New book charts John W. Barriger’s incredible life

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Wednesday, May 23, 2018

John W. Barriger III, in light-colored suit standing on the diamond, poses with others for a photo at the Monon Railroad's crossing of the Pennsylvania at Wanatah, Ind., in the late 1940s. Barriger was president of the Monon at the time, and his inspection train waits in the distance. Linn H. Westcott
John W. Barriger III, the legendary president of the Monon Railroad, among others, loved running inspection trains. It was his way of ensuring he knew what made his railroad — or any railroad — really tick. It also fulfilled his lifelong desire to know as many employees as possible, something that drove him throughout his storied, peripatetic career.

Thus we have this wonderful, sunny vignette from a lost time in railroading, a photograph of Barriger making a brief stop in the late 1940s at Wanatah, Ind., where his Monon crossed the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad, just east of Valparaiso. 

Just look at the rich detail captured by photographer Linn H. Westcott. In the center is Barriger, smartly dressed as usual in a white linen suit. At far left is F. W. Kuhn, general freight agent in Chicago, and at far right Roadmaster J. E. Gaul. Alas, unidentified are the two people on either side of Barriger, including Wanatah’s female station agent, obviously delighted to be hosting the boss.

Meanwhile, the crew of Barriger’s train waits patiently under the ponderous arm of the train-order signal while their trusty 4-6-2 pants quietly, awaiting departure, likely for Michigan City. 

I’ve been admiring this photograph for years, waiting for the right moment to pull it from the Classic Trainsfiles.

Barrier's remarkable life in railroading is the subject of a new book by historian H. Roger Grant, just published by Indiana University Press.
That moment has arrived. Indiana University Press recently released John W. Barriger III: Railroad Legend, a new biography from author and historian H. Roger Grant. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb saying it’s likely the most important railroad book of the year.

It’s hard to say exactly what Barriger was. First and foremost, he was a railroad executive, including stints as president at Monon; Pittsburgh & Lake Erie; and Missouri-Kansas-Texas, as well as other key posts at several other railroads, including the New Haven; Toledo, Peoria & Western; and Rock Island. He worked on Wall Street for a time. He led the locomotive division at Fairbanks-Morse. He was also a railroad finance expert and government bureaucrat, noted for his leadership at the Roosevelt Administration’s Reconstruction Finance Corp. He was an author, lauded for his manifesto, 1956’s Super Railroads for a Dynamic American Economy. Early in life, after graduating from MIT, he worked for the PRR as — get this — a laborer at Altoona Shops, rodman, freight conductor, yardmaster, mail and express inspector, company magazine assistant editor, assistant division engineer, and probably a lot more.

Barriger’s resume is exhausting, but that’s what makes him so significant. A review of his life is actually a review of the entire U.S. railroad industry at mid-century. There’s hardly a better way to learn the proverbial “how we got here” than to examine this extraordinary man. 

I’m reviewing Grant’s biography later this summer for Railroad History, the journal of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society, so I’ll save any deep analysis of the book for later. But for now, I wanted to check in with Roger Grant for some thoughts about his latest subject. Roger is a veteran, having authored or edited 34 books, but this one was special for him. 

A consummate railroad professional, Barriger also had a railfan's passion for every aspect of the field, even models. In this undated view, publisher A. C. Kalmbach points out features of an HO scale model to Barriger and two other men. At far left is future Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler; the man second from left is unidentified. Milwaukee Sentinel
“What I think is remarkable about Barriger’s career is his love of railroads, his thoughtfulness about how the industry might be improved, and how he constantly promoted freight and passenger service,” Roger told me. “While Barriger lacked access to a crystal ball, he made a number of points in his one and only book, Super Railroads, that later became recognized as being ‘right on,’ including the need for federal deregulation, development of piggyback, and railroad diversification.”

As Roger shows in his book, Barriger was usually way ahead of his time. “I wish that Barriger could return from the grave and see American railroading in the 21st century,” he says. “I think he’d be pleased.”

Preservation of Barriger’s legacy is assured, mainly through the work of the John W. Barriger III National Railroad Library, part of the St. Louis Mercantile Library located at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Roger credits its curator, Nick Fry, for the library’s essential contributions to the book.

The man Trains Editor David P. Morgan called “the Pied Piper” of derelict railroads died in 1976, at age 77. In his epitaph, Morgan said Barriger “knew how to be a railroad president; he enjoyed and exercised that high office.”

Never more so than on that sunny, breezy, optimistic morning in Wanatah. Almost everything in the photograph is gone, including the depot, the semaphore, the grain elevator, even the Monon’s Michigan City branch. Not to mention Barriger and his fellow railroaders. Only the onetime PRR track in the foreground remains, now the main line of the Chicago, Fort Wayne & Eastern, a Genesee & Wyoming property. 

But thanks to Roger Grant’s latest book, Barriger and his amazing legacy endures, waiting to be rediscovered by a new generation of readers. Trust me, you’ll learn a lot. 

 

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