The 1901 Contest for Control of the Northern Pacific Railway

A previous post discussed the November 13, 1901, formation of the Northern Securities Company by J. P. Morgan and James J. Hill to be a holding company for the common stock of two competing railroads (the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific) and the subsequent successful lawsuit by the President Theodore Roosevelt Administration alleging that this combination violated the Sherman Act’s prohibition of combinations in restraint of interstate trade and commerce.

The prequel to all of that was first the battle for control of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad that provided access to Chicago. The contestants were (a) the Great Northern/Northern Pacific Railways, which were controlled by Hill and Morgan, and (b) the Union Pacific Railroad, which was controlled by Edward H. Harriman and Jacob Schiff. Hill and Morgan won that round, in April 1901, and they put the Quincy stock into the Northern Pacific.[1]

Harriman with the backing of Schiff of the Wall Street banking firm of Kuehn Loeb in April-May 1901 then surreptitiously started to buy Northern Pacific common and preferred stock on the open market in an effort to gain control of the Northern Pacific and thereby the Quincy. Once Hill and Morgan realized what was happening, they started to buy Northern Pacific shares. This buying activity resulted in large and continued increases in the price of the stock.

Others in the stock market obviously noticed this activity and the upward jumps in price. Many started to sell Northern Pacific stock ‘short,” i.e., selling more shares than they owned at what many believed to be unsustainable high prices with the expectation they could buy the stock later at a lower price and thereby make a profit. That did not happen. The market was ‘cornered” with more shares committed to be sold than could be delivered. This forced speculators to sell other stocks to raise cash to buy Northern Pacific shares, resulting in the destabilization of the entire stock market.

This Wall Street Panic ended on May 9, 1901, when Harriman and Schiff capitulated to the victory of Hill and Morgan over Northern Pacific with an agreement for Hill and Morgan to bail out the shorts and thus restore market stability in return for Harriman and Schiff ‘s agreeing to end their effort to gain control of the Northern Pacific.

George F. Baker
George F. Baker

Larry Haeg’s book—Harriman vs. Hill—is the most comprehensive telling of this remarkable story. It reads like a novel, and his descriptions of the participants in this stock market contest make the reader feel like an actual observer of the events. I was especially fascinated by the book’s following description of George F. Baker, a financial backer of Hill and Morgan: [2]

  • Baker then was 61 years old “and the unquestioned dean of New York banking [as the] president of the First National Bank of New York [which] he has helped found in 1863 as a mere twenty-three year old and had become its president in 1877. Also, as a venture capitalist he had bought and rejuvenated several railroads, and now, among America’s half dozen wealthiest men, served on the finance committee of Morgan’s new U.S. Steel, on the board of the Northern Pacific, and on the boards of some thirty banks, railways and insurance companies.”
  • “At a word from Baker, it was later said, ‘the 20th century would halt on its tracks. Indeed, the railroad came to Baker’s door. When he built a mansion further north at Ninety-Third and Park he had his own underground railroad siding in the basement where a train could stop to attach his private car.”
  • Baker had a “four-story, double row-house mansion at 256-258 Madison Avenue between Thirty-Eighth and Thirty-Ninth.” The “dark-paneled mansion [contained] eighteenth-century tapestries, paintings of the Barbizon school, Persian rugs, cabinets glistening with jade and Japanese enamel [and a] library with its hefty, upholstered chairs.”

Haeg book

The Wall Street Journal carried a favorable review of the Haeg book by Roger Lowenstein, the author of “The End of Wall Street” and “Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist.” The review said Haeg’s book covered “a corporate dust-up that takes us back to the beginning of the 20th century, when tycoons who traveled by private rail merrily raided each other’s empires while the world around them cringed.” The book “conveys a vivid picture of the Gilded Age in splendor and in turmoil. Champagne still flowed in Peacock Alley in the Waldorf-Astoria, but fistfights erupted on the floor of the exchange, and a young trader named Bernard Baruch skirted disaster with the help of an inside tip, then perfectly legal. There were scant rules governing stock trading, the author reminds us—no taxes, either. ‘If you won in the market, you kept it all.’”

Warren Buffett added his praise for Haeg’s book with these words. “I first read about the Northern Pacific Corner when I was ten years old. When I opened my office on January 1, 1962, I put on the wall a framed copy of the New York Times of May 10, 1901, describing the fateful prior day. Larry Haeg now tells the full story, and I enjoyed every word of it.”

