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Thomas A. Scott

Thomas Alexander Scott (December 28, 1823 – May 21, 1881) was an American businessperson, railroad executive, and industrialist. He was the fourth president of the Pennsylvania Railroad (1874-1880), later the largest publicly traded corporation in the world. He became the U.S. Assistant Secretary of War in 1861, during the American Civil War, playing a major role in using railroads in the war effort. He had a role in negotiating the Compromise of 1877, which settled the disputed presidential election of 1876.


Scott was born in 1823 in Peters Township near Fort Loudoun, in Franklin County, Pennsylvania.


Scott joined the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1850 as a station agent, and by 1858 was general superintendent. Scott took a special interest in mentoring aspiring railroad employees such as Andrew Carnegie. Scott was born in Fort Loudoun, Pennsylvania. In 1860, Scott became the first Vice President of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The 1846 charter issued by the state of Pennsylvania to the Pennsylvania Railroad was an effort to diffuse power within the company, by giving executive authority to a committee responsible to stockholders, and not individuals. By the 1870s however, power had been centralized in the hands of the officers directed by J. Edgar Thomson and Scott.[1]

Historians have explained the successful partnership of Thomas Scott and J. Edgar Thomson by the melding of their opposite personality traits: Thomson was the engineer, cool, deliberate, and introverted; Scott was the financier, daring, versatile, and a publicity-seeker.[2] In addition, there were their common experiences and values, agreement on the importance of financial success, the financial stability of the Pennsylvania Railroad throughout their partnership, and J. Edgar Thomson's paternalism.[2] J. Edgar Thomson was the President of the Pennsylvania Railroad from 1852 until his death in 1874.

In 1860, Scott became the first Vice President of the Pennsylvania Railroad. From 1871 to 1872, he was briefly the president of the Union Pacific Railroad, then the first transcontinental railroad owner. He was the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad from 1874, upon the death of his partner Thomson, until 1880. The Pennsylvania Railroad expanded from a company of railway lines within Pennsylvania through the 1840s and 1850s, to a transportation empire from the 1860s onwards.[1]

Scott was notoriously secretive about his business dealings, conducting most of his business in private letters, and instructing his business partners to destroy them after they were read.[1]

After the Civil War, Scott was heavily involved in investments in the fast-growing trans-Mississippi River route into Texas, with long-term plans for a southern transcontinental railway line connecting the Southern states and California. However, the 1872 Crédit Mobilier scandal made Congress unwilling to grant railroad companies land grants in the west. The financial Panic of 1873 and subsequent economic depression made it impossible to finance Scott’s southern transcontinental railroad plans.

Civil War

At the outbreak of the American Civil War, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin called on Scott for his extensive knowledge of the rail and transportation systems of the state.[3] Scott received a staff commission as a colonel, and in August 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Scott as Assistant Secretary of War.[3] The next year, he helped organize the Loyal War Governors' Conference in Altoona, Pennsylvania.[3]

Later on, Scott took on the task of equipping a substantial military force for the Union war effort.[3] He assumed supervision of government railroads and other transportation lines, and made the movement of supplies and troops more efficient and effective for the war effort on behalf of the Union. In one instance, he engineered the movement of 25,000 troops in 24 hours from Nashville to Chattanooga, turning the tide of battle once more to a Union victory.[3]

Scott also recommended President Lincoln travel covertly by rail to avoid Confederate spies and assassins.[3]

Reconstruction era

During the American Reconstruction in the aftermath of the Civil War, the Southern states needed their economy and infrastructure restored, and the Northern-based railroads competed to acquire routes and construct rail lines in the South. Federal assistance was sought by both special interest groups, but the Crédit Mobilier of America scandal made this difficult in 1872. Congress became unwilling to grant railroad companies land grants in the Southwestern United States.

Scott made a proposal that came to be called the "Scott Plan" by which largely Democratic Southern politicians would give their votes in Congress and state legislatures for federal government subsidies to various infrastructure improvements, including in particular the Texas and Pacific Railway, a scheme headed by Scott. Scott employed the expertise of Grenville Dodge in buying the support of newspaper editors as well as various politicians in order to build public support for the subsidies. The Scott Plan became part of the Compromise of 1877, an informal and unwritten deal which settled the disputed Presidential election of 1876. However, it was never implemented and railroad construction remained at a low level after 1873.[4]

Burning of Pennsylvania Railroad and Union Depot, in the 1877 Pittsburgh railroad strike.

Great Railroad Strike of 1877

Despite Scott’s best efforts to make the company more efficient, Pennsylvania Railroad continued to lose money through the 1870s. The oil magnate John D. Rockefeller had shifted much of his transportation for Standard Oil to his pipelines, which had devastated the rail industry. Scott still controlled the railway to Pittsburgh, where the pipelines of Rockefeller did not extend, and was unable to come to terms with Rockefeller on transportation costs. In response, Rockefeller closed his plants in Pittsburgh, forcing Scott to enact aggressive pay deductions.[5] This led to the Pittsburgh railroad riots, the epicenter of the worst violence during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. Scott, often considered one of the first robber barons of the Gilded Age, suggested that the strikers should be given "a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread." [6]

Later life and legacy

Scott never recovered from the strike, as the railroad based industry of the blooming United States gave way to one of petroleum, a pattern that would later be repeated when Scott's protege Andrew Carnegie, returned to challenge the Rockefeller monopoly. Just as the economy of railroads gave way to that of oil, oil in turn would face the emerging dominance of steel.[5] Scott's crucial business partner, J. Edgar Thomson, died in 1874. Scott himself suffered a stroke in 1878, limiting his ability to work.[2] He died on 21 May 1881, and was buried at Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia.[7]

University of Pennsylvania Endowments

Scott and his widow made a variety of endowments in his name at the University of Pennsylvania, including:[8]

  • Thomas A. Scott Fellowship in Hygiene
  • Thomas A. Scott Professorship of Mathematics
  • University Hospital: endowed beds for patients with chronic diseases.

See also

  • South Improvement Company


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Ward, James A. "Power and Accountability on the Pennsylvania Railroad, 1846-1878," Business History Review, Spring 1975, Vol. 49 Issue 1, pp 37–59
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Ward, James A. "J. Edgar Thomson And Thomas A. Scott: A Symbiotic Partnership?," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, January 1976, Vol. 100 Issue 1, pp 37–65
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Kamm, Samuel Richey, "The Civil War Career of Thomas A. Scott," University of Pennsylvania, 1940.
  4. Woodward, C. Vann. Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction, (1956)
  5. 5.0 5.1 "The Men Who Built America". The History Channel. 2012. 
  6. Ingham, John N., Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders: N-U, Greenwood Press, 1983.
  7. Thomas A. Scott at Find a Grave
  8. Nitzsche, George Erasmus (1918). "University of Pennsylvania: Its History, Traditions, Buildings and Memorials; Also a Brief Guide to Philadelphia". Philadelphia: International Printing Company. p. 155. OCLC 65488397. 

External links

Business positions
Preceded by
Oliver Ames, Jr.
President of Union Pacific Railroad
Succeeded by
Horace F. Clark
Preceded by
J. Edgar Thomson
President of Pennsylvania Railroad
1874 – 1880
Succeeded by
George Brooke Roberts

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