Big Hank and how the CNR was saved

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Big Hank and how the CNR was saved
Posted by Miningman on Friday, December 07, 2018 7:18 PM
Western Story Magazine, Dec. 31, 1927, “Western Pioneers of To-day" by Edward H. Smith
 
There is a general impression among laymen that the athlete rarely amounts to much mentally, that he seldom achieves anything worth mentioning, that the lad who gets all the cheers as he plunges through the line for the deciding touchdown or pulls the boat home an oar's length ahead of the deadly rival, earns few plaudits in later life. I cannot undertake to dispute these findings, largely because I believe them to be true. But I do beg to present the rule-proving exception in the case of Sir Henry Worth Thornton, K.B.E., of Logansport, London, and Canada. Sir Henry is the only gentleman from Indiana that ever got a British Knighthood. He was a football player in the days when football was football. Just now he is holding down one of the half dozen biggest jobs on earth and building an empire in the Northwest. The future Sir Henry was born in Logansport, in the Hoosier State, in 1871.
 
The Thorntons were people of substance and their son had no struggle to make against poverty or social handicaps. He was sent to the select St. Paul's at Concord, New Hampshire, and thence to the University of Pennsylvania, where he got his bachelor of science degree in 1894. It was at Pennsylvania that Thornton did his bit wlth the so-called pigskin. He became in his junior year not only a proficient but a celebrated gridiron warrior, the plunging fullback of his team and the All-American fullback for 1893. He was known far and wide, to college students and to sports writers, by the euphonious and descriptive title of "Big Hank."
 
One hears often of the advantages of sending a son and heir to a good (by which is meant a fashionable) school, of the helpful friendships made, of the powerful connections there achieved, of the aid and boosting that follow later in life. Again we cite Thornton as evidence. At St. Paul's he had been the schoolmate of the son of McCrae of the Pennsylvania Railroad, then only vice-president, with headquarters at Pittsburgh. It was McCrae who gave Thornton his first job and so sent him on his career. We must, however, not neglect the particulars. The job was that of draftsman in the chief engineer's office and the stipend was fifty dollars a month. But after that came increases and advancements. 
 
Big Hank  was successively promoted to be assistant engineer for construction, assistant engineer of the engineering corps, division engineer, and division superintendent. In the course of these upward steps he was shifted to Cleveland, back to Pittsburgh, to Columbus, and to Cincinnati. Somewhere in these wanderings he came under the approving eyes of Ralph Peters and of Leonor F. Loree, the general manager of the Pennsylvania, who saw to it that Thornton picked up a "student's transportation course.” Loree shifted the football hero from one part of the system to another and from one department to the next for the purpose of giving the young man a thorough insight into the business of railroading. Nor was the gentleman from Indiana slow about learning. He did so well that be was soon one of the railroad's men of destiny. 
 
However, his big chance did not come until the Pennsylvania acquired the Long Island Railroad. The deal was hardly consummated when Ralph Peters sent for Thornton and made him general superintendent. New Yorkers do not have to be told to recall that this was in 1911. In this office Thornton had a great deal to do with the opening of the terminal on Seventh Avenue, New York, with the electrification of the Long Island Railroad, and with the development of that vast suburban passenger business that makes this road remarkable. In a few years Thornton had met and mastered the almost numberless difficulties and problems that adorn the path of a railroad carrying millions of short-haul passengers per month. That was his specialty, and railroad men knew that he was better posted on the subject than almost any other man alive.
 
Nor was this reputation local. When Lord Claude Hamilton, chairman of the board of directors of the Great Eastern Railway, came to the United States early in 1911, looking for a man to save that great system from impending ruin, he at once hit upon Thornton and offered him the job. The Great Eastern, running out of the Liverpool Street Station in London, carries an enormous number of commuters. Indeed it is said to do the vastest suburban passenger business on earth, carrying more passengers annually than any other railroad. This great property was sick unto death in 1914 and needed a specialist. When it was announced in London that a young American, totally unknown to the man in the street, had been chosen as general manager of the Great Eastern Railroad, there was a perfect tornado of protest and abusive criticism.
 
“There isn't a man In England capable of extricating us," answered Lord Claude to his board of directors. Handling this situation was what the American vulgate calls a tough assignment. There was a great problem in the railroad itself. In spite of the huge passenger business it carried and its other heavy traffic the property was running down hill, the profits were none, there was replacement work to be done, there were extensions to be built, and there was service to be improved. How to get these things done with a company that was losing rather than making money was a poser for any man. But more than that, the British were peeved to think that a "damn Yankee” had got so important a position in England.
 
Thornton met this altitude by saying that he had always understood that Britons were good sportsmen. All he asked of them was a sporting chance. If he failed no one would suffer so much as he. To this attack the British public responded. Unlike many energetic Americans, Thornton did not make the mistake of pushing things. He did not try to hustle the deliberate English cousins. It was six months before he made a single change and when he did begin remodeling things he acted cautiously. The result was that he met with a great success, and what is much more rare, the good will of the British working man and the London newspapers. Afterward, when he had been knighted and otherwise honoured, the staid old 'London Post' said, in an editorial, "Under Sir Henry Thornton, the Great Eastern Railway's suburban service was brought to a standard unequalled in the world by steam trains. In the opinion of those best qualified to judge, he did all that ever can be done in the handling of vast suburban traffic by steam-operated trains in and out of a London terminus."
 
