Titan of the Railroads: The Story of E.H. Harriman

E.H. Harriman rode tall over the nation’s railroads (and the lower Hudson Valley). How much do you know about his history?

If you live in Orange County, frequent the HV’s state parks, or know a bit of early 20th century trivia, the name Harriman should be familiar. For the rest of us, though, the reason Harriman is everywhere may be a bit of a mystery.

The story begins at the turn of the 20th century, when Edward Henry Harriman—or E.H.—was a gilded age industrialist every bit as well-known as J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Railroads, banking, oil, and steel were the major paths to great wealth from the end of the Civil War to the Great Depression, and E.H. Harriman was a leader in both trains and finance.

Edward Henry (E.H.) Harriman.
Edward Henry (E.H.) Harriman. The American Monthly Review of Reviews. Unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He was born on February 20, 1848, in Hempstead on Long Island. Harriman had business in his blood; his great-grandfather, William Harriman, emigrated from England in 1795 and became successful in commercial trading. E.H. quit school at 14 to work as a Wall Street message boy, and by age 22, he owned a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. He invested his own money in the new railroad industry. He also saw the promise of merging railroads with banking—both professionally and personally. In 1879, he married Mary Williamson Averell, daughter of William J. Averell, a banker in Ogdensburg who was also president of the Ogdensburg and Lake Champlain Railroad Company. They had two sons, E. Roland and W. Averell. (Averell served as an ambassador to the Soviet Union, the secretary of commerce under President Truman, the governor of New York from 1955–1958, and ran for president twice.)

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In 1881, Harriman bought a small, bankrupt, 34-mile railroad company called the Lake Ontario Southern, reorganized it, and sold it to the larger Pennsylvania Railroad Company—making a hefty profit. This, he realized, could be the start of something big—and it was. Though still a banker by trade, he became a director of the Illinois Central at age 35 and was named vice president four years later. His management skills brought him wealth and acclaim which grew dramatically when he purchased control of Union Pacific in 1897.

Like any self-respecting titan, Harriman needed a major estate. He had begun buying land near Tuxedo in 1885 and had acquired 20,000 acres by 1900. In 1905, he declared the top of a 1,300-foot ridge overlooking the Ramapo River was just the place, and by the summer of 1909, Arden (the estate) was finished. Sadly, on September 9, 1909, Harriman, 61, died of stomach cancer. He’s buried at the St. John’s Episcopal Church cemetery in the hamlet of Arden. In October 1914, the village of Turner (where he lived) was renamed Harriman.

At the time of his death, Harriman controlled five railroads, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, and the Wells Fargo Express Company. His net worth at the time was between $70–$100 million—or about $2.3–3.3 billion today. It all went to his wife and their two children. His family supported many local charities at the time, especially those helping underprivileged children. In 1910, Mary donated 10,000 acres of their estate for the creation of New York’s second largest state park. Today, Harriman State Park is over 44,000 acres—comprised of 31 lakes and reservoirs and 200 miles of hiking trails—and has over a million visitors a year.

David Levine is the author of The Hudson Valley: The First 250 Million Years, now in paperback.

Related: Kulture Café Is Harriman’s Hotspot for Books, Beverages, and Bites

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