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Railroad Baron
Morton: How does it feel sitting behind that desk, Frank?
Frank: Almost like holding a gun... only much more powerful.

The owner/president/majority stockholder of a large and successful railroad. In the latter half of the 19th Century, owning a major railroad was a great way to get and stay rich. Not just because of fees for carrying passengers and freight, but land grants giving the railroads large easements on either side of the tracks, which could then be rented out or sold.

In fiction, the Railroad Baron will be dressed ostentatiously, with a gold pocket watch, fat cigars and other expensive accessories. They didn't call it the Gilded Age for nothing. Most of them will be middle-aged or older, and an expansive paunch is common. (One theory is that this stylized image was a mirror of their enormous and overbearing economic presence. Another theory is that it's just that most of them were rather fat, in a time when most people were lean from expensive or inadequate food.)

Because Aristocrats Are Evil, even "honorary" ones, Railroad Barons will usually be treated as an antagonist in stories. They'll have a Screw the Rules, I Have Money! attitude, hire the Pinkerton Detective to deal with anyone who crosses them from Outlaw to union organizer, try to drive the Determined Homesteader off of his property so he can buy it up cheap, and arbitrarily change planned rail routes for maximum personal profit or to fulfill a vendetta. In short, an early type of Corrupt Corporate Executive.

Historically, they were expected to be generous with their money once they got it (and some of them actually were); but even the generous often used these methods to acquire the money that they later gave away.

About the only time you'll see a Railroad Baron being treated neutrally is in stories about the Transcontinental Railroad being joined up.

Compare Cattle Baron.

Examples

    open/close all folders 

    Film 
  • Sir Harry Percival in Cat Ballou (villain)
  • Morton in Once Upon a Time in the West (villain)
  • A Railroad Baron is seen briefly in The Wild Bunch and portrayed as worse (somehow) than the eponymous Bunch themselves.
  • McCabe in McCabe & Mrs. Miller is attacked by agents of a crooked railway baron's company after refusing to sell land to them.
  • Parodied quite humorously by Mel Brooks himself as the corrupt governor who stands to profit from directing the railroad through the town in "Blazing Saddles".
    • It was, in fact, done by State Attorney General Hedy Lamarr.
    That's Hedley!!
  • The Railroad Colonel (that's what the character is credited as) in the movie Rustlers Rhapsody.

    Literature 
  • Tom Garner in The Power and the Glory (tragic hero)
  • A Sherlock Holmes novel by Larry Millett had one of the big (real-life) railroad barons in Minnesota as Holmes's ally and, possibly, client.
  • Harvey Cheyne's father in Captains Courageous averts most of the stereotype. He is treated as an often ruthless man but a more or less sympathetic one.
  • Dagny Taggart of Atlas Shrugged is pretty much the inverse of every stereotype of the Railroad Baron. Her railroad's founder, Nathaniel Taggart, is the idealized version of the stereotypical Railroad Baron; Ayn Rand probably modeled him on James J. Hill.
    • Dagny's brother, James Taggart, almost fits this trope. However, due to his incompetence, Dagny (for the most part) runs the company, while he seeks political influence.
  • Augustus Melmotte, the villain of Anthony Trollope's novel The Way We Live Now. Appears to have been based in part on real life railway promoter George Hudson (see below).
  • While not literally a railroad baron, in the Discworld novel Going Postal, Reacher Gilt is definitely a clacks baron (clacks is like a telegraph) and very much dresses and acts the part.
  • Raising Steam: Harry King becomes the Disc's first Railroad Baron, much to his delight, as it allows him to leave a legacy other than his night soil business.

    Radio 
  • The second series of Bleak Expectations features Emmett Sternbeater, who dupes Pip into building an entire railway network to pursue Gently Benevolent.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Most of the railway owners in the Deadlands roleplaying setting are pure evil (one of them uses a zombie workforce, the other one uses evil witches as enforcers, the third one is a Mad Scientist, the fourth one is basically a Fu Manchu ripoff).
  • There are several non-combat games revolving around a group of players choosing either to compete or to co-operate in driving strategic railway lines across North America. effectively the players take the roles of rail speculators and can come put at the end as either very rich or very bankrupt.

    Video Games 
  • Becoming one is the goal of Railroad Tycoon. Some campaigns even have you play as one of the Real Life barons.
  • Thomas Magruder, from the video game Gun. Big Bad, but is only using his railroads to find an enormous gold deposit that would make him incredibly wealthy and powerful.
  • The Fat Controller of Thomas the Tank Engine.

    Real Life 
  • James J. Hill: Owned and directed the building of the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern. Earned the nickname "Empire Builder" which was applied to a GN passenger train. NP and GN also co-owned both the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and the Spokane, Portland & Seattle. The government wouldn't let him merge these 4 roads into a mega road until 1970.
  • Cornelius "The Commodore" Vanderbilt (so called because he also owned a vast steamboat network as well). This is also why the sports teams of Vanderbilt University (which is named after him; he provided the then-huge million-dollar endowment) are called the "Commodores."
  • Jay Gould
  • Diamond Jim Fisk
  • J. Pierpont Morgan, though better remembered for the banking house that still bears his name today, invested heavily in railroads, and did so much to reorganize and merge lines that the process became known as "Morganization." Morgan and Hill's Northern Securities railroad trust was the target of Theodore Roosevelt's first major antitrust lawsuit.
  • E. H. Harriman: Owned the Union Pacific and the Southern Pacific.
  • Up in Canada, they have William Cornelius Van Horne, for whom there's a bit of a Broken Base. Some see him as a voice of reason and restraint in the otherwise muddled CPR project (after earlier barons caused a bribery scandal with the drunken, womanizing prime minister) and for actually finishing the damn Canadian Pacific Railway; to others he's a villain for the CPR's treatment of immigrant workers (they had to spend most of their income on food and lodging at the worksite, and ridiculously dangerous tasks).
  • George Hudson is probably the best known example in British history. Starting life as a humble draper's assistant in York, he came to embody the 'Railway Mania' of the 19th century. At the height of his power and influence he lauded as the 'Railway King', was elected as Lord Mayor of York and MP for Sunderland, and was close friends with such luminaries as George Stephenson and the Duke of Wellington (Hudson's advice on railway investments made the latter a huge fortune). His somewhat iffy business practices (he relied heavily on bribery) led to his eventual disgrace and downfall, though he retained several influential friends who supported him in his final years. One of the models for the fictional Augustus Melmotte in The Way We Live Now; interestingly, author Anthony Trollope was an acquaintance of Hudson's nemesis George Leeman, who led the investigation into Hudson's dealings.
  • Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford (who founded Stanford University in memory of his deceased son) and Charles Crocker, the "Big Four" of the Central Pacific Railroad. They controlled California state politics in the late nineteenth century. For a few years in the early twentieth century, Huntington's son Henry controlled all the trolley lines in Los Angeles.
  • Henry Morrison Flagler, whose Florida East Coast Railway did a lot to establish Florida as a tourist destination and basically created the city of Miami.

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