Study the history of philanthropy long enough and you will stumble on all sorts of once well-known Edwardian financiers who are remembered only because they left their fortunes to charity. It’s likely, for instance, that no one today would care about who Russell Sage was had not his widow, Olivia Sage, used his fortune to create the Russell Sage Foundation.
So it comes as a surprise that a fairly well-known name left a $70-$100 million estate in 1909 to charity and very few people have heard of him. Such is the case with railroad tycoon E. H. Harriman, whose life University of Rhode Island historian Maury Klein superbly describes in The Life and Times of E. H. Harriman. It’s the first biography of Harriman since the authorized biography was published in 1922, and includes information from family archives that were recently unearthed after several decades.
Edward Henry Harriman (who preferred “Henry” or “E. H.”) has been overshadowed in history by his son, Averell Harriman, the diplomat and governor of New York. “It would have amused Harriman,” Klein writes, “and pleased him immensely, that a later generation came to regard his eldest son as the most celebrated Harriman, with a father who made a lot of money in railroads or something.”
But in his time Harriman was quite famous as one of America’s leading railway tycoons, whose efforts to expand and consolidate the Union Pacific Railroad earned him the enmity of the trustbusters of the day. He was also a philanthropist, who made one major and several minor contributions to charity.
E. H. Harriman was born in 1848, the fourth child of an impoverished but ambitious clergyman. He set out to escape from poverty by entering business, and in 1862, began his working career as an office boy for a New York stock broker. A few months later, he was promoted to the position of “pad shover,” the lowly factotum who, in the days before tickers and automated orders, ran from firm to firm with orders to buy and sell shares.
Harriman had started his career at an auspicious moment. The telegraph and the intercity express service were transforming the New York exchanges from local to national institutions, and there were plenty of opportunities for young men of ambition to advance.
Harriman’s rise was to be especially rapid. In 1870 he launched his own firm, Harriman and Co. By relying on family connections, he was able to get a great deal of business from the older families of New York-Livingston, Fish, Van Buren, Cutting. This business enabled the firm to survive two major depressions that rocked the American economy in the 1870s. (The firm, now known as Brown Brothers Harriman, remains one of America’s leading private banking houses.)
As he rose, Harriman wanted to find a way to help poor boys like himself to advance. In 1875, he founded the Tompkins Square Boys Club. There were no dues and little structure; the club was a place where boys could “talk, sing, play games, or be entertained by some modest show.” Nor was there explicit moral or spiritual instruction; Harriman knew that youths would best be reached if there was a safe place where they could have fun-and avoid the temptations of the street.
Harriman would spend a good deal of time and money building the Tompkins Square Boys Club. He not only spent many of his evenings there, but on at least one occasion served as the club’s bouncer, tossing young miscreants out into the street. Harriman’s “involvement went far beyond writing a check or performing brief, dutiful ministrations to the unwashed,” Klein writes. “Something in the experience with the East Side boys touched Henry deeply and directly. He knew their nature from his own rowdy boyhood. . .. He knew what their lives lacked because he himself felt a similar lack.”
In the 1880s, Harriman entered the railroad business. He spent more than a decade reorganizing the Illinois Central Railroad, making it more productive and efficient. In 1898, he decided to take over the Union Pacific Railroad, a move that ensured that he would become one of America’s industrial titans. But before he launched his takeover attempt, Harriman put his career on hold and spent the summer of 1898 in what was to prove to be his major philanthropic enterprise, the Harriman Alaska Expedition.
“Of all the mysteries of Harriman’s life,” Klein writes, “none is more elusive than the origins of the Alaskan expedition.” What seems to have happened was that Harriman discovered that the large yacht he had built for a summer cruise to Alaska had plenty of room, and he decided to bring along nature writers John Muir and John Burroughs, and some scientists, to make the trip more memorable. The trip was also a way for Harriman to outdo his competitors in philanthropy; Rockefeller and Carnegie may have funded scientists, but only Harriman had pretensions of being a scientist.
Even in 1898, “Alaskan cruises had already become a fad among the upper classes.” But Harriman’s voyage went past the familiar waters of eastern Alaska for the uncharted shores of southwest Alaska, the Aleutians, and Siberia. There were plenty of chances for Harriman to lead his men over unexplored territory; the expedition’s most important discovery is still known as the Harriman Glacier. The expedition returned with enough new plants, minerals, and Alaskan artifacts to fill a dozen fat volumes. And for the first time Harriman became a nationally-recognized figure.
Harriman spent the last decade of his life engaged in furious competition with other railroads. His wealth provided entree to the highest levels of New York society, where the rich engaged in mighty displays of conspicuous consumption. But when Harriman’s daughter, Mary, was about to debut in 1901, “she balked at what she deemed a wasteful expense.” Gathering together 79 other debutantes, Mary Harriman then founded the Junior League, to ensure that more of the wealth-creators’ money would be spent fighting poverty.
When E. H. Harriman died in 1909, he left his widow, Mary, with a large estate. Like most of the other great philanthropists of her (and our) day, Mary Harriman was hounded by people demanding money. Indeed, one of her first grants was to William Allen of the New York Bureau of Municipal Research to catalog all the requests from grantseekers asking for aid. Allen found that, between 1910-11, Mrs. Harriman received requests for $267 million in aid, at a time when grants nationwide totaled $270 million. “Please do sit down and write a check for one million dollars,” one woman wrote Mrs. Harriman. “It will look so small that you will see you’ll never miss the sum and make me famous and fortunate.”
Mary Harriman decided to protect herself by being inconspicuous. She did not create a foundation until 1925; it appears to have spent itself out. “Like her husband, she would not give to a cause until she was personally interested in it,” notes her biographer, Persia Campbell. “She felt that funds left for a foundation would either be set aside for specific purposes, which would soon be outdated, or given on terms so general that they might be used for causes in which the donor did not believe.”
Thus, E. H. Harriman’s fortune was spent on many small causes, each one personally selected by Mary Harriman. Only two of these programs survived Mrs. Harriman’s death in 1932. She continued to buy land around her Catskills estate, which eventually became Harriman State Park.
She also left money to endow the Harriman Safety Medal, given annually to the railroad that does the most to improve its safety. This was a cause in which E. H. Harriman passionately believed; he spent millions of dollars straightening track and installing automatic signals to ensure that the Union Pacific Railroad would have fewer accidents. Because the Harriman Medal is only awarded to railroads, it remains a prize well-known only to the railroad industry, obscure, like Harriman himself, to the general public.
Martin Morse Wooster is a contributing editor to Philanthropy and is the author of The Foundation Builders: Brief Biographies of Twelve Great Philanthropists, recently published by the Philanthropy Roundtable.