The same year that George Browne graduated law school, the Eastern Railroad was chartered in Massachusetts, capitalized with just $1,300.000. That was barely enough to lay a single line of tracks eight miles north from Boston to the beach hamlet of Revere, then 3 miles further to Lynn, then Salem, Marblhead, Newburyport and finally all the way to Portland, Maine. The Eastern line carried 75, 000 weekly working class commuters at fifty cents for a ticket to Lynn, a dollar to Portland. But it was so underfunded that from the beginning it struggled with shortages of equipment. and personnel.
One of the conductors would later describe the job as “...down one day and up the next, and rest the third, and brake by hand the whole way as...(the) cars were not fitted with the air brake” The Westinghouse air brake was invented shortly after the Civil War, but the Eastern did not trust it anymore than they trusted the 30 year old telegraph. The management avoided these “unnecessary” expenses, and despite its reputation for shoddiness in service and equipment, the Eastern was always able pay annual dividends to its stockholders of between 6 and 8%. It was a business model that seemed to work, at least until July of 1855 when President and Treasurer, Mr. William Tuckerman, was forced to admit that he had lost $281,000 (equivalent to $64 million today) while gambling to make corporate ends meet. (Sound familar?).
The hard nosed Mr. John Howe replaced Tukerman as President, and new blood was brought onto the board as well - including George Browne. Sixty-five of the firm's 354 employees were laid off, and the remaining workers scrambled to keep 26 trains running every day. For the time being, dividends were forgotten. In 1858 Mr. Howe stepped down and George Browne became President, at a salary of $5,000 a year (equivalent to over a $1 million today) .
After eight years of rigorous penny pinching President Browne had returned the yearly corporate dividends to 8%. According to an official company history, the Eastern's 29 locomotives, 48 yellow passenger cars (fewer than they had owned in 1858) and 13 baggage cars, were not considered “worn out until (they) had been rebuilt from one to three times” despite assurances in the annual reports that the equipment was “...equal of any first class railroad in New England”
George Browne, who signed those annual reports, even managed to pick up a cheap Confederate locomotive which had been captured by Union troops. The Eastern's maintenance chief complained this bargain was so prone to breakdowns, he refereed to it as “The Rebel”. Even after the war the 28 trains scheduled to run on the Eastern line daily still did not have “air brakes”, nor did the company use the telegraph to communicate between stations. But the 55 tired locomotives, 98 worn out passenger cars and 27 baggage cars owned by the Eastern Railroad were simply not enough to keep the system running smoothly. Delays and breakdowns were daily events,. and passenger complaints fell on deaf ears because the company was listening to the stockholders, not the customers. The Eastern was the only line servicing the fishing villages along the coast, turning them into suburbs of Boston but also making them captive customers. The stock rose to $125 a share.
Finally, in the spring of 1871, in an attempt to deal with the endemic over-stretched company, President Browne authorized doubling the shares available – increasing the working capital for the road to eight million dollars. The goal was to buy more locomotives and cars, but no one was so impolite as to point out that this was just the sort of “gamble” which had gotten poor Mr. Tuckerman into such trouble. But it was already too late.
The problem came to a head on a sweltering Saturday, August 26th, 1871. Because of the summer weekend traffic, the single track line was again overloaded. The schedule called for 152 trains this day, but the passenger load forced the overworked staff at the Eastern's Boston terminal to send out 192. They spent the day desperately jamming passengers into hastily turned around cars and dispatching trains as quickly as they could. The schedule was in tatters, the customers were grumbling about the even worse than usual service, and express trains were slipped in between scheduled ones whenever possible. Just about 8:30, as the exhausting day was finally drawing to a close, a misty fog settled in off Revere Beach, the first truly public beach in America. A local from Everett pulled into the tiny station at Revere, running 20 minutes late. And while the passengers were still edging past each other through the open doors, the rear car was suddenly illuminated by the headlight of an oncoming express, bound for Sargus at thirty miles an hour. The Sargus engineer slammed on the locomotive’s brakes, but inertial drove the following cars onward.
The collision, it would be later judged, occurred at well under 20 miles an hour. A survivor in the fatal rear car told the New York Times, “Suddenly I...saw the crowd of passengers rushing over the seats and through the aisle, and the locomotive coming like fury after them.” The cowcatcher on the front of the engine split the wooden passenger car like a can opener. Yellow painted wood was instantly converted to kindling, which the kerosene lamps illuminating the car set aflame. The engine's smokestack snapped off, along with its steam valves. Victims, struggling to catch their breath, sucked scalding air into their lungs.
Reported the Newport, Rhode Island Daily News, “The shrieks and groans of the wounded and scalded, their frantic calls for help and their wild ejaculations caused by a frenzy of pain formed a continuation of sounds such as no mortal ear desired to hear a second time...Some were pinned with splinters, some had arms and legs broken, while other were mangled beyond recognition. Many, in fact the majority of the dead, were apparently free from bruises, but the peeling skin and deathly pallor which overspread the flesh told plainly that steam and scalding water had been frightful and effective agents of death.”
Of the 75 people jammed into the last passenger car, 29 died instantly or over the next several days. Along both trains, 57 more were injured, and many more emotionally maimed for the rest of their lives. It was far from the worst rail accident in American history - 101 dead in Nashville, Tennessee in 1918 - but it was the seminal event in rail safety, thanks to Charles Frances Adams – grandson of John Quincy Adams – and director of the Massachusetts Board of Railroad Commissioners.
Adams' investigation discovered that the company had a regular policy of issuing schedule changes at the last minute, and verbally. It was a system which almost seemed designed to cause confusion, delays and accidents - and it had repeatedly caused all three. And the Commission's final report explained the failure in terms even a businessman like George Browne might understand; “A very large proportion of the rolling stock of the Eastern railroad was rendered unavailable...when it was the most needed, because trains were standing still at points of passing, waiting for other trains which were out of time...to the equal loss and inconvenience of the public and the corporation.”
Adam's report, and two coroners' juries, blamed the conductor and engineer of the express for the accident. That was as standard as citing “pilot error” in an airline crash. But Adam's report went further. It dwelt on the management of the Eastern, and it named in particular George Browne, who had directed the Eastern Railroad for fourteen years. The public agreed. Said a politician, “There is no accident in this case...only the greed of the Eastern Railroad Company”. Six months later, on February 5, 1872, George Browne resigned. His replacement invested in telegraph lines, and Westinghouse air brakes, and electric signals to warn engineers of trains ahead of them. All these improvements (and settling the civil lawsuits) cost the Eastern $510,600 (the equivalent to $90 million today). No dividends were paid in 1872, and the stock value dropped to $51 a share. In retrospect the cost of safety seemed cheap. To an ideologue, this was proof that unrestricted capitalism worked. But ideology failed to consider the moral cost of the the 29 dead and the many more scared survivors.
To escape the public outrage, George Browne left the country, living in Europe for a year. But he never altered in his views or his willingness to make them known. He even wrote letters to the London Times, correcting British politicians in their thinking. And when he came home to Boston he became a consultant for other corporations, always an advocate for the wealthy against what he termed “the vicious caprices of the populace”. In 1881 he moved to Washington, D.C., and lobbied for railroads and his vision of capitalism. He died there on April 25, 1895, at the age of 73.
By then the Eastern Railroad had been gobbled up by its competitor, The Boston and Maine. That is the nature of capitalism - its strength and its sin – at its core, it is cannibalism.