Follow TV Tropes


Railroad Baron

Go To

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. This trope is largely a North American phenomenon even though Great Britain and continental Europe saw their share of private railroads built with domestic capital. On the continent, many private lines were nationalized for national defense reasons or built by the government in the first place. In Latin America, capital for railroad ventures often came from the same North American (and sometimes European) rail barons as those in North America. They could - and did - do with governments of some "Banana Republics" as they pleased, so great was their power.

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, closely associated with the term robber baron. If his villainy is particularly exaggerated, this archetype may also overlap with Dastardly Whiplash.

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. What did them in eventually was the mass availability of the "horseless carriage" and billions upon billions of government subsidies for it.

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.


    open/close all folders 

    Comic Books 

    Fan Works 

    Film — Live Action 
  • 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!!
  • Sir Harry Percival in Cat Ballou (villain)
  • Lionel Barrymore in Duel in the Sun is an early example.
  • The Big Bad in The Lone Ranger (2013) is both aspiring to become one in order to amass (even greater) wealth and power, and using his current wealth and power to become a railroad baron (he starts the film as a board member of a railroad company with a sideline in illicit silver mining and extortion, and stages a boardroom coup to gain sole control of the company and a majority cut of the profits).
  • McCabe in McCabe & Mrs. Miller is attacked by agents of a crooked railway baron's company after refusing to sell land to them.
  • Morton in Once Upon a Time in the West (villain), though The Dragon Frank is portrayed as far worse, murdering a family that Morton only wants intimidated. He is portrayed with at least some sympathy, given that he's a Visionary Villain who views his transcontinental railroad as a worthy cause, and ends up dying before he sees it completed.
  • Tom Garner in The Power and the Glory (1933) is an even earlier example. His thirst for power eventually ruins his marriage and his life.
  • The Railroad Colonel (that's what the character is credited as) in the movie Rustlers' Rhapsody.
  • A Railroad Baron is seen briefly in The Wild Bunch and portrayed as worse (somehow) than the eponymous Bunch themselves.

  • The god of railroads briefly shows up in this form in American Gods before the final battle. He doesn't look too healthy, as it's stated earlier that the railroads used to have their own gods who are now forgotten what with the advent of gods of the cars and airplanes.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Discworld:
    • While not literally a railroad baron, in the novel Going Postal, Reacher Gilt is definitely a clacks baron (clacks is like a telegraph) and very much dresses and acts the part. He's also a Corrupt Corporate Executive who plans to bankrupt the system, make off with the money, and leave his employees destitute. Then Moist von Lipwig happens to him.
    • 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. Unusually for the trope, he's a benevolent Honest Corporate Executive — by Ankh-Morpork standards, at least: he might be a gangster of sorts, but he does right by his employees and takes care to give fair compensation to the engineer who designs the rail system.
  • The Fat Controller in The Railway Series (Sir Topham Hatt in Thomas & Friends) fits the stereotypical appearance as a stout man in a top-hat but, while stern and businesslike, is also sympathetic to his engines and certainly not evil. In addition, Sodor's railways are probably nationalised (in the two books written before the nationalisation of UK railways, he was the Fat Director), so he doesn't have the financial motives of most rail barons.
  • 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.
  • 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).

    Live Action TV 

  • The second series of Bleak Expectations features Emmett Sternbeater, who dupes Pip into building an entire railway network to pursue Gently Benevolent. Along the way, numerous idyllic English villages, orphanages and butterfly sanctuaries are levelled, and dozens of workers killed, all in the name of "progress".

    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).
  • Eberron: Kwanti d'Orien is a literal Baron and Patriarch of House Orien, which owns and operates the setting's Magitek Lightning Rail. Far from being Idle Rich, he's very active in the House and conscientious about keeping the Rail running smoothly.
  • This trope is the reason why some of the properties in Monopoly are railroads.
  • 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.
  • All the players in 1830: The Game of Railroads and Robber Barons, a railroad operations and share trading board game first published by Avalon Hill in 1986 and based on the previous 1829. It heavily inspired Railroad Tycoon.

