The Railroad Tycoon of Rittenhouse Square

Thomas Alexander Scott Mansion, 1830 Rittenhouse Square from King’s Views of Philadelphia, 1902 (PhillyHistory.org)

“It is difficult for Americans today to imagine the grandeur of the elite life-style of a Rittenhouse Square at the end of the nineteenth century,” wrote historian Dennis Clark. “The class culture of such neighborhoods created what amounted to a fairyland of elegance and display protected by Victorian codes of civility and discrimination. These enclaves of privilege combined architectural eclecticism with passionate embellishment, lavish furnishings, and an adoration of English upper-class family etiquette. Flamboyant architects like Frank Furness and Theophilus Chandler designed edifices for an almost hysterical display of wealth.” Illustrations of these “wildly adorned shrines to aggressive vanity and the obsessive flaunting of riches” were published proudly in King’s Views of Philadelphia of 1902.

“At no other time in the city’s history, before or since,” wrote sociologist Digby Baltzell. “have so many wealthy and fashionable families lived so near one another.” Here was a neighborhood built by great industrial-era fortunes made in banking, investments, dental tools, pharmaceuticals, giant knitting mills, big sugar, and, of course, the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Perhaps the most opulent and most egregious of these houses, at the southeast corner of 19th and Rittenhouse, was Frank Furness’ 52-room design of 1875 for Thomas A. Scott. This “quintessential railroad man of his generation,” described by a New York newspaper editor as “the Pennsylvania Napoleon,” who came across as “ambitious to take possession of the republic under a nine hundred and ninety-nine-year lease.”

As great-great-granddaughter Janny Scott recently recounted, Thomas Scott transformed “what had merely been a Philadelphia-to-Pittsburgh carrier into a six-thousand-mile system of railroads stretching from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes.” The influence of his corporation “eventually extended as far as New Orleans, Colorado, Arizona and Mexico.” Scott and his predecessor, J. Edgar Thomson, controlled “not only the biggest freight carrier in the world but the most profitable corporation in North America.”

And, largely due to one infamous quotation, Scott would become “one of the most consistently and thoroughly vilified business executives in the 19th century.”

This notorious quotation, uttered during what is known as the great railroad strike of 1877, is considered “the beginning of the age of industrial and class warfare in the United States.” Janny Scott explains in her book The Beneficiary: Fortune, Misfortune, and the Story of My Father: “Four years into the longest recession in American history, and in response to new wage cuts and work rules, train crews in Maryland and West Virginia walked off the job. Then a strike broke out in Pittsburgh, where railroad workers blockaded the yards. People with other grievances against the railroad joined the protest. So did factory and mill workers and others whom the recession had left homeless and unemployed. After the National Guard troops were called in, members of the crowd attacked them. Troops fired back, killing at least ten people and wounding many more. Protesters looted gun shops, seizing weapons. Someone lit a freight car on fire, and the blaze spread; other cars, filled with coke and oil, burst into flames. Roundhouses, an engine house, a machine shop burned. Troops killed more rioters. After three days, one hundred twenty-six locomotives and sixteen hundred freight and passenger cars had been destroyed. The railroad estimated the damage to its property at two million dollars. Ever since that time, Thomas Scott, then in his third year as the railroad’s president, had been quoted as having suggested the rioters be given “a rifle diet for a few days, and see how they like that bread.”

Little did it seem to matter that at least one historian has found “the most thorough contemporaneous accounts of the riot . . . makes no mention of any such statement,” Thomas Scott’s reputation as a ruthless railroad tycoon had long been seared into public memory.

[Sources: Dennis Clark, “Ramcat and Rittenhouse Square,” in William W. Cutler, III and Howard Gillette, Jr. The Divided Metropolis: Social and Spatial Dimensions of Philadelphia, 1800-1975 (Westport: Greenwood Press); Digby Baltzell,  Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class (The Free Press, 1958); Janny Scott, The Beneficiary: Fortune, Misfortune, and the Story of My Father (Riverhead Books, 2019).]

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