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An essay by Morley Roberts

Railroad Wars

Title:     Railroad Wars
Author: Morley Roberts [More Titles by Roberts]

Everybody nowadays has some notion of the way the railroad business of America is carried on. They know that there are too many roads for the traffic, and that, to prevent a general ruin, the managers combine, pay the profits into the hands of a receiver, and receive again from him a certain agreed proportion of the whole sum. But this method of "pooling" the profits is sometimes unsatisfactory. One line will think it gets too little if the fluctuations of trade send more freight over its rails than it formerly had, and will demand a greater proportion of the gross profits. This demand may be granted, but if not, the agreement may break down, and the discontented railroad go to work on the old principle of every man for himself. This very likely inaugurates a war of tariffs; fares and freights go down slowly or quickly according as the quarrel is open or secret, until one or other of the parties gives in to avoid complete ruin.

While I was living in San Francisco, early in 1886, there was an open war between all the lines west of Chicago and Kansas City, including the Union Pacific, the Northern Pacific, the Denver and Rio Grande, the Southern Pacific, and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. Fares to New York and the Atlantic seaboard came tumbling down by $10 at a fall. The usual rate from New York to San Francisco is $72. It fell to 60, to 50, 40, 30, to 25, to 22. All the railroad offices had great placards outside inviting everyone to go East at once, for they would never get such a chance again. Some of the notices were very odd. One began with "Blood, blood, blood!" and another had a hand holding a bowie knife, with the legend "Here we cut deep!" And, as I have said, they did cut deep, for at the end one might go to New York for about $18. Now this $18 went in a lump to the railroad east of Chicago. Consequently the passengers were carried over 2000 miles for nothing. Frequently during two days men were booked to Chicago or Kansas City from San Francisco or Los Angeles for $1. Two thousand miles for 4s. 2d!

Such a state of things could not last, but while it did it gave rise to much speculation. Many men bought up tickets, good for some time, believing the bottom prices had been reached when the fall had by no means ended. It was odd to stand outside an office and listen to the crowd. Some would hold on and say, "I'll chance it till to-morrow." Then I have seen an agent come outside and say, "Gentlemen, now's your time to go east and visit your families. Don't delay. Of course fares may fall further, but I think not. Don't be too greedy. You are not likely to get the chance again of going home for twenty-five dollars." They did fall further, but recovered again on the rumour of negotiations beginning between the competing lines. When that was contradicted they fell again. Suddenly, without any warning, they jumped up to normal rates, and left many of the outside public--the bears, so to speak--lamenting that they had not taken the opportunity so eloquently pointed out by the oratorical agents on the sidewalk by the offices. For the placards and pictures came down at once, and to an inquirer who asked, "What can you do New York at?" the answer was, "Why, sir, the usual rate--$72."

To an Englishman who has not travelled in the States and become familiar with the methods employed there by business men, it seems odd that anyone should chaffer with the clerk at a ticket-office. What would an English booking-clerk say if he were asked about the fare to some place, and, on replying L1, received the rejoinder, "I'll give you 15s?" He would think the man a joker of a very feeble description. Yet this may often be done in Western America. Even when there is no "war" the agents have a certain margin to veer and haul on in their commission, and will often knock off a little sooner than allow a rival line to get the passenger. Besides, it frequently happens that there may be a secret cutting of rates without an open war. My own experience, when I came down from Sonoma County in the autumn of 1886, meaning to return to England, will give a very good notion of this, and of the way to get a cheap ticket when there is the trouble among the companies which may end in a war, or be patched up by arbitration.

It had been said in the papers for some time that rate-cutting was going on in San Francisco, and this made me hurry down not to lose the opportunity. The morning after my arrival I walked into an office in Kearney Street and said briefly, "What are you doing to New York?" The clerk said in a business way, "Seventy-two dollars." I laughed a little and looked at him straight without speaking. "Hum," said he; "well, you can go for sixty-five." "Thanks," I said, "it isn't enough." I walked out, and though he called me back I would not return. Then I went to Mr P., a well-known agent for railroads and steamships. To use a vulgarism, he did not open his mouth so wide as the other, but at once offered me a through ticket to Liverpool for $72. I thanked him and said I would call again. Deducting the $12 for a steerage passage, his railroad fare was $60. So far I had knocked off 12. And now it began to rain very hard. It did not cease all day. And my day's work was only begun, for it was only ten o'clock then. I went from one office to another, quoting one's rates here and another's there, and slowly I dropped the fare to fifty. I had to explain to some of these men that I was not a fool, and that I knew what I was doing; that if they took me for a "tenderfoot," or a "sucker," they were mistaken. My explanations always had an effect, and down the fare tumbled. At last, about three o'clock, I had got things to a very fine point, and was working two rival offices which stood side by side near the Palace Hotel. One man--Mr A., whom I knew by name, who indeed knew a friend of mine--offered me $45. I shook my head, and going next door, Mr V. made it a dollar less. It took me half-an-hour to reduce that again to forty-three; but at last Mr A., who was as much interested in this little game as if I were a big stake at poker, went suddenly down to $41. I offered to toss him whether it should be $40 or $42. He accepted, and I won the toss. As he made out the ticket, he remarked, almost sadly, "We don't make anything out of this." But he cheered up, and added, "Well, the others don't either." So I got my ticket; and it was over one of the best lines. By that day's work, though I got wet through, covered with mud, and very tired, I saved $32.

When on board the east-bound train next day I got talking with some dozen men who were going east with me, and, naturally enough, we asked each other what fares we had paid, I found they varied greatly, but the average was about $60. One little Jew, a tobacconist, was very proud that his only cost $48. He almost wept when I told him that I beat him by eight whole dollars. Moreover, I reached New York twenty hours before him, for when we parted at Chicago we made arrangements to meet in New York, and then I found that he had been obliged to round into Canada, and lie over all one night, while I had come direct on the Chicago and Alton with only two hours' wait at Lima; so on the whole I did not think I did very badly.

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Morley Roberts's essay: Railroad Wars