Haeg set out to write this book as “a character study of Hill and the businessmen known as the ‘robber barons.’ As he advanced in his research, however, [Haeg] found the true test of their character came during what is known today as the Northern Pacific Corner, a four-day run on the railroad company’s stock that roiled Wall Street and set off the country’s first stock market panic.”


[1] This post is based upon Larry Haeg, Harriman vs. Hill: Wall Street’s Great Railroad War (Univ. Minn. Press; Minneapolis, MN; 2013); Michael P. Malone, James J. Hill: Empire Builder of the Northwest, ch. 6 (Univ. Okla. Press; Norman OK; 1996); Albro Martin, James J. Hill & the Opening of the Northwest , ch. 17 ((MN. Historical Soc’y Press; St. Paul MN; 1976).

[2] Haeg at 79-80, 106. Baker is of particular interest for me because I wan awarded a George F. Baker Scholarship for my four years at Grinnell College in Iowa.

Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 Election as U.S. President

The presidential and vice presidential candidates for the Republican Party in 1904 were President Theodore Roosevelt and Charles W. Fairbanks and for the Democratic Party, Alton B. Parker and Henry Davis.

Roosevet&FairbanksParker & Davis







Republican Party’s Nomination of Roosevelt (and Fairbanks)

At the Republicans’ June convention in Chicago, Roosevelt was unanimously nominated on the first ballot, and the leaders of the conservative wing of the Party selected Fairbanks, a conservative Senator from Indiana with close ties to the railroad industry, for the running mate. Roosevelt was not pleased with Fairbanks, but did not think it was worth fighting about.

Sagamore Hill
Sagamore Hill

On July 27th, 54 solemn Republicans went to Roosevelt’s home, Sagamore Hill, in Oyster Bay, New York  on the north shore of Long Island,[1] to enact their party’s “most hallowed ritual: a formal notification of nomination to its presidential candidate.” [2]

Roosevelt in a 12-minute speech that day accepted the nomination. He, of course, praised the Republican Party and slammed the Democrats. He had two comments regarding business issues. He stated, “In dealing with the great organizations known as trusts, we [need] . . . to point out that [the laws] . . . actually have been enforced, and that legislation has been enacted to increase the effectiveness of their enforcement.” Roosevelt added, “The problems with which we have to deal in our modern industrial and social life are manifold; but the spirit in which it is necessary to approach their solution is simply the spirit of honesty, of courage, and of common-sense.”

His more formal letter of acceptance of September 12th reiterated these points and praised the previously mentioned “successful suit against the Northern Securities Company merger,” the enforcement of “the anti-trust and interstate commerce laws, and the action of the last Congress in enlarging the scope of the interstate commerce law [in the Elkins Act], and in creating the Department of Commerce and Labor, with a Bureau of Corporations, [that] have for the first time opened a chance for the National Government to deal intelligently and adequately with the questions affecting society, whether for good or for evil, because of the accumulation of capital in great corporations.”

The Campaign

Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, John Hay, in a letter to American historian and author, Henry Adams, called this campaign “the most absurd political campaign of our time.” Roosevelt did not actively campaign. Instead he issued statements form his front porch at Sagamore Hill, and the Republican Party received large campaign contributions from wealthy capitalists, including J.P. Morgan, the financial leader of Wall Street and a director of the New York Central Railroad; Edward H. Harriman, the president of the Union Pacific Railroad and also a director of the New York Central; and Henry C. Frick, the steel baron.

1904 TR poster

Roosevelt’s campaign slogan The Square Deal reiterated his comment on the settlement of the 1902 coal miners’ strike. He promised to “see it that every man has a square deal, no less and no more.” This pledge summed up Roosevelt’s belief in balancing the interests of business, consumers, and labor. The Square Deal called for limiting the power of trusts  (a person having control of a large corporation so that no others can succeed in the economy), promoting public health and safety, and improving working conditions.

The Election Results

The results of the November 8th election were not close. Roosevelt and Fairbanks had 7,626,000 votes (56.4%); Parker and Davis, 5,084,000 (37.6%). The Electoral College margin for Roosevelt and Fairbanks was even wider: 336 (70.6%) vs. 140 (29.4%); the following map shows the geographical distribution of the electoral votes (Republican in red; Democrat in blue):



[1] Sagamore Hill is now a National Historic Site, currently closed for renovation.

[2] Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex at 343-64 (Random House; New York, 2001).