Jervis Langdon Jr., 99, B&O Railroad president known for innovations

February 17, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Jervis Langdon Jr., one of the nation's foremost railroad executives, who had served as president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in its last year as an independent company, died of congestive heart failure yesterday at his home in Elmira, N.Y. He was 99.

"You could say that Jervis Langdon's administration of the B&O in the postwar years ranks with that of Daniel Willard, an earlier B&O president, when the railroad was a caldron of innovation," said Herbert H. Harwood Jr., a retired CSX rail executive and railroad historian and author.

"He never really got his due on the B&O because he was president for such a short time, relatively speaking. He was in a class of Young Turks who were railroad presidents at the time, and obviously the high point of his career was his years on the B&O," Mr. Harwood said.

"He was absolutely ahead of his time and a visionary. He brought total honesty to the marketplace when he said that trucks were taking freight away from the railroads by undermining their rates. He brought operating efficiencies to the B&O that took it from a $31 million loss in 1961 to a $1.5 million profit in 1962," said Paul Reistrup, Amtrak's second president and former director of C&O-B&O passenger service.

Mr. Langdon was born and raised in Elmira, where from his boyhood home he could listen to the sounds of locomotives and steam whistles as trains of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western and Erie railroads made their way through the valley far below.

His father was an executive of the Lackawanna Coal Co., which had been a part of the Lackawanna Railroad, and an uncle, Edward E. Loomis, was president of the Lehigh Valley Railroad. His interest in railroading began as a youth, riding aboard freight engines pulling trains between Elmira and Sayre, Pa.

"My uncle advised me to be either an engineer or a lawyer if I wanted to succeed in railroading," he told The Sun in 1974.

He earned his bachelor's degree in 1927 from Cornell University and a law degree from the Cornell law school in 1930.

Mr. Langdon began his railroad career in 1931 with the Lehigh Valley in New York City, in the office of the foreign freight agent, and advanced to the railroad's legal department. He later served as counsel for the New York Central Railroad until 1941, when he was named assistant vice president of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.

During World War II, Mr. Langdon was a colonel with the Army Air Forces in China, Burma and India. He was assigned to the Air Transport Command, overseeing operations of the C-47s that flew over the Himalayas.

After the war, he moved to Washington and served as special counsel for the major Southern railroads before the Interstate Commerce Commission on setting rail freight rates.

After a few years as chairman of the Association of Southeastern Railroads, he joined the B&O as general counsel in 1956.

He succeeded Howard E. Simpson as president of the railroad in 1961 at a time when it was falling under domination by the C&O and seeing loss of traffic and increased competition from trucks and barge lines.

Described as a "Lincolnish" figure whose physical and intellectual presence could fill a room, he brought in new methods and younger people.

"He tried to do three things, including innovative rate making, marketing research to see what the customer wanted and then providing the necessary service," Mr. Harwood said.

Mr. Langdon stopped the erosion of rail traffic while initiating detailed cost-accounting procedures long common in other industries. He expanded piggyback service -- rail flatcars carrying truck trailers -- and implemented specialized, single-commodity trains to haul coal. He brought other technological advances such as early computers to the railroad.

He was an unpretentious person who almost daily walked between his Guilford home and the B&O Building at Charles and Baltimore streets. He also walked to Camden Station and gently waved away anxious redcaps offering to carry his battered suitcase. When traveling on company business, he preferred a regular Pullman roomette over the railroad's luxurious private business cars.

"We had always treated presidents of the B&O with an air of reverence, and then Jervis came along. He was a practical railroad man who was passionate about the people who worked for him," said E. Ray Lichty, a retired CSX vice president.

By 1963, the C&O had obtained control of the B&O, and Mr. Langdon felt frustration as projects he envisioned were vetoed by C&O management.

"He argued frequently and strenuously for the B&O approach to projects such as his marketing philosophy, which C&O management discounted," said William F. Howes, a retired CSX executive.

In 1964, Mr. Langdon left to become president of the Rock Island Railroad. He was appointed trustee of the bankrupt Penn Central Railroad in 1970, and later was its president. He retired in 1976 after Penn Central became a major component of the newly created Conrail.

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