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Development of railroad played a pivotal role around Scottdale

| Wednesday, June 12, 2013, 7:30 p.m.

Most readers will recall that the Pennsylvania Railroad played a key role in the creation of Scottdale.

In fact, the town is named after that railway's president, Thomas A. Scott.

They also probably are aware that a steel mill near Pittsburgh is known as the J. Edgar Thomson Steel Works. Consequently, the assumption is that Thomson was a steel industry magnate. But Thomson actually had been a highly successful early railroad figure. He was instrumental, moreover, in making sure that Scott became associated with the Pennsylvania Railroad.

John Edgar Thomson was born Feb. 10, 1808, within Delaware County. Although his parents, John and Sarah, were devout Quakers, their son never was notably religious.

In order to create a separate identity from his father, therefore, he styled himself as “J. Edgar” throughout adulthood.

The elder Thomson was a civil engineer, as well as the primary designer of the Delaware & Chesapeake Canal. During his youth, J. Edgar worked closely with his father upon this project. By 1820, though, J. Edgar Thomson had become a state civil engineer for Pennsylvania.

Thomson's involvement with railroading commenced when he was assigned the task of designating a viable track route from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg. Meanwhile, the Camden & Amboy (New Jersey) Railroad had reached the Pennsylvania state boundary in September 1830. Three months later, Thomson was hired as that company's chief of the engineering division.

Two years later, Thomson undertook an extensive tour of Europe.

Amid his stay in Great Britain, he held a series of productive conversations with George Stephenson, the foremost international authority on railways. Thomson certainly became well-versed regarding British railroading practices. Upon returning to North America, Thomson moved to Georgia where he worked on a series of major trail projects during the next 15 years.

By 1848, Thomson had moved northward to resume working for the Pennsylvania Railroad, with headquarters in Philadelphia. As the chief corporate engineer, he was intent upon establishing a practical route between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.

He regarded the existing Allegheny Portage as too inadequate for the goal of traversing the Allegheny Mountains. Thomson emphasized to colleagues that the Pennsylvania had to compete equally with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

Both companies were expected to control the competing main routes in the Midwest. The long-standing commercial success of the Pennsylvania Railroad was dependent upon accomplishing this goal. In any case, Thomson became the Pennsylvania's corporate president in 1852.

Among the primary challenges facing the railroad was constructing a road capable of traveling through the winding mountains within the vicinity of Altoona. In collaboration with the superb civil engineer Jacob Schiff, he designed the celebrated Horseshoe Curve.

His double-track system also included a series of practical scaling grades to run smoothly over the various mountains. Consequently, in February 1854, regular rail service had commenced between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. In order to achieve his next major objective, moreover, Thomson took up residence in Pittsburgh.

With the outbreak of the financial “Panic of 1857,” the United States experienced a major economic depression. But Thomson discerned that this unfortunate situation afforded him some business opportunities.

During the past 30 years, the Pennsylvania state government had undertaken a series of “internal improvements,” notably the construction of local canals and rail lines. With the acute need for revenue, therefore, state officials decided to sell those public works projects.

Thomson, especially, was intent upon securing a track route connecting Philadelphia and Lancaster. For $8 million, therefore, he purchased 278 miles of canals, as well as 117 miles of rail track. Furthermore, he procured a substantial amount of rail equipment and real property containing valuable mineral deposits.

During this period, two of Thomson's closest subordinates were Thomas A. Scott and Andrew Carnegie, the future steel tycoon.

Meanwhile, Thomson's primary business aim was the extension of the Pennsylvania Railroad's transportation reach far beyond Pittsburgh. He already had acquired controlling interests over various struggling railroads operating within both western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.

He proceeded to consolidate those lines into the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago Railway, the first of a series of subsidiaries extending the Pennsylvania's rail network to the Mississippi River.

Amidst the Civil War, he quietly acquired more than 500 track miles in both New York and New Jersey. Thomson was seeking to provide the Pennsylvania Railroad with a direct terminal in New York City Harbor.

He was intent that his rail system be a chief freight hauler for overseas commerce. He also wanted his company's chief hub, Philadelphia, to regain its former status as the nation's paramount Atlantic seaport. Accordingly, in partnership with William Aspenwall, in June 1870, Thomson founded the American Steamship Company.

Thomson apparently often was not a congenial man in his personal dealings. He was notably taciturn, as well as abrupt in manner. Furthermore, he could be ruthless while engaging in business matters.

None of his contemporaries, though, questioned his basic personal honesty. He successfully oversaw the Pennsylvania Railroad through several major national economic downturns. And from the time he assumed the company presidency, in 1852, the Pennsylvania Railroad annually achieved dividends for the corporate stockholders. He also managed to retain the consistent loyalty of his managerial subordinates.

Although Thomson had been a bachelor most of his life, he married Lavinia Frances South in 1867. The birth of a daughter brought him much delight amidst his final years.

Unfortunately, though, the years of incessant, stressful labor undermined his once robust health. With his retirement, in November 1873, he was succeeded as the Pennsylvania Railroad's president by Thomas A. Scott.

Thomson passed away at his mansion on May 27, 1874. Andrew Carnegie subsequently named his first major industrial plant in Braddock, the J. Edgar Thomson Steel Works, in honor of his old boss. Significantly, this mill is among the few steel works still operating within western Pennsylvania.

Exploring History appears in The Independent-Observer periodically. The author holds a doctorate in history from the University of South Carolina.

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