Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

Herbert H. Vreeland

Some time ago New York learned with interest and some astonishment that the head of its greatest transportation system, Herbert H. Vreeland, had received from several of his associates, as individuals, a "valentine" present of $100,000, in recognition of his superb management of their properties. Many New Yorkers then learned, for the first time, what railroad experts throughout the country had long known, that the transportation of a million people a day in New York's busy streets, without serious friction or public annoyance, is not a matter of chance, but is the result of perhaps the most perfect traffic organization ever created, at the head of which is a man, quiet, forceful, able, with the ability of a great general, —a master, and, at the same time a friend of men, —himself one for whom, in the judgment of his associates, almost any career is possible.

Thirty years ago Mr. Vreeland, then a lad thirteen years old, was, to 'Use his own humorous, reminiscent phrase, "h'isting ice" on the Hudson River, one of a gang of eighteen or twenty men and boys filling the ice carts for retail city delivery. A picture just brought to light shows him among the force lined up to be photographed, as a tall, loosely built, hatchet-faced lad in working garb, with a fragment of a smile on his face, as if he could appreciate the contrast of the boy of that day with the man of the future.

How do these things happen? What was the divine spark in this boy's brain and heart that should lift him out of the crowd of the commonplace to the position of responsibility and influence in the world which he now occupies? If my readers could have been present at the interview kindly granted by Mr. Vreeland and could have heard him recalling his early life and its many struggles and disappointments with a smile that was often near a tear, they would have gone away feeling that nothing is impossible to him who dares, and, above all else, who works, and they would have derived inspiration far greater than can possibly be given in these written words.


The desire to work was hereditary with Mr. Vreeland. His father incurred the displeasure of his own father and family, who were people of large means, by refusing to lead a life of gentlemanly idleness, and deciding, instead, to enter the ministry. The boy Herbert was the youngest son in a family of several children, each of whom in turn helped to support the mother and younger members after the death of the father. At ten years of age, in his passionate desire to do something, he drove a grocery wagon in Jersey City, to which his family had moved from his birthplace in Glen, New York, and, as before said, at thirteen years of age, he was hard at work in an ice business, of which an elder brother was superintendent.

"I first entered the railroad business in 1875," said Mr. Vreeland, "shoveling gravel on one of the Long Island Railroad Company's night construction trains. Though this position was certainly humble enough, it was a great thing to me then to feel myself a railroad man, with all that that term implied; and, when, after a few months' trial, I was given the job of inspecting ties and roadbed at a dollar a day, I felt that I was well on the road to the presidency.

"One day the superintendent asked the boss if he could give him a reliable man to replace a switchman who had just made a blunder leading to a collision, and had been discharged. The reply was: 'Well, I've got a man here named Vreeland, who will do exactly what you tell him to.' They called me up, and, after a few short, sharp questions from the train-master, I went down to the dreary and desolate marsh near Bushwick, Long Island, and took charge of a switch. For a few days I had to camp out near that switch, in any way that might happen, but finally the officers made up their minds that they could afford me the luxury of a two-by-four flag house with a stove in it, and I settled down for more railroading."


"The Bushwick station was not far away, and one of the company's division headquarters was there, I soon made the acquaintance of all the officials around that station, and got into their good graces by offering to help them out in their clerical work at any and all times when I was off duty. It was a godsend to them, and exactly what I wanted, for I had determined to get into the inside of the railroad business from bottom to top. Many's the time I have worked till eleven or twelve o'clock at night in that little station, figuring out train receipts and expenses, engine cost and duty, and freight and passenger statistics of all kinds; and, as a result of this work, I quickly acquired a grasp of railroad details in all stages, which few managers possess, for, in one way and another, I got into and through every branch of the business.

"My Bushwick switch was a temporary one, put in for construction purposes only, and, after some months' use, was discontinued, and I was discharged. This did not suit me at all, and I went to one of the officials of the road and told him that I wanted to remain with the Long Island Railroad Company in any capacity whatsoever, and would be obliged to him if he would give me a job. He said, at first, that he hadn't a thing for me to do, but finally added, as if he was ashamed to suggest it, that, if I had a mind to go down on another division and sweep out and dust cars, I might do it. I instantly accepted, and thereby learned the details of another important railroad department.