Thornton must have been a diplomat of no mean order, for he managed to put this big corporation on Its feet without antagonizing the touchy British workman. He holds the gold medallion of the National Union of Railwaymen, presented to him by J. H. Thomas, secretary of the union and later a member of Ramsay MacDonald's labour government, Thomas said that Thornton had proved himself to be one of the best general railway managers England had ever known, that he had broken down class barriers and hatreds, and would leave behind him a record of fair play and fair dealing that other general managers would be compelled to live up to. The knight from Indiana returned the compliment by saying: "The English people are the easiest race to get along with, once you have their confidence. Just don't be too aggressive and behave like a gentleman and the response will be forthcoming." Meantime, what he had done for the Great Eastern won Thornton the popular sobriquet of D.R. – doctor of railroads.
 
It was inevitable then that at the outbreak of the war he should be made a member of the executive committee of general managers that, under government direction, controlled and operated all British railroads. On one occasion, it is related, Lord Kitchener gave Thornton sixty hours to get the new Kitchener army a long way from Tipperary. The man from America did the job in forty-eight hours. He had troop trains steaming into Southampton every twelve minutes, bringing men ready to be rushed to the front in France. In 1916, Thornton was made deputy director of inland water transportation, with the rank of colonel of the Royal Engineers. In this office he handled all the river and canal navigation in northern France, and the military areas in Egypt and Mesopotamia. And early in 1917 he was sent to Paris as assistant director general of movements of railways, in which capacity he represented the director general and the army council in all negotiations relating to transportation with the French, Italian and American Governments. In December of the same year he became deputy director general with the rank of brigadier general, and in 1918 he was inspector general of transportation and a major general. These military titles and honours he has discarded since the war, and never uses, by the way. As inspector general, Thornton had charge of all allied army transportation on the European continent. And while he was doing all this he had time to serve thrice on the National Wage Board in arbitrations between the British railway companies and their employees. He came out of the war with the Order of Leopold, conferred by Belgium, the Distinguished Service Medal from the United States, and a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
 
The big work of the man's life remained, however, to be done. As soon as the war was over, the affairs of some of the Canadian railways began to slide faster and faster down the skids to ruin. A condition and a problem existed that can only be understood if we stop for a minute or two to glance at the history of railroading in the Dominion. What concerns us most is the group of roads forming the Canadian National Railways, a unique institution, inasmuch as it is a government-owned railway line in a democratic country that is not politically run. The germ from which this great public rail system sprang was Canada's pioneer road, the Grand Trunk. Soon after the Act of Union In 1841 which united upper and lower Canada into the Province of Canada, a British firm –Peto, Brassey and Betts, one of whose members became Lord Brassey –surveyed the country and developed the Grand Trunk project. This road was projected to serve the entire valley of the St. Lawrence, with the idea of ultimately reaching a Canadian Atlantic port. Before its coming, most of Canada's transportation was handled by boats on the Great Lakes and other waters. Settlement of the best parts of the Dominion was being retarded by lack of an all-year means of communication. And this note has run through the story of all Canada's railroads since. They were all projected for the purpose of opening up the more remote parts of the country and encouraging settlement. The Grand Trunk was completed from Montreal to Toronto and Stratford in 1869. This road and its extension, the Great Western, adopted the broad gauge of six feet six inches. This was done with the mistaken idea of securing the Canadian export trade and keeping the cars from being diverted over American lines. But in a few years both companies had to lay a third rail on the standard gauge to permit the passage of American cars, and soon competition between parallel lines arose from the cross-purposes of the original builders of the transcontinental and other lines now united under his management.
 
Little by little, he has brought order out of the old chaos, made lines pay that never made a dollar before, improved the rolling stock, reorganized the service, bettered the personnel, and done a thorough job of overhauling a ruined property. But the underlying problem of the westerly parts of all the Canadian railroads is more population, more settlers, more production in the great Northwest, and more products, people and supplies to haul. The point is that three lines reaching to the Pacific are more than Canada needs at present. Hence, the task of the head of two of these lines, the less well-nourished two into the bargain, is to build up the West as rapidly and solidly as possible. He must get people to go out into the new country and live there, and in order to do this, must develop agricultural methods, cattle raising methods, lumbering, mining, irrigation, dairy farming, and a score or more of other things that will attract, men to the open spaces of the untouched and unspoiled West.
 
