Take a Ride on the Reading With Franklin Gowen

A Eulogy by Benjamin Bannan, publisher of the Miner’s Journal

On December 13, 1889, Franklin Benjamin Gowen will die in his room at the Wormley Hotel, in Washington D.C., with a single bullet hole in his head. His eulogists will refer to him as the former president of the Reading Railroad, attorney, philanthropist and patron of the arts. They will say he was an eloquent speaker, writer and poet, who translated Goethe and wrote limericks. That he was fifty-three at the time of his death and survived by his wife, Esther.

Some will jump to the conclusion that Molly Maguires killed him in retaliation for the twenty of their own who will be executed in 1876 and 1877. Normally I would agree with them. It was Franklin Benjamin Gowen who hired Allan Pinkerton to rid Coal Country of these cowardly terrorists and Mr. Gowen’s eloquence as the prosecuting attorney that got them convicted. Yet Robert Linden, Mr. Pinkerton’s top detective on the Molly Case, will investigate his death and find no evidence of foul play. In the end, his death will be ruled a suicide. A shop keeper will testify that he sold Mr. Gowen the nickel-plated Smith and Wesson that was found by his body, in room number fifty-seven of the Wormley Hotel.

Franklin Gowen’s Childhood

The obituaries will say that Mr. Gowen inherited the intellectual and moral characteristics of his father, James, a pious Protestant merchant from Northern Ireland. Sobriety and piety, of course, form the foundation of good society and Franklin was alike his father in this way. But James was also a staunch Democrat, a character flaw for which I have little patience. Their home in Mount Airy was the only one in the neighborhood without crepe after President Lincoln was assassinated. And James Gowen went to his grave insisting that there was nothing to those nasty rumors about James Buchanan, with whom he was close. Well, I knew Aunt Nancy, too. I can assure you those rumors were entirely true, though such behavior coming from a Democrat is hardly surprising.

James Gowen did teach his son important Protestant values, like hard work and devotion to duty, even when it called for the risk of life and fortune. And Franklin Gowen lived up to these values every day of his life, even during the War, when he responsibly paid the required fees to have somebody else serve for him on the field of battle.

Gowen senior taught his children modesty by hanging two self-portraits in their home, and none of his wife or ten children. He taught them thrift by denying them all pocket change. And he demonstrated his love and compassion by spending hours each day with his prize Durham cows. He dedicated numerous pages of his diary to describing a scourge that afflicted his herd. And then he wrote the following afterthought: “Oh, and Daughter Ellen was married today.”

At the age of nine, James sent young Franklin to Beck’s Boys Academy, because that’s where the children of steel magnates and plantation owners went. But the other kids teased him and called him lace curtain. Undaunted, Franklin tried out for the school’s cricket team and was relegated to second string. Then he tried the chess club and was eliminated in the first round. So, at the age of thirteen, he began an apprenticeship with a coal merchant named Baumgardner, who treated him kindly, but with kid gloves. Consequently, his first foray into mining was a disaster. His mines lost so much money, he had to sell at a significant loss.

Franklin Gowen’s Short and Fruitless Political Career

None of these early setbacks stymied him. Like his father, Franklin Gowen had resilience. He knew he was a winner and simply changed tact and went to law school. He became a brilliant young lawyer, the best in the land. And in 1862, I nominated him for District Attorney, promoting his cause in my paper, despite his affiliation with the Democratic Party. But once in office, he put his party above the well-being of the good people of Schuylkill County. Rather than risk alienating his Irish constituents, he let them run roughshod over the safety and stability of the region, refusing to prosecute a single Molly Maguire for murder, rape or arson during the war, or any of their unforgivable attacks on our men in uniform. Thus, it was with great relief to me that after only two years in office he resigned to take a position with the Reading.

His Rise within the Reading Railroad

Take a Ride on the Reading, Chance card, from Monopoly game.

His competitors described him as sanguine, arrogant and brash, traits that no doubt contributed to his early successes as counsel for the Reading. He promptly took on the great Pennsylvania Railroad, the largest and most powerful corporation in the world, and won. Within a few short years he became president of the Reading, at age thirty-three, and went after all the small independent railroads, too, while also taking on Vanderbilt and Rockefeller.

