How Alexander J. Cassatt Began his Career


How Alexander J. Cassatt Began his Career


How Alexander J. Cassatt Began his Career


In this encouraging article the young Canadian journalist traces out the course of action adopted by the President of the Pennsylvania Railroad in his young days, showing on what foundation he has built his career. He points out that Cassatt early learned the lesson of making others attend to details, while he studied out the big problems.

IN 1864 there was living at Renovo, Pennsylvania, a young man of twenty-five who had for a year been resident engineer in charge of the middle division of the Philadel phia & Erie. Now a division superintendency in the early sixties was no tremendous matter. But it was a position of considerable importance; and the young man had shown himself entirely capable of making good in it.

Yet it was not exactly ability which distinguished him. It was rather what an automobilist would describe as ease in gearing and smoothness of running and control. Doubled work did not appear to have the power to tire him nor any unexpected stress to get him excited. In upbringing he was thoroughbred; but he had seemingly all the phlegm of the backcounty Pennsylvania Dutch.

It puzzled his fellows as greatly as it attracted the admiration of his business superiors. And one night the resident engineer in charge of the neighboring division asked him about it.

The young fellow had nothing to make a mystery of. In fact he rather wanted to talk about it.

For he believed he had arrived at what many men do not arrive at in fifty years of blinking and pottering—an underlying philosophy of work.

It was no matter of putting in twelve, or fourteen, or sixteen hours a day. He had red blood in him, and he counted that day lost when he did

not get time for a little out-of-door sport. Nor was it any matter of “toiling upward in the night.” He believed in spending his evenings in the company of people worth talking to, or of a book worth reading. Like all of us he had no desire to be a mill horse, or a human tread mill. He wanted to do big things in life, yet to get some natural pleasure out of existence as he went along. His business 1 work-philosophy” had an originality all its own It was, briefly, to let the other fellow do the work!

“Why, it’s like this,” he said: “It struck me a long time ago that most men allow their time to be eaten up by details and routine labor that they might better have turned over to their assistants after the first six months. Well, for the last year or two, I’ve been trying the experiment of confining myself to learning how a thing ought to be done—and tEen seeing that somebody else does it that way. I’m beginning to believe that by spending about one hour a week looking for the right sort of men, I’ll soon be able to cut my routine grind down to nothing at all”

His friend laughed. “That certainly looks very pleasant. But how do you put in your time ?”

“Why, I feel that it’s a lot more profitable for all concerned for. me to put it in learning new things, and trying to get the machinery running more smoothly, and keeping myself ready for all emergencies. And there’s always enough of them?”

“Well, but about this learning part of it,9’ the other still argued. ‘ ‘ How does anybody know what he ought to learn ?”

“Oh, once you want to know, you can generally find out. And then you can always get your lessons by watching the big fellows. I’ve been thinking, too,” he went on, “that if a man did make up his mind to manage his work according to some kind of system, he ought to* be able to stop a lot earlier than most people do now—instead of at sixty-five or seventy, why not at forty or fortyfive, say ? Of course though,” he added modestly, “you might call this all theorizing of mine.”

It was all theorizing—but it is theory that builds bridges. And for 1864, it was a sort of theorizing which was sufficiently uncommon. “Not allowing one’s time to be eaten up by details,”—“learning new things,”—“trying to get the machinery running more smoothly,”— “keeping oneself ready for emergencies,”—and “watching the big fellows,”—those are matters which promise to be worth looking into more fully.

We have of late fallen into the habit of dividing successful men into those who are educated and those who are self made. But no strong man was ever anything but self made. And if education were limited to the kind of thing given to the individual for four years of life in college, Lord help modern progress !

Alexander Johnston Cassatt was “educated” inasmuch as he spent three years in the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, of Pittsburg, and then left for Germany and five years more at Heidelberg and Darmstadt. He was twenty years old when he returned in 1859; and having thus

been “educated,” he entered upon the infinitely more important business of making himself.

At a time, too, when in the general opinion few occupations on earth presented possibilities less large and alluring, he began quietly to make himself a railroad man.

More than that, although he had been born with the traditional silver spoon in his mouth,—his father was a Pittsburg banker who never let his son worry about money,—he carefully avoided all chances to “get a soft sit on the inside.” The outside alone was big enough for him. And it was altogether out of doors that he made his start. He went down into Georgia with a rod and transit gang, and began to study railroading from the very blocking out and surveying of the right of way.

Four years later we find him holding his superintendency. He had climbed fast. He had also had occassion to form his “work theories.” But we all form “work theories”— very good ones, too,—which lead us nowhere, because we do not follow them. Young Cassatt now had the opportunity of putting his into practice. It is the business of this paper to see just how he put them into practice,—and what things grew out of a young man’s beginning at twenty-five to manage his life “with some kind of system.”

