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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rev. Charles Edwin Brown’s Baptist Missionary Work in Iowa, 1857-1887

 

Rev. Charles E. Brown
Rev. Charles E. Brown

Rev. Charles Edwin Brown (my maternal second great-grandfather) and his family first went to Iowa for Baptist missionary work in 1842. He toiled at that work until 1851 when illness forced him and his family to return to their native New York State for recuperation.

In 1857 he and his family returned to Iowa to continue his missionary work, this time in the northeastern part of that State.[1]

The trip to Iowa this time presumably did not take a month like it had in 1842 although there is less discussion of the later journey in his memoirs.

Michigan Southern * Indiana Northern engine
Michigan Southern & Indiana Northern engine

All he mentions is taking an overnight voyage on the Great Lakes steamer “Southern Michigan” from Buffalo, New York to Toledo, Ohio and a train (the Michigan Southern and Indiana Northern Railway) to Chicago. Mrs. Brown and their three youngest sons continued by train to DeWitt, Iowa (not far from Maquoketa) while Rev. Brown went by horse and buggy to the latter town.

Howard County Iowa
Howard County Iowa

Rev. Brown soon learned that several Baptist families near the town of Vernon Springs in Howard County that abutted Minnesota to the north wanted to organize a church. He accepted their call, and he and his family made this town their home for the next 11 years and Howard County the site of his missionary work for the next 30 years.

This town then had a sparkling water spring, general store, post office, blacksmith shop, tavern, saw mill and a building for the county court house and about a dozen families. Soon thereafter the county seat was moved to another town, leaving its building for use as a school and church. The new Baptist church had an initial membership of 8 that grew to over 60 by 1860.

Baptist Church, Cresco
Baptist Church, Cresco

Today that church is located in the nearby larger town and county seat of Cresco, Iowa. Prominent in the sanctuary is a beautiful stained-glass window in honor of Rev. Brown. A panel states that he was “a Pioneer Missionary [who] settled in Iowa Territory in 1842 and continued in the work for nearly Fifty years, organizing Churches at many places in Illinois and Iowa” and that in “1857, He organized this Church, was its faithful Pastor for many years, and his revered example continues to inspire its membership.”

In 1858 Brown was elected as the very first Howard County Superintendent of Schools when it had only three schools and served in this position until 1861. He addition, he was a school teacher in the Vernon Springs, Iowa public school, 1858-1867.

The U.S. Civil War from April 1861 until its end in April 1865 was “a subject of absorbing interest and sleepless anxiety” for the people of Howard County. The War also affected the Brown family.

  • Brown’s eldest son, Charles Perry Brown (then 20 years old) in 1861 was the first volunteer from the County for Company D, Third Iowa Infantry. (In September 1862 Charles was home on leave during the U.S.-Dakota War in neighboring Minnesota as discussed in a prior post.)
  • In 1862 the Brown’s next eldest son and my first great-grandfather, James DeGrush Brown (then 17 years old) enlisted in the Sixteenth Regiment, U.S. Infantry (Regular Army), but a serious illness ended his service after a few months.
  • In early 1865 Rev. Brown was appointed the Chaplain of the 88th U.S.C. Infantry (and later the 3rd U.S.C. Artillery). In May 1866 he returned home to Vernon Springs to continue his pastoral work.

In 1868 Rev. Brown accepted a call to the pastorate of a Baptist church in Carroll County, Illinois, but he and his family returned to  Iowa and moved their home north to Lime Springs, but still in Howard County. There they helped build a new church and house. This was their home for the next 20 years except for another return to central New York in 1875-1876. During most of these years, he was not a full-time pastor although he did engage in pastoral work.

In his previously mentioned Fourth of July speech at Le Claire in 1845, Brown listed intemperance as the top domestic enemy. He elaborated at great length on this topic in a speech in Cresco, Iowa on January 3, 1875. He described intemperance as an “unsurpassed evil which entails upon the human family far more widespread and dreadful calamities than war, famine and pestilence combined.” It visits upon humanity “squalid wretchedness” and “untold and indescribable devastation, moral and physical.”

Iowa Capitol Building, Des Moines
Iowa Capitol Building,      Des Moines

In 1877 Brown was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives. He served one term and declined to run for re-election in 1878. He was especially proud of his resolution, albeit unsuccessful, to amend the State Constitution to authorize majority civil jury verdicts, instead of unanimous ones. He lamented, “So long as our legislative bodies are made up largely of lawyers it can scarcely be hoped that measures looking to simplify litigation–expediting and reducing cost–will meet with favor.”[2]

After his death, the Iowa House of Representatives on February 13, 1902, adopted a resolution proclaiming that his “life and character . . . command our love and esteem, and his public series to the state and country were of such distinction as to demand the respect and gratitude of his fellow citizens” and that the State of Iowa “has lost an able conscientious citizen.”

