The National Iron & Steel Heritage Museum
Leaders, Innovators, and Railroad Barons
While new immigrants to America benefited from employment, the novelty and inexperience of railroad companies combined with new opportunities to secure government contracts led to immense wealth allotted to a few. As small railroad lines appeared across the country beginning in the 1820s, difficulties arose in creating successful networks and lasting companies. It would take another generation of railroad building until the first large railroad barons appeared. For example, in 1853, the merger of 15 local railroads into the 600 miles long New York Central was the first major consolidation in the industry and made some of the promoters moderately rich, among them Erastus Corning, Dean Richmond, and John Jacob Astor III. Likewise, as the companies grew in size, so did the profits and wealth of their owners nationwide, unfolding a new chapter in American history: the Gilded Age.