The present president of the Pennsylvania Railroad said years afterwards that in the first part of your life you should make it your business to get under the best men; and in the second part, you should do everything to have the best men under you. This is, manifestly, only an amplification of his more youthful remark as to the wisdom of watching the ‘big fellows.”

Details, though they might be despised when they had become routine, were, he saw, the small brollen stone and building sand which can alone put great constructive enterprises upon a solid foundation of concrete. And the young man at Renovo began to take a post-graduate, out-ofdoor course of education which sought ravenously for details of all sorts, and in every direction. For a great deal, indeed, he had to go outside of his own division.

Fie learned to build rolling stock, and new ways to build tracks to run it on. Fie went into the laying of stations and freight sheds, and shops. He made a study of the whole theory and practice of traffic-drawing. He absorbed the million petty things which go to make a popular passenger service. He watched the effect of opening up new spur lines. He learned how best to manage the smooth man of the office and the rough man of outside; furthermore, he noted the astonishing differences between men as individuals and men in gangs.

When you know only as much as your rivals, you must, other things being equal, keep their level. It is through those things which have been discovered by you alone that you get the upper grip. And if in the railroad there were all the potentialities of “something wholly new,” only by new ideas could one hope to arrive thereat. Young Cassatt made it his business to be the most approachable division engineer and superintendent on earth. No man was ever more sought after by the genus crank,— long haired inventors of collision buffers, and automatic stokers, and couplers, and sleeping cars and cooking cars, and tanking and signalling systems. He was willing to go

through the bushel of chaff in the chance of getting the handful of wheat.

And, make a note of it, repeatedly he got the biggest kind of handful. When, later, he accepted a certain proposal to have locomotives try to pick up their water en route, like steamboats, the thing was a railway joke for months; it was about the funniest crank idea of all. We know now whether-the track tank is a joke or not.

When Westinghouse proposed to stop entire twenty-five-car trains by the use of mere compressed air, this was another joke. Under Cassatt the Pennsylvania was developing the invention for years before any other line had begun to take it seriously. It was the snme with the germ idea of the block signal.

Again, he made it a rule to be even more accessible to his own petty employes than he was to the outside ■world. The door of his inside office was always open to braided cap and gingham jumper and out of the mouths of brakemen and switch tenders there again and again came those practical, working suggestions which allowed this or that innovation to reach its highest value.

The young fellow did not stop with experimenting with wood and iron. He made a study of the availability of ignorant foreign labor for construction work. If, too, he was systematically giving his hour or two a week to getting the best under him, he was also trying to devise new methods by which those men who seemed to be only “half-way good,” could show forth what was best in them.

That all this must work together to make the machinery run always more smoothly one need hardly say.

But the Renovo engineer’s machinery was not merely of the figurative kind. There was one thing the European had got away ahead in, and that was good road-bed making. Cassatt began to go to school again in that. He soon realized, moreover, that good road-beds were basic. You couldn’t hope to run anything smoothly without them. He confesses that he had not then conceived of any four-track system; but it did seem to him that a railway ought to have a road-bed which no traffic manager should ever need to think about.

And out of Mr. Cassatt’s first youthful desire to attain the smoothly running grew that idea with which his name must always be connected in the history of railroading, the through car. When hourly we now behold the same engine hauling the loaded “freights” of a dozen different lines from north, south, east and west, we feel that this belongs to the natural and created order of things. To unload and reload a freight car at the terminus of every system is something out of conceivable reason. It was not so in 1864. No one had even thought of doing anything else. Nor, at that time, were there any systems that could boast of even a thousand miles of track between their terminals. In Pennsylvania there were sixty-seven different lines, with an average mileage of fifty-five and a half! Many of them had been built to feed to one another, but separating them were these doubly built stone walls.

“Now,” thought young Cassatt, “where is the sense in that ? With

Pittsburg as a centre, why shouldn’t the ‘X & Y’ haul our cars on to Cleveland, and we haul theirs on to Philadelphia ? It would make both our lines twice as long, and nobody would be the loser.”

It did make both lines twice as long, and it diu much more than that. It was the first step toward the modern railway system; before that there was no system in any sense of the word. It showed what lines were built to be useful and what were not. There was another example of the survival of the fittest. Those lines by nature meant to unify, were unified.

It was said of our man before he reached thirty that it appeared to be his ambition to make his railroad run itself as smoothly as he ran himself. Of the latter there is one standing illustration which we may very well accept as final. In 1864 he had expressed the belief that if a man chose to manage his work with some kind of system, he ought to be able to stop at forty or forty-five. When he retired in 1882, he was just fortytwo and a half! He had accomplished infinitely more than the average, hard-working man accomplishes in a lifetime, and he still had all the health of early middle age. He was wealthy and he had attained the highest possible position then open to him in the service, that of first vice-president. It is true that, seventeen years later, upon the death of his chief, George B. Roberts, he once more put on the harness, this time as president. But he had made his point.