One of the House members said on that occasion that Brown was “a man of excellent judgment, strong character, and of a progressive nature, and could have attained a high place in the commercial world, but preferred rather to devote his life to the betterment of his fellow men.” Another Representative said, “Throughout his life, whether in the cabin or more pretentious dwelling, he was always the same social, devout Christian gentleman, practicing in his daily walk those precepts he sought to inculcate in others. He was intensely loyal and patriotic and when his conclusions were reached upon any subject, they were definite and positive. He advocated his religious and political opinions with earnestness, sincerity, and fidelity, and he was never vacillating or uncertain. He had a clear head and a strong mind.”

The economic importance of the U.S. development of railroads in the latter part of the 19th century is seen by three of the Brown’s sons being initially employed by the Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway.  William Carlos Brown (W.C. or “Will”) was in its Minneapolis’ trainmaster’s office; James DeGrush Brown was an engineer; and George Lyon Brown was a trainman. In September 1871 George (age 18) was killed in a railroad accident.

In the Fall of 1882 a diphtheria epidemic broke out in northern Iowa, and two of Rev. Brown’s grandchildren died of the disease.

Frances Lyon & Charles E. Brown
Frances Lyon & Charles E. Brown

On June 12, 1887, Frances Lyon Brown (my maternal second great-grandmother) died at age 74 in Lime Springs, Iowa. Her husband said, for “nearly fifty years, she was my constant companion and helpmeet [sic]. Her cheerful, sunny disposition made itself felt through all these years, in the lonely cabin on the frontier, or the more comfortable home in the East. Whatever of success attended my labors in the ministry, and the success attained and positions of honor and trust gained by our sons, are largely due to the loving care and instruction of the sainted wife and mother.”

Rev. Brown died at age 88 on July 23, 1901 in Ottumwa, Iowa.


[1] This post is based upon Charles E. Brown, Personal Recollections 1813-1893 of Rev. Charles E. Brown with Sketches of His Wife and Children and Extracts from an Autobiography of Rev. Phillip Perry Brown 1790-1862 and The Family Record 1767-1907 (Ottumwa, IA 1907). Another source in that book is J.W. Wendell’s “Lest We Forget,” a Memorial Discourse in Honor of Rev. Charles E. Brown, Oct. 6, 1901.

[2]  Brown might be pleased to know that his great-grandson (the author of this blog) was an attorney who was an active member of the Minnesota State Bar Association’s section for alternative dispute resolution, which sought to develop and promote less expensive and more conciliatory ways to resolve legal disputes.

Rev. Charles Edwin Brown’s Recuperation in New York, 1851-1857

Frances Lyon & Charles E. Brown
Frances Lyon & Charles E. Brown

A prior post discussed the 1842 travel to the Iowa Territory by the 29-year-old Rev. Charles Edwin Brown (my maternal second great-grandfather) along with his wife, Frances Lyon Brown (my maternal second great-grandmother), and their two young sons to engage in Baptist missionary work. This they did for the next nine years, as described in another post.

In 1850, however, Rev. Brown became very ill with “inflammatory rheumatism,” and the next year he and his family returned to his native State of New York to recuperate.[1]

For the first year they lived with his father, Rev. Phillip Perry Brown, the Pastor of the Baptist Church in Holland Patent and my maternal third great-grandfather. Over these six years Rev. Charles E. Brown himself served as a Baptist pastor of churches in Steuben, Russia and Norway, New York.

When Rev. Charles E. Brown joined the Norway church as its pastor, he discovered that his predecessor had divided the church with his “extreme anti-slavery views.” Although Brown was also against slavery, he sought reconciliation and harmony within the church. Indeed, the members of the church “agreed that all agitation on the subject of discord [slavery] shall cease in private and public.” His sealing of his lips on slavery seems strange in light of his passionate plea against slavery in 1845 in Iowa.

While in Norway, the Brown’s twin sons, William Carlos and George Lyon Brown, were born on July 29, 1853. (In the early 20th century William Carlos or “W.C.” became the President of the New York Central Railroad, and his amazing railroad career will be covered in subsequent posts.)

In July 1857 after regaining his health and at the request of the Baptist Home Mission Society, Rev. Brown returned to Iowa for missionary work in the northeastern part of that State.


[1] This post is based upon Charles E. Brown, Personal Recollections 1813-1893 of Rev. Charles E. Brown with Sketches of His Wife and Children and Extracts from an Autobiography of Rev. Phillip Perry Brown 1790-1862 and The Family Record 1767-1907 (Ottumwa, IA 1907).