He was a firm and enthusiastic believer in the immense value of our anthracite deposits and, during his tenure as president of the Reading, he secured the most valuable mineral estates in the world. It is true that he made most these purchases with bonds. During the first five years of his presidency, he increased the Reading’s debt by $65 million, nearly double the value of the railroad. But he was a man of firm convictions, who utterly abhorred dishonesty in every form. So, he kept the debt concealed and paid out huge dividends to keep the shareholders blissfully unaware that the house of cards teetered on a foundation of falling profits and fraud.

Franklin Gowen Performs for the Legislature

It is also true that the Reading’s charter prohibited it from owning any coal lands. So, he created a shell company and convinced the legislature that it was in the public’s best interest.

“It costs just twelve cents to ship a baby alligator from Florida to Schuylkill County using the United States Postal Service, that paragon of efficiency, but eight dollars by train because the South has no consolidated lines. So, you see, Gentlemen, permitting the Reading to purchase coal lands will allow us to consolidate extraction and transport, increase efficiency, stabilize markets, and bring down prices for ALL.”

At first, the legislature didn’t buy it. They voted 17-15 against the Reading. So, Mr. Gowen took some of the legislators out to lunch. He wined and dined them and some didn’t make it back for the afternoon session. This time, they voted 15-14 in the Reading’s favor.

There were many who said that his tongue was a smooth as burnished gold. That he could talk a brooding hen from her nest with his wonderful gift of speech and get her to hand over her eggs, while clucking merrily at his jokes. When brought before the Pennsylvania Legislature for manipulating transport rates in order to weaken the miners’ union, he just smiled bashfully and tugged on his lapels:

Can this seriously be considered a conspiracy, gentlemen? Just look at these union men, in their fancy suits. They make me ashamed of my own rags. If our rates were really so outrageous, wouldn’t I have a finer suit of clothes than they?”

Franklin Gowen Defeats The Molly Maguires

By 1875, Franklin Gowen had completely stabilized coal prices and supplies. He had weathered three major strikes and effectively defeated the miners’ union. But his greatest accomplishment was to come in 1876, when, after more than three years of patient preparation, he led the successful prosecution of that secret society of murderers, known as the Molly Maguires. If Mr. Gowen had never achieved anything else, this one performance would have entitled him to the gratitude of mankind.

Mr. Gowen had a long and storied relationship with Allan Pinkerton, whose spies collected the evidence used to convict the Molly Maguires. Mr. Gowen paid for Pinkerton guards to protect Judge Pershing throughout the trials. He had Pinkerton spies within the miners’ union and, later, within the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, too. When he found out which engineers had joined the brotherhood, he generously offered to let them keep their jobs if they quit the union. And when they refused, and struck on Easter Sunday, 1877, Mr. Gowen had his superintendents drive the locomotives in their top hats and tails.

Mr. Gowen’s Waterloo

But then, in July, 1877, the trainmen of Reading, Pennsylvania, revolted against the authorities. They took over the town and halted all transport. Ten of them died when the militias tried to restore order. Dozens were arrested. Mr. Gowen led the prosecution, like he did with the Molly Maguires, again using intelligence from Mr. Pinkerton. Only this time, he failed to secure a single conviction. It was as if his gilded tongue had tarnished and his cloak of invincibility was in tatters. Subordinates began to publicly accuse him of corruption. His British creditors grew tired of the growing debt. Bituminous coal was on the rise. It seemed no one had any more need for Mr. Gowen’s anthracite, or his roads.

The Reading went bankrupt. His creditors wanted him out. So, he appealed to William Vanderbilt, who purchased a majority share of Reading stock and got him reelected president. He formed a syndicate with Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Frick, and Rockefeller, and tried to convert the Reading into a trunk line, to compete with the Pennsylvania. But in 1884 the Reading went bankrupt again. Forced into early retirement, he spent his remaining years practicing law and writing limericks, until December 12, 1889, when he walked in Wolford’s Hardware Store, in Washington, D.C., and purchased the nickel-plated Smith and Wesson that he used to kill himself the following day.