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“Death or Westminster!”
Carnegie takes the plunge
Andrew Carnegie’s big break in business came at the side of Thomas Scott, superintendent of the Pittsburgh division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Scott was all of thirty-three years of age, but to Andy Carnegie’s eighteen he seemed a graybeard, and an eminent figure in the industrial world. In the mid-1850s the Penn Railroad was the largest corporation in America, and growing apace. Carnegie had arrived in western Pennsylvania five years earlier, with his father, mother and younger brother, all fleeing the wreckage innovation had inflicted on the preindustrial textile trade of Scotland. Carnegie had become his family’s chief breadwinner at the age of thirteen, advancing from bobbin boy to messenger to telegraph operator and finally to Tom Scott’s personal assistant.
“Mr. Scott was one of the most delightful superiors that anybody could have, and I soon became warmly attached to him,” Carnegie recalled years later. “He was my great man and all the hero worship that is inherent in youth I showered upon him.” Carnegie imagined that Scott ran the whole Penn Railroad—which in fact he did before long.
One of Scott’s jobs was to reschedule trains after malfunctions on the line. This had to be done by hand in those days, and it involved the peril of head-on collisions if not done adeptly. No one but the superintendent was authorized to send the orders redirecting the trains. Carnegie had watched in wonder as Scott—through Carnegie—telegraphed orders to dispatchers and conductors across the network. He watched and took mental notes.
“One morning I reached the office and found that a serious accident on the Eastern Division had delayed the express passenger train westward,” Carnegie remembered. Scott was away from the office. “The passenger train eastward was proceeding with a flagman in advance at every curve.” This painstaking precaution was necessary to preserve life, but it halted all other traffic. “The freight trains in both directions were all standing still upon the sidings.”
Carnegie kept waiting for Scott to appear. He did not. Telegrams piled up; dispatchers and conductors demanded orders. Carnegie could almost see the backup extending clear to Philadelphia. Still no Scott.
“Finally I could not resist the temptation to plunge in, take the responsibility, give train orders, and set matters going,” he said. “‘Death or Westminster Abbey!’ flashed across my mind.” Carnegie understood the stakes. “I knew it was dismissal, disgrace, perhaps criminal punishment for me if I erred. On the other hand, I could bring in the wearied freight-train men who had lain out all night. I could set everything in motion. I knew I could. I had often done it in wiring Mr. Scott’s orders. I knew just what to do.”
He took the plunge. Impersonating Scott, he formulated an unwinding strategy as he imagined Scott would have done. “I gave the orders in his name, started every train, sat at the instrument”—the telegraph—“watching every tick, carried the trains along from station to station, took extra precautions, and had everything running smoothly when Mr. Scott at last reached the office.”
Scott had heard of the tie-ups and expected to have to unravel them. He began writing out orders for Carnegie to forward.
Carnegie confessed to exceeding his authority. “Mr. Scott, I could not find you anywhere and I gave these orders in your name early this morning,” he explained.
Taken aback, Scott demanded to know the current status of the line. “I showed him the messages and gave him the position of every train on the line—freights, ballast trains, everything—showed him the answers of the various conductors, the latest reports at the stations where the various trains had passed. All was right.”
Carnegie held his breath waiting for Scott to pronounce sentence for his crime. “He looked in my face for a second,” Carnegie recalled. “I scarcely dared look in his. I did not know what was going to happen. He did not say one word, but again looked carefully over all that had taken place. Still he said nothing. After a little he moved away from my desk to his own, and that was the end of it.”
Scott wasn’t thinking only about Carnegie. His own career was on the line. He didn’t tell Carnegie why he had been away from the office at this critical moment. He apparently didn’t want to have to tell his own bosses. If all indeed was right, as Carnegie said it was, he might not have to.
Traffic on the line continued to flow smoothly, and nothing amiss was reported. Scott never said another word to Carnegie on the matter. “But I noticed that he came in very regularly and in good time for some mornings after that,” Carnegie remarked.
Carnegie still didn’t know if Scott approved or disapproved of what he had done. “I never spoke to anyone about it,” Carnegie said. “None of the trainmen knew that Mr. Scott had not personally given the orders. I had almost made up my mind that if the like occurred again, I would not repeat my proceeding of that morning unless I was authorized to do so.”
Eventually, though, Carnegie learned indirectly that Scott had been impressed. In a private conversation with another man in the Pittsburgh office, Scott said, “Do you know what that little white-haired Scotch devil of mine did?”
“No,” the man replied.
“I’m blamed if he didn’t run every train on the division in my name without the slightest authority.”
“And did he do it all right?”
“Oh, yes, all right.”
Carnegie recalled his own reaction. “This satisfied me,” he said. “Of course I had my cue for the next occasion, and went boldly in. From that date it was very seldom that Mr. Scott gave a train order.”
Carnegie carried the lesson forward. He went boldly in at the Penn, then in oil investments, and finally in iron and steel, where his audacious style made him the dominant figure of the age.
He wasn’t buried in Westminster Abbey. By then thoroughly American, Carnegie chose Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in the Hudson Valley of New York.