"Pretty soon they made me brakeman on an early morning train to Hempstead, and then I found that I was worth to the world, after two years of railroad training, just forty dollars a month, plus a perquisite or two obtained from running a card-table department in the smoking-cars. I remember that I paid eighteen dollars of my munificent salary for board and lodging, sent twenty dollars home for the support of my mother and sister, and had two dollars a month and the aforesaid perquisites left for 'luxuries.' "


"It was at about this time, thus early in my career, that I first came to be known as 'President Vreeland.' An old codger upon the railroad, in talking to me one day, said, in a bantering way: 'Well, I suppose you think your fortune is made, now you have become a brakeman, but let me tell you what will happen. You will be a brakeman about four or five years, and then they will make you a conductor, at about one hundred dollars a month, and there you will stick all your life, if you don't get discharged.' I responded, rather angrily, 'Do you suppose I am going to be satisfied with remaining a conductor? I mean to be president of a railroad.' 'Ho, ho, ho!' laughed the man. He told the story around, and many a time thereafter the boys slyly placed the word 'President' before my name on official instructions and packages sent to me.

"A conductor on one of the regular trains quarreled one morning with the superintendent, and was discharged. I was sent for and told to take out that train. This was jumping me over the heads of many of the older brakemen, and, as a consequence, all the brakemen on that train quit. Others were secured, however, and I ran the train regularly for a good many months.

"Then came an accident one day, for which the engineer and I were jointly responsible. We admitted our responsibility, and were discharged. I went again to the superintendent, however, and, upon a strong plea to be retained in the service, he sent me back to the ranks among the brakemen. I had no complaint to make, but accepted the consequence of my mistake.

"Soon after this, the control of the road passed into other hands. Many were discharged, and I was daily expecting my own 'blue envelope.' One day I was detailed to act as brakeman on a special which was to convey the president and directors of the road, with invited guests, on a trip over the lines. By that time I had learned the Long Island Railroad in all its branches pretty well, and, in the course of the trip, was called upon to answer a great many questions. The next day I received word that the superintendent wanted to see me. My heart sank within me, for summons of this kind were ominous in those days, but I duly presented myself at the office and was asked, 'Are you the goodlooking brakeman who was on the special yesterday who shows his teeth when he smiles?' I modestly replied that I was certainly on the special yesterday, and I may possibly have partly confirmed the rest of the identification by a smile, for the superintendent, without further questioning, said: 'The president wants to see you upstairs.'

"I went up, and in due time was shown into the presence of the great man, who eyed me closely for a minute or two, and then asked me abruptly what I was doing. I told him I was braking Number Seventeen. He said: 'Take this letter to your superintendent. It contains a request that he relieve you from duty, and put somebody else in your place. After he has done so, come back here.' "


"All this I did, and, on my return to the president, he said, 'Take this letter at once to Admiral Peyron, of the French fleet (then lying in the harbor on a visit of courtesy to this country), and this to General Hancock, on Governor's Island. They contain invitations to each to dine with me tomorrow night at home in Garden City with their staffs. Get their answers, and, if they are "yes," return at once to New York, charter a steamer, call for them tomorrow afternoon, land them at Long Island City, arrange for a special train from Long Island City to Garden City, take them there, and return them after the banquet. I leave everything in your hands. Good day.'

"I suppose this might be considered a rather large job for a common brakeman, but I managed to get through with it without disgracing myself, and apparently to the satisfaction of all concerned. For some time thereafter, I was the president's special emissary on similar matters connected with the general conduct of the business, and while I did not, perhaps, learn so very much about railroading proper, was put in positions where I learned to take responsibility and came to have confidence in myself.

"The control of the Long Island Railroad again changed hands, and I was again 'let out,' this time for good, so far as that particular road was concerned, — except that, within the last two or three years, I have renewed my acquaintance with it through being commissioned by a banking syndicate in New York City to make an expert examination of its plant and equipment as a preliminary to reorganization.