 
Thus, Sir Henry Thornton is one of the most important men alive in this field of pioneering. A great part of his energies is devoted to co-operating with the Dominion government, in the Western developments. Farms and ranches are being strung out along the two lines of the Canadian National Railways where, five or six years ago, the trains ran through wilderness. Villages are springing up, towns are forming themselves on the plains and slopes, and parts of tho Dominion that were just blank expanses on the map are being peppered with the little dots that indicate human settlements – the winning of the vast West. The man who saved the Great Eastern Railway in England, that hauls millions of men short distances to their homes in the suburbs, is also making a triumph out of his handling of the Canadian roads that haul men and materials thousands of miles across vast plains and tremendous mountain ranges from one ocean to another. In 1925, three years after taking charge of the tottering systems, Sir Henry Thornton had brought the net earnings of the Canadian National up to more than thirty-two million dollars and he has made rapid progress since, so that the lines are about to come out of the red ink of deficits into the black ink of actual earnings. Those of us who have been entertaining an inclusive low opinion of the economic and social value of all-American fullbacks will have to change our minds a bit. And so will those who had their doubts of the destiny of the sons of prosperous gentlemen of Indiana. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Posted by cx500 on Friday, December 07, 2018 10:22 PM

The author made a few rather glaring factual errors on the Canadian portion.  The guage was 5'-6", not 6'-6", and the main line of the Grand Trunk between Montreal and Sarnia was completed earlier, around 1856 if I recall correctly.  Port Huron to Chicago was completed a few years later, partly by acquiring and linking together local roads.  The Great Western Railway (somewhat of a competitor) was acquired in the early 1880s to ensure the new and aggressive CPR could not use it to gain an easy foothold in southwestern Ontario.

I can't speak to the earlier history but treat details with caution.  It seems low standards of accuracy in the media is not a new phenomenom.

John

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Posted by Miningman on Friday, December 07, 2018 11:39 PM

Thanks John. Glad you could point these things out. This came about as an extension of the Hotel Scribe comments in the CNR Steamship Lines thread. I debated with myself as to include it as part of that thread or start a new one. Seems I made the correct choice. 

We have to thank Mike for his tireless assistance and ability to find the obscure and difficult.

Perhaps others can provide more details and corrections if necessary if they find this thread of interest. 

It does not however take away from Sir Henry's astonishing accomplishments and legacy. 

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Posted by Firelock76 on Saturday, December 08, 2018 4:32 PM

Remarkable story!

You know, most American men have fantasized at one time or another about being knights.  Here's a guy that actually pulled it off! 

Even if his armor was boiler jacketing. 

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Posted by Miningman on Saturday, December 08, 2018 8:39 PM
The Nations Business -- Sir Henry Thornton 

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Posted by Miningman on Saturday, December 08, 2018 9:04 PM
The rest of the story... large pages.
 
 
 
 

 

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Posted by Miningman on Sunday, December 09, 2018 12:57 PM
Thornton brings Radio to the CNR ( the CBC is born)
 
 

 

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Posted by Miningman on Sunday, December 09, 2018 3:55 PM
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Posted by Miningman on Tuesday, December 11, 2018 4:51 PM
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Posted by Miningman on Tuesday, December 11, 2018 5:30 PM

Truly historic Hotel Scribe 1895. With great thanks to Mike

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OjG5bujrzGo

 

 

 

 

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Posted by Firelock76 on Tuesday, December 11, 2018 7:47 PM

It certainly looks like the Hotel Scribe was the place to be, in any era!

And that You Tube clip of the Lumiere' film was just captivating!  Great choice of background music too.  Imagine, seeing people as they were 125 years ago.  It's miraculous.

"La Belle Epoch."  If they only knew what was coming.  Almost makes me weep.

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Posted by Miningman on Tuesday, December 11, 2018 8:42 PM

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Posted by Miningman on Wednesday, December 12, 2018 11:11 PM

For the Dude and NDG and anyone interested .. 1923 transcript of Sir Henry Drayton arguing with Minister of Railways and Canals George P. Graham

 

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Posted by Jones1945 on Thursday, December 13, 2018 1:28 PM

Thank you Miningman and Mike for all the amazing historical materials. Astonishing efforts! 

Jones Family Railroad Hobby YouTube Channel
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCu9gt9Q9RF-Hwq7xWciVcWg/

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Posted by Miningman on Thursday, December 13, 2018 3:02 PM

Big Hank was a smoker, NY Times said he died after an operation.

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Posted by SD70Dude on Thursday, December 13, 2018 3:04 PM

Miningman

For the Dude and NDG and anyone interested .. 1923 transcript of Sir Henry Drayton arguing with Minister of Railways and Canals George P. Graham

I'M BACK!  And very interested.

Greetings from Alberta

-an Articulate Malcontent

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Posted by Miningman on Thursday, December 13, 2018 9:38 PM

Sirr Henry's Obit is a bit difficult to read because it's so small so it has been broken into 6 parts

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Posted by Miningman on Thursday, December 13, 2018 9:48 PM

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Posted by Miningman on Thursday, December 13, 2018 9:56 PM

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Posted by Miningman on Thursday, December 13, 2018 9:59 PM

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Posted by Miningman on Thursday, December 13, 2018 10:02 PM

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Posted by Miningman on Thursday, December 13, 2018 10:14 PM

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Posted by Miningman on Thursday, December 13, 2018 10:17 PM

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Posted by Miningman on Friday, December 14, 2018 3:32 PM

 

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Posted by Miningman on Friday, December 14, 2018 3:47 PM

 

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