Keeping the B&O on track Industry: Daniel Willard, the B&O's president for more than 30 years, is still regarded as one of the country's most distinguished railroaders.

Remember When

March 16, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Daniel Willard, the legendary Baltimore and Ohio Railroad president who served from 1910 until 1941, wouldn't have been at all surprised by the current proposed merger of Conrail with Norfolk Southern Corp. and CSX (which is partly composed of his beloved B&O). In fact, he envisioned and was an advocate of such railroad consolidation, dating back to the 1920s.

"He saw a consolidation of the railroads of the nation into four main lines as the solution to the problems of the industry, and from the late 1920s until his death he was continually in consultation with President Hoover, President Roosevelt, the Interstate Commerce Commission, committees of Congress and various officials in order to promote this merger," reported The Sun after his death in 1942.

Willard, who was affectionately known as "Uncle Dan," is still regarded as one of the country's most distinguished railroaders.

He held the office of B&O president longer than any other man, and every year after turning 70 offered his resignation to the board of directors. It wasn't until he turned 80 in 1941 that they finally accepted it. He remained as chairman of the board until his death a year later.

The lean, bespectacled, white-haired Vermonter was born on a farm in North Hartland in 1861.

Working on the railroad

He began his railroading career as a track laborer for the Central Vermont Railroad after a vision defect forced him to abandon his studies at the Massachusetts Agricultural College at Amherst. Failure to earn a bachelor's degree was, he said, "one of the outstanding disappointments of my life."

He later fired locomotives on the Connecticut and Pessumpsic Railroad and worked on several Midwestern railroads. He also worked for the Soo Railroad, where he was a brakeman, engineer, conductor and later mechanical foreman.

He first came to the B&O in 1899 as assistant general manager and left two years later to become assistant to the president of the Erie Railroad. He was working for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad when he succeeded Oscar G. Murray as president of the B&O.

"Perhaps it was merely happy coincidence, but no sooner had the monumental upgrading programs of the early 1900s been completed than the B&O got its most effective, and best-loved, president," wrote Herbert H. Harwood Jr. in his 1994 B&O history, "Impossible Challenge."

"Daniel Willard arrived in Baltimore in 1910 and remained in the president's office for over 30 years. Perhaps he overstayed his time, but he gave the B&O some of its best years."

One of his first actions as president was to cancel the railroad's passenger-service advertising, asserting: "We haven't any service worth advertising." It wasn't until 1912 that he allowed the resumption of advertising.

"The greatest contribution he has made to his road in the last twenty years, and from which competitive systems have also reaped benefits, has been from his dealings with labor, with the Interstate Commerce Commission, with members of Congress and occupants of the White House," said The Evening Sun in 1940.

"He has been spoken of in his profession as a 'compromiser.' It would be fairer to describe him as one who recognized new social and political forces at work on the American people, and, with as little concession as he could justly make as a trustee, adapted himself to these forces."

"Willard knew the problems of the railroad men in the high places and he had experienced the back-breaking toil of those in the humble," said the Associated Press in 1941. "It was this insight of workers' problems, and his sympathetic approach to them, that helped give him the nickname of 'Uncle Dan' throughout the system."

He was known for his motto, "The Public Be Served," as opposed to the stated indifference of the New York Central's Commodore Vanderbilt, who uttered the historic "The public be damned."

During the Great Depression, when the nation's railroads were in grave trouble, he masterminded a plan that modified the B&O's interest charges and debt payment. His plan saved the railroad from certain bankruptcy.

"Willard was particularly passenger-minded and struggled hard to compete in markets dominated by the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central," writes Harwood.

Pioneering developments

He pioneered the use of air conditioning aboard the B&O diner Martha Washington, and in 1931 he introduced the Columbian as the world's first air-conditioned passenger train.

He introduced lightweight trains such as the Royal Blue and No. 50, the country's first mainline passenger diesel. While other railroads were still looking to steam locomotives to pull their trains, Willard ordered six two-unit diesel streamlined passenger sets in 1937.

Willard applied the same fervor to the B&O as he did to the board of trustees of the Johns Hopkins University, to which he had been appointed in 1914. He served as president of the board in 1926 and resigned in 1941.

In an editorial after his death, The Sun said, "What Baltimore should remember about him is what it owes to him. He was one of her great citizens and for many years he devoted most of his time and energy to building up and development of Baltimore's two most essential institutions, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Johns Hopkins University. Few men have done more for us."

At the hour of his funeral, all activities on the B&O ceased for a minute as trains came to a halt, shop workers laid down their tools and offices quieted to honor the man who had never forgotten that he had once been one of them.

That November, the 75th Liberty ship built at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Fairfield yard was named after him. The 10,500-ton cargo vessel, christened by his granddaughter, Mary Beale Willard, gently slid down the ways and into the waters of the Patapsco River.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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