    Video Games 
  • Baron Rorgueil in Aviary Attorney.
  • 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.
  • Becoming one is the goal of Railroad Tycoon. Some campaigns even have you play as one of the Real Life barons.
  • The entire point of Railway Empire is playing as one and competing against others. Players make money transporting customers and mail between cities and raw materials from places such as farms and mines to cities where they are processed into manufactured goods. As your train company grows you have the opportunity to branch into buying factories and raw material production sites. The available characters are:
    • Roger Smith, the most conventional example of the trope.
    • Jonathan Johnson, A former army general.
    • Don Lorenzo, a mob boss.
    • Doc Murphy, a mad scientist.
    • Beatrix von Pomp, a posh lady.
    • Tricia Jones, a country girl.
  • Leviticus Cornwall, one of the main antagonists from Red Dead Redemption 2.

    Web Originals 

    Western Animation 
  • Cheryl/Carol in Archer is an heiress of the Tunt family, an expy of the Vanderbilts (see below) in owning a large railway system, a mansion and opulent hotel in Midtown Manhattan, and "several Cornelii".
  • The Fairly Oddparents: In "Dad Back in Time", Timmy learns that once of his ancestors, Ebenezer Turner, was offered a chance of becoming a railroad baron but turned it down because he thought trains were just a fad. As a result, Ebenezer became the town crier and spent his life crying over the lost opportunity and Orville Buxaplenty became the town's local railroad baron. Timmy wishes Ebenezer had accepted the offer and it creates a timeline where Timmy's parents carelessly destroyed the town with their trains.
  • Saban's Around the World in 80 Dreams: One episode features a railroad baron trying to destroy the Wright Brothers' invention because he fears planes will make the railroad business obsolete.
  • A Wing Dings blackout on Dastardly & Muttley in Their Flying Machines posits that Dick Dastardly owns a railroad. As he and Zilly sit atop one of the cars, Zilly asks about an upcoming bridge.
    Dastardly: That's my own priva—(take and beat) Bridge?? What bridge? (they both slam onto the bridge and drop to the ground) Oh...that bridge.(grins sheepishly)

    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." The guy never thought much of his trains however, and he kept referring to them derisively as "them things that go on land".
  • William A. Clark, Senator from Montana, whose railroad industry endeavors were crucial in laying the foundations for Las Vegas. In fact, the county that Las Vegas is the seat of - Clark County - was named after him.
  • Jay Gould manipulated stock shares to keep his Erie Railroad from being bought out from under him, almost single-handedly crashed the US economy in 1869 in an attempt to corner the gold market, and boasted that he could "hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half" when workers of another of his railroads went on strike. No surprise that he was considered the most hated man in America.
  • Diamond Jim Fisk, a business partner of Gould.
  • 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, all while denying Collis P. Huntington's nephew Henry a chance at his uncle Collis' railroad. He also developed a standard locomotive design practice and passenger coach designs for both railroads, dubbed "Harrimans" by Rail Enthusiasts of both the UP and SP.
  • Up in Canada, major railroads like the Canadian Pacific Railway and later the Canadian National Railway started out as nation-building public works projects. The CPR, in particular, was explicitly meant as a way to link the west coast province of British Columbia with the other provinces and to ferry settlers out onto the Prairies as a way to strengthen Canadian and British claims to the land against American expansion. The CPR was also fraught with problems, everything from bribery scandals that caused the downfall of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald's government to Louis Riel's resistances to Canadian expansion onto the Prairies, which were violently repressed in 1885, to difficulty in getting private capital, which nearly caused then-baron George Stephen to suffer a Freak Out, and the brutal treatment of immigrant, particularly Chinese, workers. CPR barons like William Cornelius Van Horne and Macdonald (who was a baron in a sense, since his government was directly involved in the CPR) have decidedly become Broken Bases in some circles today for these reasons.
  • 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 nephew Henry controlled all the trolley lines in Los Angeles after E.H. Harriman (mentioned above) virtually stole the Southern Pacific from under Henry at his uncle Collis' will-reading.
  • Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a British 19th century railroad tycoon who had a few rather unique ideas such as the use of an extra-broad gauge for his lines which caused the "gauge wars" his enterprise ultimately lost. Many marvels of Victorian engineering were built on his orders.
  • 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.
  • In the 21st century even though High Speed Rail is expanding rapidly, most of it is done by government entities. The one private railroad entrepreneur that even remotely fits the bill is serial entrepreneur Richard Branson whose "Virgin" brand operates trains in Florida (on Flagler's old line) and Great Britain with grandiose plans for expansion