Franklin B. Gowen

Franklin B. Gowen

Franklin Benjamin Gowen (February 9, 1836 – December 13, 1889) served as president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad (commonly referred to as the Reading Railroad) in the 1870s and 1880s.

Today he is mostly identified with the undercover infiltration and subsequent court prosecutions of the Molly Maguires (sometimes Mollies), an alleged secret society of immigrant Irish Catholic mine workers, saloonkeepers and low-level local politicos arraigned and tried for multiple acts of violence, including murders and attempted murders of coal mine operators, foremen and workers, and peace officers. Gowen several years earlier had begun to publicly portray such a secret society as comprising the core of a labor union he was intent upon decimating. There are, however, broader aspects of Gowen's presidency that deserve consideration:

  • Under Franklin Gowen's leadership, the Reading Railroad went from being legally prohibited by its corporate charter against owning or operating coal mines, to owning 142 square miles (368 km²) of coal lands—with that legal prohibition still in place, but deemed by the state of Pennsylvania to be unenforceable—and running numerous mining operations upon them.
  • Gowen was a central figure in negotiating both the first written labor agreement between mine workers and operators in the U.S., and the first industry-wide price-fixing agreement in the U.S.
  • He also played a signal role in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, generally, and in the Strike's local events in Reading, Pennsylvania, particularly the Reading Railroad Massacre.
  • Ultimately, during his leadership the Reading Railroad fell twice into bankruptcy. In the wake of the second one, Gowen was finally blocked from further direct involvement in the railroad's affairs when a syndicate led by J.P. Morgan obtained control of the corporation.

Franklin Benjamin Gowen was born in Mt. Airy, Pennsylvania, now part of Philadelphia, the fifth child of Irish Protestant immigrant and successful grocer James Gowen and his German American wife, Mary Miller. Though his formal education was ended by his father at age 13, when he apprenticed the youth to a Lancaster, Pennsylvania merchant; as a young adult Gowen studied law under a local attorney in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Following admission to the bar and joining the local Democratic party, he was elected District Attorney for Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania in 1862. He left that position in 1864 to pursue a private law practice that led him first to represent the Reading Railroad and a few years later to take on its presidency.

Throughout his time with the railroad and afterward, Gowen continued practicing law and trying cases—sometimes as a special prosecutor on behalf of the state of Pennsylvania. At the time of his death, he was pursuing a case before the Interstate Commerce Commission on behalf of a private client against the Standard Oil trust. In the course of these hearings, Gowen cross-examined John D. Rockefeller.

Franklin B. Gowen died of a gunshot wound to the head on December 13, 1889, at Wormley's Hotel in Washington, DC. There still remains some controversy as to whether his death was by suicide or homicide.

Read more about Franklin B. GowenFamily, Education and Early Law Practice, Life After The Railroad

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