At the start of the 20th century the New York Central Railroad was one of the most important and powerful railroads in the U.S., and because of the importance of railroading at the time, it was one of the country’s most powerful corporations. Its lines stretched from Boston in the east to Chicago and St. Louis in the west and from New York City in the south to the Canadian border in the north.
Starting in 1902, its flagship operation was the luxurious first-class Twentieth Century Limited, operating on a fast schedule between New York’s Grand Central Terminal and Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station. Here are an image of an early Twentieth Century Limited train and a map of the Central’s lines in 1914.
The Central’s Board of Directors
From its headquarters in New York City, the Central’s board of directors during the first decade of the century included men (all white and no women, sorry) who were wealthy and powerful in their own right and who are important in American history. Here are profiles of some of these figures.
William K. Vanderbilt, a grandson of Cornelius “Commodore Vanderbilt,  had been active in the day-to-day operations of the Central from 1863 until 1903. He was a yachtsman who won the America’s Cup in 1895, an owner of many race horses, an active supporter of the Metropolitan Opera and an owner of fine paintings which he eventually bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His mansion on Fifth Avenue was regarded as one of Manhattan’s most magnificent residences. When he died in 1920 his estate publicly was estimated at $100 million.
Frederick K. Vanderbilt was another grandson of the Commodore who also had been active in the Central.
Hamilton McKown Twombly was married to the Commodore’s granddaughter, Florence Adele Vanderbilt, and through wise investment of her inheritance and his own money became very wealthy.
Chauncey M. Depew was the Vanderbilts’ lawyer, a “glib raconteur, master of ceremonies and after-dinner speaker” who used his legal talents in “an essentially public relations role for the [Central] and other Vanderbilt properties.”
Depew also was a prominent Republican Party politician. He was one of the organizers of the Party in 1858; a delegate to every Party convention from 1860 to 1920; a member of the New York legislature, 1861-62; New York’s Secretary of State, 1864-65; a candidate for the Party’s presidential nomination in 1888; President Harrison’s choice for U.S. Secretary of State, which Depew declined; and a U.S. Senator from New York, 1899-1911 (while he was a Director of the Central). During the Civil War he was a confidant of President Lincoln, which lead to Depew’s being New York’s official escort for President Lincoln’s funeral train on its way to Illinois.
In 1866 Depew as the principal speaker at the dedication of the Statue of Liberty said,“We dedicate this statue to the friendship of nations and the peace of the world. The spirit of liberty embraces all races in common; it voices in all languages the same needs and aspirations. The full power of its expansive and progressive influence cannot be reached until wars cease, armies are disbanded, and international disputes are settled by lawful tribunals and the principles of justice. Then the people of every nation, secure from invasion and free from the burden and menace of great armaments, can calmly and dispassionately promote their own happiness and prosperity.” This sounds like the post-World War II Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
John Pierpont (“J.P.”) Morgan, of course, was the famous Wall Street financier of the robber barons in the late 19th century. He reorganized major industrial companies and railroads and was one of the most powerful figures in railroading. J.P. also helped to halt financial panics in 1893 and 1907.
George S. Bowdoin was a wealthy partner of J. P. Morgan.
William Rockefeller with his older brother, John D. Rockefeller, established and was active in the Standard Oil Company. William also was part of the “Standard Oil Gang” that engaged in various financial promotions. William was a jovial man who liked good living with little taste for philanthropy.
George F. Baker was another Wall Street financier, an ally of the Rockefellers and a founder of the First National Bank of New York. During the Civil War he was consulted by members of the Lincoln Cabinet on financial matters. He endowed the Harvard Business School and made large contributions to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Red Cross.
James Stillman was the President of the National City Bank of New York City (now known as Citibank), and his two daughters married sons of William Rockefeller. Stillman was considered to be one of the 100 wealthiest Americans of his time.
Edward H. Harriman was the President of the Union Pacific Railroad and an ally of William Rockefeller and James Stillman.
Marvin Hughitt was the President of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad.
Lewis Cass Ledyard, a Wall Street lawyer, co-founder of the law firm of Carter, Ledyard & Milburn and counsel for the New York Stock Exchange and noted corporations. Ledyard was the executor of the J.P. Morgan estate.
Darius O. Mills was a Gold Rush adventurer who turned to finance and banking. For a time he was the wealthiest person in California.
William H. Newman was the Central’s President at the start of the 20th century until he was succeeded by W. C. Brown. Newman was from Virginia and started his railroad career at age 23 in 1869 as a station agent to become in 1898 the president of two Central subsidiaries–the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern and the Lake Erie & Western Railroads.
This was the world that in 1902 welcomed into its senior executive ranks William Carlos Brown, a man of modest background from the State of Iowa.
 “Commodore” Vanderbilt through a shipping fortune and stock manipulations gained control of the Central in the 1860’s. His grand ball in 1883 is often seen as the epitome of the gilded age. The Commodore gave $1 million to Tennessee’s Central University in exchange for its being renamed as Vanderbilt University. A contemporary descendant of the “Commodore” is CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
 One of George S. Bowdoin’s ancestors, James Bowdoin, was a Governor of Massachusetts, and the latter’s son, James Bowdoin III, was an early benefactor of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. The College was chartered in 1794 by Massachusetts Governor Samuel Adams when Maine was part of Massachusetts and was named for Governor Bowdoin.
 Baker’s son, George F. Baker, Jr., was another Wall Street financier whose trust established a college scholarship program, of which I was a beneficiary as a George F. Baker Scholar at Grinnell College.
 Edward Harriman’s son, W. Averell Harriman (1891 – 1986), was a special envoy to Europe for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, U.S. Secretary of Commerce under President Truman, Governor of New York and U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union and later to Great Britain. He was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1952, and again in 1956, but lost to Adlai Stevenson both times.