The tycoons, also called barons, were the early pioneers of the railroad industry amassing or overseeing the construction of large Class I railroads through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These included names like James Hill, Jay and George Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Edward Harriman, Collis P. Huntington, and others. These businessmen, while visionaries who are often credited with helping to create the backbone of our national railroad network were also heavily criticized for being ruthless businessmen that disregarded public safety in the name of profits (this during a time before there were regulatory agencies in place). Whether that was true or not it was the perception and resulted in the railroad industry being heavily regulated throughout most of the 20th century.
One of the first, and best remembered of the rail barons was Cornelius Vanderbilt, also known as "Commodore." Vanderbilt, who not only never attended college but also never even finished public school (quitting at age 11) started out his career in the steamboat business in the 1820s, right around the time the railroad industry was taking off. His earliest years were spent working on his father's ferry in New York Harbor as a boy. After becoming quite successful as an adult in the industry he turned his attention to railroads, eventually taking control of the New York and Harlem Railroad in 1863. Vanderbilt had already established himself as a no-nonsense businessman who could be ruthless in getting what he wanted.
He oversaw significant growth of the NY&H and laid its future foundations as a world-class carrier. He immediately changed the railroad’s name to the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad when he merged the original New York Central with his own Hudson River Railroad. Later including the New York & Harlem as well, the NYC&HR now held a commanding presence in New York City and after gaining control of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern it reached Chicago on a northern route that was virtually flat (late known as the Water Level Route), in comparison to Pennsylvania Railroad’s main line through the Alleghenies. The NYC&HR would go on to become the legendary New York Central System.
Of course, Vanderbilt was not the only baron as there were many others such as Collis Huntington who was part of the "Big 4" that helped build the transcontinental Central Pacific Railroad, he also oversaw the growth of the Southern Pacific and Chesapeake & Ohio railroads; Edward Harriman who oversaw the early years of the Union Pacific and also controlled other systems like the Southern Pacific and Illinois Central; and James Hill who was the visionary behind the Great Northern, which spanned the northern states from Minnesota to Washington (his dream of merging the GN; Northern Pacific; Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; and Spokane, Portland & Seattle was finally realized in 1970).
Most of the barons we know so well today lived during the mid-19th century through the first or second decade of the 20th century. During their time they oversaw much of the growth of our national rail network, which consisted of just a few thousand miles in 1840 and exploded to more than 250,000 by 1916 (the peak year for mileage). Below is a timeline between those two dates:
1840: 2,808 Miles
1850: 9,021 Miles
1860: 30,000+ Miles
1870: 52,922 Miles
1880: 93,267 Miles
1890: 163,597 Miles
1900: 193,346 Miles
1916: 254,037 Miles
While celebrated for the accomplishments they achieved the general public at the time, and even to some extent today, looked at these businessmen as caring for nothing more than their ever-increasing profits (numerous newspaper articles and cartoons were published during the 19th century depicting the villainous nature of railroads and their presidents). In any event, to a greater extent this was true. Because there was no agency to oversee or regulate the railroad industry for much of the 19th century it flourished and earned massive profits. This was often at the public's expense since there was also no type of laws in affect to oversee the safe operations of passenger, or freight trains, and thus railroads had no incentive to put such measures in place. As a result many passengers and employees during this time were killed during derailments and collisions, which was not only due to a lack of laws and regulations but also because of the inferior technology available.
In any event, is it true that many of the tycoons truly were wretched folks who cared nothing about the general public's welfare aboard their railroads? Probably not, at least not intentionally for most of these individuals (in the case of James Hill he actually encouraged folks to settle near his railroads and even paid to move them there). It is simply that because there was no regulations in place they took advantage of the situation, earning as much money as they could in the process (because, in essence they had a monopoly on the country at the time being that nearly everything moved via rail). For more information about many of these barons please visit the links above, which also highlights a number of the famed presidents like the Baltimore & Ohio's Daniel Willard of the 20th century.
The creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), a result of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, and Safety Appliance Act of 1893 helped to finally bring regulation and oversight to the industry. However, it can likewise be argued that the pendulum was swung too far in the other direction as railroads were so heavily regulated during the 20th century that they were nearly all bankrupted by the 1970s. Without the railroads, and the well-known individuals which created them, it is probably safe to say that our country would not be the world leader that it is today and without them in the future there is little chance we, as a nation, could remain the power that we are. Yes, we may not have the most advanced high speed passenger rail system in the world (which, quite honestly is rather embarrassing) but we do have the most efficient and advanced freight system, which is marveled and emulated by other countries.