Historical Markers
J. Edgar Thomson Historical Marker
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J. Edgar Thomson

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Junction SR 2016 (Baltimore Pike) and SR 2027 (Thomson Ave.) just NE of Swarthmore

Dedication Date:
June 2, 1991

Behind the Marker

"Noticeable traits of Mr. Thomson's character were reticence and taciturnity ... Actions spoke for him, not words."

                 - Henry Graham Ashmead, History of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, 1884.

"I know Thomson intimately. He is a queer fish."

                         - Samuel Mifflin, assistant engineer to J. Edgar Thomson

Portrait of J. Edgar Thomson.
J. Edgar Thomson.
The first chief engineer of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), John Edgar Thomson served as its third president, from 1847 to his death in 1874. As president, he engineered the expansion that transformed the single-track Harrisburg-to-Pittsburgh intrastate carrier into the nation's wealthiest and most influential railroad, capitalized at more than $400 million. Covetous of a transcontinental railroad under his control, Thomson also personally invested in railroads extending into the South, the Southwest, and the Pacific Coast. At his death, his personal net value was perhaps $5 million, but he controlled some $750 million to $1 billion worth of businesses of all types.

Born on February 10, 1808, to Quaker parents in Delaware County, Thomson was trained as a surveyor and assisted with laying out the route of the state's Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad when he was only nineteen years old. Five years later, he became chief engineer of the Georgia Railroad, and supervised train operations when the line opened. In 1847, he returned to Pennsylvania to become chief engineer of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

In his first three months on the job, Thomson surveyed thirty miles of the planned Harrisburg-to-Pittsburgh route and awarded contracts to meet a July 30 legislative deadline that would keep the rival Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) out of Pennsylvania. The B&O had already obtained a charter to build a Baltimore-to-Pittsburgh line, but by the narrowest of margins, PRR fulfilled its obligation to place fifteen miles of line under contract at either end of the road. Thomson's actions helped negate B&O's charter and blocked B&O from entering the lucrative Pittsburgh market until 1871.

Edgar Thomson Steel Works, Near Braddock's, 1891, by William Rau.
The Edgar Thomson Steel Works, by William Rau, Braddock, PA, 1891.
In spite of his achievements, Thomson clashed with his conservative Philadelphia merchant superiors and opposed their plan for completion of the road. Strapped for cash, PRR was relying on the state's inefficient Allegheny Portage Railroad as a stopgap means of connecting the completed eastern and western segments. Thomson advocated borrowing funds to forge the final, costly middle link over the Alleghenies via marker Altoona Horseshoe Curve, and the Allegheny Tunnel. Elected company president in 1852, Thomson won the battle. After the railroad opened on February 15, 1854, Thomson gained control of connecting lines to Philadelphia, bought out the state's outmoded canal-and-railroad system in 1857 for $7.5 million, and promptly dismantled it, recycling the railroad segments that were helpful to PRR's expansion.

By the outbreak of the Civil War, Thomson wielded tremendous political power in Pennsylvania, a power that would grow under his successors. In the years that followed, he was able to win the governmental support the PRR needed for further growth through his good relationship with Senator markerSimon Cameron, the Republican boss of Pennsylvania. In 1861, Cameron helped Thomson obtain a law that exempted railroads from taxes. After the Civil War, the state legislature gave the PRR several charters that allowed it to engage in almost any sort of business, including the ownership of stock in out-of-state companies. To achieve this goal, Thomson acquired control of small, weak regional railroads by leasing them, then forged them into a unified system that stretched westward through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

Thomson used the same technique to lease connecting carriers that extended PRR's reach eastward to New York, south to Baltimore and Washington, and north to the Great Lakes at Buffalo and Erie. Thomson gave another charter, that of the South Improvement Company, to John D. Rockefeller, which enabled him to set up Standard Oil. Through special rates granted Rockefeller, including drawbacks on fees paid by his competitors, the PRR and Standard Oil grew together and acquired great notoriety for dominating the Pennsylvania legislature.

Great Central PA RR Route of the West advertisement
Great Central PA RR Route of the West advertisement
By the time Thomson died in 1874, the PRR had reached all but one of the major cities that it served at the peak of its size, power, and importance from 1900 to 1950. Its lines stretched from New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington in the east to Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Louisville, St. Louis, and Chicago. PRR finally reached Detroit in 1922.

An ambitious businessman, Thomson also became deeply involved in plans to create a transcontinental railroad system. He invested in and advised railroad systems across the country. In many of these enterprises, he co-invested with other giants of the railroad world, including markerAndrew Carnegie, markerBaldwin Locomotive founder Matthias Baldwin, and his own PRR protege' and eventual successor as PRR president, Thomas A. Scott. Thomson also invested in coal lands and mining enterprises, oil companies, iron and steel plants, and construction contractors. Carnegie honored Thomson by naming his first steel mill, located at Braddock, Pa., after him.

Before he died, Thomson made provisions in his will to establish an orphanage for daughters of railroaders killed in the performance of duty. Opened in 1882, it functioned until 1935, when it dropped institutional care and converted to a foundation that provided financial support only. It continues in that role today.
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