to Bloomington Illinois.

Thus, over his past 33 years, W.C. had advanced from a manual laborer handling wood for steam-engines to become the C.E.O. of two railroads affiliated with the New York Central Railroad. He did this with the modest education available in small towns on the prairie. This remarkable journey shows the amazing employment opportunities then available in railroading before the age of university business education.[5]

During this period of career advancement, W.C. married his sweetheart from Lime Springs, Mary “Ella” Hewitt, in 1874 in her parents’ home in the town, and their five children were born: Georgia Frances Brown, 1875; Charles Edwin “Eddie” Brown, 1877; Lura Belle Brown, 1880; Bertha Adelaide Brown, 1882; and Margaret Heddens Brown, 1891. Two of the children died during this period: “Eddie” Brown, 1882; and Lura Belle, 1882, while Georgia Frances was married to Dr. Frank Ellis Pierce, 1899.

Subsequent posts will look at what the New York Central looked like at the start of the 20th century, at W.C.’s career with the New York Central, his retirement, his being charged (but not prosecuted) with a federal crime, and his death.

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[1] A prior post discussed the Terminal on its centennial in 2013 with other details provided in another post.

[2] Other posts discussed Rev. Brown’s lineage in America, his initial trip to the Iowa Territory in 1842, his missionary work in that Territory (and State), 1842-1851; and his recuperation in New York State, 1851-1857.

[3] Another post was about Rev. Brown’s missionary work in Iowa, 1857-1887.

[4] An earlier post focused on my maternal great-grandparents, James DeGrush and Ella Francelia Dye Brown.

[5] Two of W.C.’s brothers also went into railroading. His twin brother, George Lyon, was a trainman for the Milwaukee Road, but died at age 18 in 1871 from injuries received while coupling railroad cars in St. Paul, Minnesota. Another brother (and my maternal great-grandfather), James DeGrush Brown, worked in railroading his entire working life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

5 thoughts on “William Carlos Brown: A 19th Century Railroading Success Story”

  1. I found this a while back when a 1909 newspaper article mentioned he was a cousin of Illinois WCTU worker Mary E. Brown (Mrs. M.R. Metzgar). Her husband, Marcellus, was a cousin of my ggg-grandfather.

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