Thomas Alexander Scott

views updated May 18 2018

Thomas Alexander Scott

A respected railroad man of his generation, Thomas Alexander Scott (1823-1881) was instrumental in the expansion of Pennsylvania Railroad, though he failed to realize his vision of a true transcontinental railroad. Scott also played a significant role in the use of rail travel for the Union war effort during the Civil War.

Scott was born on December 28, 1823, in Fort Loudon, Pennsylvania (some sources say London, Franklin County, Pennsylvania). He was the seventh child born to Thomas Scott and had four younger siblings. His mother was Rebecca Douglas Scott. Scott's father ran a tavern, Tom Scott's Tavern, which was located in Franklin County on a turnpike between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. It served as a stop for stagecoaches. Scott's father also ran a stage line.

Work was an important component of Scott's life from an early age. While receiving some education in country schools during the winter, he worked on the farm during the rest of the year. His father died when Scott was rather young (sources vary about Scott's exact age, noting he was 10, 12, or 16). His first jobs were working in general stores, in locales such as Waynesboro and Bridgeport, when he lived with different siblings. Among Scott's positions was handyman. Though his education was limited, Scott became well-read because he continually educated himself through books.

In about 1840, Scott took a position as a clerk in a state office in Columbia, Pennsylvania. It was run by his brother-in-law, Major James Patton, and collected tolls on roads and canals. He spent about six years there through 1847. Scott then spent about three years as chief clerk of the Philadelphia toll collector. Scott also spent a year working for Leech and Company, a transporting firm. During this time in his professional life, Scott gained much experience in business practices that would help him in his career in railroads.

Began Working for Pennsylvania Railroad

In 1850, Scott was hired by the Pennsylvania Railroad as a station agent in Duncansville. It was a fortuitous time to enter the railroad business. Railways were expanding throughout the country, and many new lines were being built. Those with solid decision-making ability, like Scott, could move quickly up the company ladder because of the need for numerous managers. Scott himself was promoted regularly throughout the 1850s.

Scott was elevated to the position of general-superintendent of the mountain district of Altoona, headquartered at Duncansville, in 1852. He was named the general agent at the Pennsylvania Railroad's Pittsburgh office in 1853. By 1855, Scott was promoted to third assistant superintendent and was based in Pittsburgh for the company's western division. Among Scott's employees was Andrew Carnegie, whom Scott came to mentor after hiring him as his personal telegraph operator and later his assistant. Scott taught him much about railroads and business methods, and Carnegie went on to become one of America's leading businessmen in the late nineteenth century.

By the second half of the 1850s, Scott was given the position of general superintendent of the whole of the Pennsylvania Railroad line. In 1859, Scott was again promoted to first vice president in charge of all operations, advising J. Edgar Thompson, the company's president. The company continued to expand and Scott played a key role in it. Scott's move up the company ladder was temporarily halted, however, by the beginning of the Civil War.

Played Key Roles in Civil War

When the Civil War broke out in the early 1860s, Scott served his country and his company in numerous capacities. One of the first ways was in an advisory role to the newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, in 1861. He told the president that to avoid potential assassination attempts, Lincoln should not take the published route into Washington. Instead, Scott believed, Lincoln should enter the city on the sly, using the rail. Lincoln took his advice.

From 1861 to 1862, Scott served as an assistant secretary of war and was in charge of supervising all government railways and transportation lines. Among his duties related to this position, Scott controlled all railways and telegraphs related to the Union government. Scott also organized railroad resources to allow communications between Annapolis and Washington. In addition, Scott initiated a new railway line that ran between Washington and Philadelphia. This allowed the government to transport men and supplies between Harrisburg and Annapolis. But railways were not Scott's only focus. He also organized the use of rivers in the northwest and west for the army.

Scott was also an officer in the Union Army and served on the staff of Governor Andrew G. Curtin. He advised the general and others on how to use railway in the war. Scott also accomplished a first in modern warfare. In 1863, he organized and oversaw a large-scale movement by rail of an entire army. Scott supervised the movement of 13,000 men, their supplies, and their horses from Nashville to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Scott planned other such troop movements as well. In 1863, Scott also served as the assistant quartermaster general for General Hooker's staff. As an unnamed author wrote in the Journal of Commerce, "Mr. Scott's logistical efforts are credited with keeping the Union Army well supplied and on the move throughout the struggle."

Named President of Pennsylvania Company

When the Civil War ended, Scott returned to the Pennsylvania Railroad as president of the western division with goals of continued expansion at the fore. Scott also continued his rise through the ranks of the company. In 1870, he was named president of the Pennsylvania Company. This was a newly created subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad which was to consolidate and operate all the company's lines (owned or leased) west of Pittsburgh. It was part of an aggressive campaign to expand the railroad west. Newly built lines in the east and Midwest came under Pennsylvania's control by lease or stock ownership.