"This was in 1881, or about that time, and I soon secured a position as conductor on the New York and Northern Railroad, a little line running from One Hundred and Fifty-Fifth Street, New York City, to Yonkers. Not to go into tedious detail regarding my experience there, I may say in brief that in course of time, I practically 'ran the road.' After some years, it changed hands (a thing which railways, particularly small ones, often do, and always to the great discomposure of the employees), and the new owners, including William C. Whitney, Daniel S. Lamont, Captain R. Somers Hayes and others, went over the road one day on a special train to visit the property. As I have said, I was then practically running the road, owing to the fact that the man who held the position as general manager was not a railroad man and relied upon me to handle all details, but my actual position was only that of train-master. I accompanied the party, and knowing the road thoroughly, not only physically but also statistically, was able to answer all the questions which they raised. This was the first time I had met Mr. Whitney, and I judge that I made a somewhat favorable impression upon him, for not long after that I was created general manager of the road."


"A few months later, I received this telegram : — "'H. H. Vreeland. " 'Meet me at Broadway and Seventh Avenue office at two o'clock to-day. " 'William C. Whitney.'

"I had to take a special engine to do this, but arrived at two o'clock at the office of the Houston Street, West Street and Pavonia Ferry Railroad Company, which I then knew, in an indistinct sort of way, owned a small horse railway in the heart of New York. After finding that Mr. Whitney was out at lunch, I kicked my heels for a few minutes outside the gate, and then inquired of a man who was seated inside in an exceedingly comfortable chair, when Mr. Whitney and his party were expected, saying, also, that my name was Vreeland, and I had an appointment at two. He replied : 'Oh, are you Mr. Vreeland? Well, here is a letter for you. Mr. Whitney expected to be here at two o'clock, but is a little late.' I took my letter and sat down again outside, thinking that it might possibly contain an appointment for another hour. It was, however, an appointment of quite a different character. It read as follows :

" 'Mr. H. H. Vreeland. " 'Dear Sir :—At a meeting of the stockholders of the Houston Street, West Street and Pavonia Ferry Railroad Company, held this day, you were unanimously elected a director of the company. " 'At a subsequent meeting of the directors, you were unanimously elected president and general manager, your duties to commence immediately. " 'Yours truly, C. E. Warren, Secretary.'

"By the time I had recovered from my surprise at learning that I was no longer a steam-railroad, but a street-railroad man, Mr. Whitney and other directors came in, and, after spending about five minutes in introductions, they took up their hats and left, saying, simply, 'Well, Vreeland, you are president; now run the road.' I then set out to learn what kind of a toy railway it was that had come into my charge." !


Mr. Vreeland was asked the secret of successfully managing a street-railway system of this sort. "High-priced men," he unhesitatingly replied. ''High-priced men, and one-man power in all departments. Ten-thousand-dollar-a-year men are what I want, —one of these rather ' than five two-thousand-dollar-a-year men."

"I began at the bottom and worked up. I think that is always the way for a young man to do, as soon as he has decided upon his career. I was fitted for the railroad business, and it didn't take me long to decide just what I wanted to be. I think much of my progress was due to my early beginning. I think an early beginning means a great deal in after life.

"I have always been glad that I chose the business I did. I have never had any reason to regret having done so. Of course, when I was very young, I had discontented moments, like almost every other youth, but I overcame them, and stayed with the railroad. I believe that everyone should overcome those passing fancies, instead of yielding to them. Too many young fellows, just starting out, go from one thing to another, never satisfied, and consequently never making any progress. I think the faculty for 'sticking' is one of the most valuable a young man can have. When an employer hires a man, he likes to feel that he won't be wasting his time in teaching him the business. He likes to feel that the man will remain with him, and be a real help, instead of leaving at the first opportunity."

The rest of the history is well known to the people of New York, and to experts in street railroading throughout the country. The "Whitney syndicate," so-called, was then in possession of a few only out of some twenty or more street railway properties in New York City, the Broadway line, however, being one of these, and by far the most valuable. With the immense financial resources of Messrs. Whitney, Widener, Elkins, and their associates, nearly all the other properties were added to the original lines owned by the syndicate, and with the magnificent organizing and executive ability of Mr. Vreeland, there has been built up in New York a street railway system which, while including less than two hundred and fifty miles of track, is actually carrying more than one-half as many passengers each year as are being carried by all the steam railroads of the United States together.

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