century association biographical archive

Earliest Members of the Century Association

View all members

Samuel Rea

Vice President, Pennsylvania Railroad

Centurion, 1907–1929

Born 21 September 1855 in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania

Died 24 March 1929 in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania

Buried Church of the Redeemer Cemetery, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania

Proposed by William H. Boardman and William Barclay Parsons

Elected 7 December 1907 at age fifty-two

Century Memorial

In one or two respects, the Pennsylvania Railroad is an exception among American transportation enterprises. It has never been possible to say that any capitalist or group of capitalists owned it. Every one knew what was meant by the “Vanderbilt lines,” the “Gould roads,” or the “Harriman system.” But from the early sixties to the present day, no group or individual could ever assert that the Pennsylvania “belonged” to them. The second peculiar characteristic of the company was perhaps a consequence of the first. When a president of the Pennsylvania retired or died, the directors never examined the list of promising outside railroad managers with a view to selecting his successor. The rule was inexorable that he must be picked from the Pennsylvania. Scott, Roberts, Cassatt, McCrea successively rose from the ranks to supreme command, and Samuel Rea followed in 1913.

Rea, who had carried a rod and chain with the Pennsylvania’s surveying gangs in his fifteenth year and had worked in its freight offices at $50 a month, had certainly risen from the ranks. He was ambitious. Many exacting problems were in sight on the railway horizon of 1913, and Rea was confident of his own capacity to meet them; but it was destined that they should be solved by other men. Almost in the first year of his incumbency the European war broke out. When our own country entered the conflict, two-and-a-half years later, requisitions on American industry imposed a strain so prodigious that the country’s transportation facilities were visibly breaking down. The taking-over of all the railways by the government, their operation as a unit, the shifting of freight, locomotives and rolling stock from one line to another line of less resistance, became the only possible solution.

It soon grew evident, however, that the business built up by many companies through the labor of years was being scattered to competing lines. This process affected the different companies differently. The Pennsylvania’s Eastern and Western lines were split apart: its Western lines, the old-time “feeders” of the Eastern system, were linked with the rival New York Central. While steel products continued to move from Pittsburgh to the coast over Pennsylvania’s Eastern roadbed, the highly profitable traffic in grain and coal and general merchandise was diverted to the company’s competitors, who did their best to keep it. The right or wrong in this phase of war-time policies is still in controversy. The New York Central’s traffic moved on a level roadbed such as promoted speed and economy of transportation; the Pennsylvania had to traverse mountain ranges with high gradients. Therefore, so reasoned the Railway Administration, the Central was the normal route for urgently-needed foodstuffs shipped from Western farms, and the Pennsylvania the logical highway for hauling back unprofitable “empties.” Nevertheless, some of the decisions were admittedly high-handed, and, unhappily for the spirit in which the controversy was conducted, the government director of the Eastern region, dictating war-time traffic policies on both Pennsylvania and New York Central, was the President of the Central. When at last the war was over, the Pennsylvania seemed but a shadow of its former self. In 1921 its “ton-mileage,” the measure of a year’s achievement in transportation, was actually less than in 1911. In April of 1921, seven months after the property had been turned back to its owners, the dividend on Pennsylvania stock had to be cut to the lowest rate since its revenues were paralyzed by the famous Pittsburgh riots of 1877.

It was impossible that bitter resentment should not have been created; it is, indeed, not at all unlikely that the present alignment of the Eastern trunk lines in the “grouping controversy,” the moves of the Pennsylvania, after each successive new proposal, to checkmate the purposes of the New York Central, are an inheritance from Federal-operation days. Rea himself had come to feel, not only that circumstances had made his own railway career a failure, but that his company’s future had been ruined in the interests of competitors. This bitterness of spirit did not prevent the most vigorous efforts on his part to recover the Pennsylvania’s lost traffic and lost prestige. But recovery was slow and Rea’s own retirement from office, under the age-limit proviso, occurred when the company’s fortunes were only on the turn. He lived to see the Pennsylvania again in its old place of primacy among American railways, its net operating income raised from the $37,000,000 of 1921 to $117,000,000 in 1928. But his own career from 1917 to 1925 seemed little short of personal tragedy.

Alexander Dana Noyes
1930 Century Association Yearbook