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Erie Lackawanna: Death of an American Railroad, 1938-1992.

Reviewed by Craig Miner

Burdened with an early history that started with the "Erie War" (made famous by one of the earliest muckraking articles), plagued by such epithets as "Erie Lack-of-Money" and "Weary Erie," and saddled with an awkward broad gauge, the modern Erie Lackawanna had an uphill battle. In 1942, it paid its first dividend to common stockholders in the company's 76 year history, and the event was accompanied by the headline "Icicles Froze in Hell Today." The Erie was always the scenic route to Chicago, but never a way to get there fast. In its highest times the best that could be said was that it no longer provided gags for stand-up comics.

But not all stories are of success, and studies of corporations in constant crisis - accounts of long deaths - are revealing. An earlier popular history of the company Men of Erie (1946) was no guide to the workaday or modern history of the road, so H. Roger Grant had a legitimate opportunity. He lives at the western end of Erie country and is enough of a railfan as well as serious historian to speak the vernacular of railroading. The company cooperated in the project, which nowadays does not mean dictated its interpretation. Grant is often critical of management decisions, though he admits that even better performance might not ultimately have made much difference.

The strength of this book is that it is a detailed study and analysis of the modern history of a railroad in all its facets. One of the problems of railroads in the late twentieth century was that things had been relatively stable for so long that management was backward and traditional. President Robert Woodruff had started on a rail crew in 1905 at 13 cents an hour, and the railroad in its postwar apprenticeship program still tried to expose executives, who just about had to be legacies from an Erie family, to every dirty job there was. Rail leaders at Erie from the 1950s appeared to belong in the 1930s, and ones from the 1970s seemed to hail from the 1950s - and they acted as they looked.

But they could not stop change. Among topics this book treats which would not appear in a history with an earlier focus are reorganization after the Depression, the introduction of diesels, the oil freight business in the war, industrial development planning, automation, commuter service, merger strategy, union work rules, relations with UPS and other freight innovations, logo design, relations with banks, use of professional consulting firms for studies, "image" trains, and the creation of the late sixties holding company Dereco, whose very name symbolizes a different era. The scope and complexity is a challenge with modern rail history, as is the "much ado about nothing" bulk of some of the hearings and government documents. Grant organizes all this well.

A weakness is that there are really no Erie Lackawanna archives, with the exception of some dreary minute books and annual reports. Grant does a good job with oral history, he writes well (with an occasional cliche), and he certainly exploits printed sources, primary and secondary. But he does relatively little newspaper research, and that, combined with lack of letters, leaves the history without the immediacy and character it might otherwise have. Grant does a good job of giving brief character sketches of the executives (with details about their drinking and womanizing that would surely not appear in ordinary archives), but they have no primary voice from their own letters and speeches.

The Erie Lackawanna ended up absorbed into and persecuted by Conrail. Maybe it could have survived in the deregulated world of the 1990s. Maybe it could have worked had the merger deal with the Santa Fe worked. But none of that happened. This well-designed and produced volume from Stanford University Press is doubtless one of the best things that ever happened to the company.

Craig Miner is Garvey Distinguished Professor of History at Wichita State University. His most recent business histories are Wolf Creek Station: Kansas Gas and Electric Company in the Nuclear Era (1993) and with Frank Rowe, Borne on the South Wind: A Century of Kansas Aviation (1994).
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Author:Miner, Craig
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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