Abstract: Railroads and the Value of Property: The Presidents' Commission on Interchange of Freight Cars, 1908-1909

Scott E. Randolph


The "railroad problem" of the progressive period was much more than just disputes over monopoly, rates, and wages, but instead centered on fundamental questions of property and its use and reflected widely divergent views on the proper function and role of industrial networks. Throughout much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most business managers hewed to a definition of property, as individual, private and inviolate, and to a strict definition of the use of property that reserved to owners the absolute right to enjoy that property as they saw fit, without regard for the interests of others. This was certainly the case among the managers of the largest railway systems. Yet this definition proved awkward and inefficient in practice as the nation's railways knit themselves into a dynamic network during the 1880s and 1890s and attempted to organize the movement of hundreds of thousands of freight cars that made this network possible. Absolutist claims to use of property, in this case freight equipment, rendered impossible the smooth operation of a network and thus risked the manifest benefits of network integration. Beginning in 1902, the American railway entered a prolonged period of service disruptions that centered on regional or national shortages of freight equipment. Over the next ten years managers attempted to implement a variety of mechanisms designed to smooth the flow of traffic that respected the traditional definition of property while reflecting the communal requirements of an integrated network. This paper examines one such effort, centered on the efforts of a commission of railroad presidents appointed by the American Railway Association.