As part of this strategy of expansion as well as for his own personal gain, Scott played key roles in other railroad operations. He had interests in railroads such as the Southern Railway Security Company and the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad. From 1871 until 1872, Scott served as president of the Union Pacific Railroad. Scott's tenure ended when he sold his part to Jay Gould, who was trying to build his own transcontinental railway system centered around the Erie Railroad. Scott shared this goal and was soon put in a position to realize it.

Promoted to Head of Pennsylvania Railroad

In 1874, the head of the Pennsylvania Railroad, J. Edgar Thompson, died. Upon his death, Scott was named president in his place. When Scott took over, he was in charge of the world's largest railroad that was under one management. Because the Pennsylvania Railroad was already well run and ordered, Scott had the freedom to pursue his ultimate goal: a transcontinental railroad that stretched from the Atlantic Ocean (in Pennsylvania) to the Pacific Ocean (in California) via St. Louis. This railroad was to be called the Texas and Pacific Railroad. Scott was its founder and also served as president while remaining at the helm of the Pennsylvania.

Faced Numerous Challenges

Scott's focus at Pennsylvania Railroad continued to be strengthening the company's position and consolidation. He worked to reduce floating debt. Scott revised operating methods to be more economically efficient and improve coordination between parts of the company to reduce costs. Despite Scott's best efforts, earnings at the railroad continued to fall. The company had to tighten its belt by limiting improvements to those that were necessary, except for replacing all the iron rails with stronger steel.

On another front Scott also failed. His dream of a transcontinental railroad with the Texas and Pacific—and the related California and Texas Railroad Construction Company which was to build it—was not fully realized. The final terminus for this railroad was just past El Paso in west Texas. Scott's difficulties in the matter were not of his own making, though. Neither his companies nor any railroad looking to expand in the west could get land grants from the Federal government after the scandal surrounding Credit Mobilier. There were also widespread economic problems because of the financial panic and the economic depression that followed in 1873. While his construction company had problems for several years, a financial reorganization in 1875 solved many of the money flow problems.

In 1877, Scott had to deal with a difficult situation related to the Pennsylvania Railroad. From July 19 to 22 of that year, the great Pittsburgh riot occurred, then spread west to St. Louis when it could not be dispersed by sheriffs or the local militia. It was initially caused by a trainmen's strike that came to engage other workers and the unemployed as well. The strike began in response to Scott and the Pennsylvania Railroad's decision to reduce wages by ten percent and double the amount of cars per train, which meant that fewer trainmen would be used. Scott made this decision as part of a cost reduction move. The riot resulted in the death of many and $5 million in property damage in Pittsburgh alone.

On June 1, 1880, Scott retired from Pennsylvania Railroad. His retirement was prompted by two circumstances. One was his failure to complete his transcontinental railroad, leaving his tenure at the top of his profession incomplete. Scott also had serious health problems. In 1878, Scott suffered a stroke. While he was able to continue working at first, the effects of the stroke began to make working impossible within months.

Before his death a short time after his retirement, Scott sold the Texas and Pacific Railroad to his old competitor, Jay Gould. Despite the ups and downs of the deal, Scott did not lose any money. Scott was not always so successful in his business dealings. In addition to his work with railroads, Scott was something of a venture capitalist on his own. He invested in the oil boom in Pennsylvania and California (the latter failed) as well as agricultural land development, primarily in California.

Scott died on May 21, 1881, at his home, named "Woodburn," which was located near Darby, Pennsylvania. It was believed by some that he worked himself to death. He was survived by his second wife, Anna Dike Riddle, and four children, two from his first marriage to Anna Margaret Mullison and two from his second. As George H. Burgess and Miles C. Kennedy wrote in Centennial History of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, "From all existing accounts, Thomas Scott was a man of truly extraordinary charm. In an age when democracy and democratic manners were little known to business executives, Scott was affable, friendly and unassuming. … Add to this a keen intelligence, even temper, boundless energy, and inexhaustible patience, it is clear that he would have gone far in any field." Scott was inducted into the Railroad Hall of Fame in 1992.


Burgess, George, and Miles C. Kennedy, Centennial History of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, The Pennsylvania Railroad Company, 1949.

Garraty, John A., and Jerome L. Sternstein, eds., Encyclopedia of American Biography, HarperCollins, 1996.

Ingham, John N., Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders: N-U, Greenwood Press, 1983.

Johnson, Rossiter, ed., The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans, The Biographical Society, 1904.

Kamm, Samuel Richey, The Civil War Career of Thomas A. Scott, University of Pennsylvania, 1940.

Lamar, Howard R., ed., The New Encyclopedia of the American West, Yale University Press, 1998.

Malone, Dumas, ed., Dictionary of American Biography, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1963.


Journal of Commerce, January 7, 1992. □