Abstract: Can All Be As Safe By Any Other System? The Failure of Managerial Reform Efforts in the Post–Civil War American Railroad Industry

Benjamin Schwantes


Collisions, and other operating accidents, were common on post–Civil War American railroads. Nevertheless, many railroad managers strongly resisted public calls to reform operational management practices. Railroad officials defended American management practices as far more cost-effective and efficient than practices used in other nations. They further asserted that the American system fulfilled their specific needs, whereas other models lacked flexibility and would require the costly expansion of communications and dispatching facilities. In this paper I will investigate why many American railroad managers strongly resisted efforts to reform operating practices within their industry in the post–Civil War era. I will highlight the managerial turmoil within the American railroad industry in the decades after the Civil War, and argue that reform efforts largely failed for financial and organizational reasons. American managers resented the implication that their operating practices were flawed, and failed to improve safety and efficiency until states and the federal government began directly regulating the industry. Ultimately, the paper will explore new scholarly ground in the field of business history by shedding light on the challenges faced by American railroad managers in the late nineteenth century, and the tumultuous interplay between conservative officials and dedicated industry reformers.